A guide to dystopian fiction

You can’t move for dystopia these days. There was a time a decade or so ago when there was only me – and a few other socially dysfunctional types – who you’d find banging on about dystopian fiction, boring friends senseless with obsessive talk of meltdown and apocalypse. Nowadays, every man and his disturbed dog teaches a KS3 unit on dystopian texts. And this is a good thing. I don’t want to sound like one of those losers who starts shunning a band the second everyone else ‘discovers’ them and they become popular. It’s just amusing to witness a niche genre go mainstream. So what caused this? Three words: The. Hunger. Games. As well as 9/11. But I’m getting ahead of myself already. Let’s take a few paces backwards…

It would be wise to start with a definition of dystopia. But before that we need to be formally introduced to the concept of utopia. The term was coined for the title of the 1516 fictional work written by Sir Thomas More. A simplistic synopsis of this deeply enigmatic text is that it imagines an island and depicts its perfect religious, political and social values; a haven of religious tolerance. With profound irony, as fans of Wolf Hall will know, More was executed by Henry VIII in 1535 for… refusing to support Henry’s schism with Rome. Conventional wisdom has it that the word Utopia is derived from the Greek for “good” and “place. This is completely wrong, according to John Carey, whose anthology The Faber Book of Utopias is the indispensable starting place for those wanting to know more about the genre:

Utopia means nowhere or no-place. It has often been taken to mean good place, through confusion of its first syllable with the Greek eu as in euphemism or eulogy.

As a result of this widespread misconception, we get the invented word dystopia (perhaps in 1851 via John Stewart Mill) meaning bad place, more specifically defined by the COD as:

noun (dis-ˈtō-pē-ə) 

  1. an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one

  2. The opposite of utopia

Carey argues very persuasively that the correct definition of utopia could render dystopia irrelevant because ‘imaginary good places and imaginary bad places are all utopias, or nowheres’. Sensibly though, he recognises the pedantry involved in this and generally reserves utopia for good and dystopia for bad, despite the muddled etymology. As he eloquently puts it: ‘to count as a utopia, an imaginary place must be an expression of desire. To count as a dystopia, an imaginary place must be an expression of fear’.

So now we’ve cleared that up we can concentrate on the role of utopian and dystopian fiction. To my mind, there is an obvious earlier fictional model of utopia, which would have had a deep influence on Thomas More: Genesis. I’m willing to argue that the Garden of Eden acts a model for all subsequent utopias (and therefore dystopias). As the site of perfection incarnate, we might contend that the Fall of Man in the Old Testament acts as a prelude to the first dystopian fiction, where mankind is constantly falling from grace.

Utopian fiction, however, has also fallen into spectacular decline. An explanation about the absence of utopian societies in modern fiction is straightforward: utopias are unmitigatedly dull. Without conflict, narratives become tedious. Indeed, most purported ‘utopias’ in contemporary fiction (passages of Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, for example) instead satirise the concept of a perfect human or societal existence.

And what of the dystopian text? As I’ve previously mentioned, this Mr Hyde of genres has found increasingly popularity in recent years, having long ago vanquished its Dr Jekyll precursor. The conventions of this doom-laden text:

  • Society is collapsing
  • The end of the world is nigh
  • Human misery is widespread
  • Any remaining elites rule in a brutal, totalitarian manner
  • Hope appears futile, but there is a glimpse of a future

And the message? A central tenet of the dystopian genre is the notion that mankind’s hubristic behaviour has invited catastrophe upon the human race.  Given this moral message, it is tempting to see dystopian texts as a prophetic vision of the future, with the simple and stark warning: “carry on in this manner and here’s what you will end up with”.

Tempting but wrong. The belief that dystopia acts primarily as a prophecy is not one I endorse. Instead, I would argue that the futuristic element of the dystopian text is more typically a disguised version of the present day.  Thus Orwell is not really looking forward to an imagined year of 1984, but instead presenting an allegorical representation of the bleakness of 1948 (note the simple numerical anagram that gives the book its title).

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In this sense, dystopian texts teach us not about the future but instead allow us to ponder past and present conflict within societies. Their increasing popularity, particularly from the start of the 20th Century onward, reflect our preoccupations with the seismic changes of the age:

  • Scientific and technological advances
  • Increasingly secular societies
  • Catastrophic World Wars
  • Threat of nuclear apocalypse
  • Rise of totalitarian regimes
  • Prevalence of ecological disasters
  • New forms of terrorism

Which takes us back to Suzanne Collins and The bloody Hunger Games. As the following little graphic shows, there is a direct link between conflict in society and a spike of dystopian fictions:

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Virtually everything, then, appears to fit in the dystopian pigeonhole. Not quite. You see, there’s a lot out there that, in my opinion, is incorrectly labelled as a ‘bad place’. So what doesn’t count? There’s often a bit of overlap, and you’ll probably be able to find an exception to my rules but here goes:

  1. Superheroes don’t count – Although Gotham, for example, may have dystopian elements, protagonists in a dystopian texts are reluctant or innocent-eyed archetypal everymen. They are not superpowered beefcakes. They don’t wear capes. There is no arch villain.
  2. The supernatural is not what scares us – one evil character does not a dystopia make. It is everyday life that terrifies us, not some Gothic depiction of the satanic.
  3. Disaster movies are not dystopian – the world may be in danger but the government (although often stupid) doesn’t want the people to suffer. Dystopian worlds aren’t just under threat: they are changed beyond recognition.
  4. We can’t blame aliens – dystopias are often futuristic but without the tyrannical society they are just… science fiction.
  5. Dystopia doesn’t normally happen on a small scale – bad things can happen on an island or in a city; in a dystopia, more often than not, the society or planet is under a repressive system. Unless it’s an obvious microcosm of course.

Dystopian texts can be disturbing, spellbinding and beautifully melancholic and misanthropic. Sadly they can also descend into cliche or the other obvious flaw of becoming a novel of ideas rather than one overly concerned with plot or character (Burgess’s The Wanting Seed being a classic example). This is a rather predictable list butmy five Nightmare Island Texts, in no particular order, would be:

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

I’d also recommend:

  • The Iron Heel by Jack London
  • A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfield

And the following films:

  • Children of Men
  • They Live
  • Rollerball (the original)
  • Idiocracy
  • The Running Man
  • Battle Royale
  • Mad Max 2

Thanks for redaing,

Mark

 

 

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Why bother with complex terminology?

It began as a mistake. The other day, I went to an AQA GCSE English language feedback meeting. I shouldn’t have gone. Like a bruised rib that you can’t resist poking, or a declining TV series that you give just one more chance, I rarely find anything other than discomfort from these things. But, I felt I had to go. I wanted some answers. It’s a tough job, speaking on behalf of a huge organisation, fielding difficult questions from annoyingly opinionated people like me. I wanted reassurances that steps were being taken to avoid this year’s marking fiasco , which saw a frantic rush to mark papers before the deadline, and trainees and postgrads given contracts to mark. I also wanted to understand what in the hell examiners were looking for on Paper 2 Q2.

The AQA facilitator was really nice: an amiable woman who was clearly trying to reassure those of us (most of us, I felt) who were worried about key aspects of the spec and the first round of examinations. But one thing she said very much riled me. We were discussing technical terminology. We spent a lot of time discussing complex technical terminology. Technical terminology got a bad press. Technical terminology was asked to leave the room, tail firmly tucked between its legs. Her case against complex technical terminology went something like this:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Words like anadiplosis, polysyndeton and anthropomorphism aren’t required. They are fancy words, glitz and glamour terms that are used purely to dazzle. These words are superfluous and hinder clarity. They get in the way of meaning and are devoid of real impact.

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Complex terms are fine at A level but aren’t required at GCSE. Pupils will do fine without them; pupils will analyse more effectively in their absence. They’ve been put there purely to try and impress examiners but, in reality, they aren’t rewarded. They are an unnecessarily complicated substitution for the technical terms that we’ve always used. They’re show off words, given to pupils by teachers who have misunderstood what the exam board really want. Teachers tell pupils to use fancy words. Fancy words irritate the examiner. The examiner awards low marks.

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

These words are ridiculous and unpronounceable. I don’t even know what some of these words mean. These silly Greek and Latin words will just confuse pupils, not encourage them to arrive at perceptive responses. We shouldn’t teach them because:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

I’m paraphrasing, and taking a few stylistic liberties of course, but the central argument remains accurate. There was relief in the room. The backlash had begun. We could finally consign these esoteric and arrogant words to the (A level) dustbin.

I demurred vigorously. Here’s why I believe the argument against complex technical terminology is wrong:

baby

1.The pupils end up feature spotting and forget to focus on the effect

This is an odd argument for sacrificing sophisticated words. Let me be clear: feature spotting is a bad thing. Feature spotting should not be awarded good marks, regardless of how clever-sounding the features are. Feature spotting is, however, a sign of poor teaching – or perhaps poor listening on the part of the pupil – rather than the sign of an inherently unnecessary term.

What do I think is the most important part of analysis? Effect, effect, effect. If, in their desire to bedazzle examiners with sophisticated terminology, some (or rather, from speaking to examiners I have met, many) teachers haven’t made that clear to pupils then there lies the fault.

Good pupils can and will do both, if given sufficient models, practice and quality feedback. I’ve given examples of effective use of terminology and effect here and here.

2.  These words unnecessarily complicate things

Why bother with obscure Greek terms like ‘anthropomorphism’? It’s such a mouthful and difficult to spell. Well, firstly, the most significant myths of Western civilisation (and Eastern I’m guessing) are based around anthropomorphic ideas. The Garden of Eden and the Satanic serpent. Most of the Greek myths. Much of our great literature – such as Animal Farm – and classic children’s literature – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, for examplerelies on giving animals human characteristics. But it’s a clever sounding word, so let’s ditch it right?

The gazillion different types of repetition like anadiplosis, commoratio and epimone are also daft aren’t they? If used without exploration of effect, or course they are. But wielded judiciously they can really help pupils achieve a whole new level of understanding of the writer’s craft. Anadiplosis offers an excellent insight into the way that the interaction between language and theme develops, often in a cause and effect structure, as in the classic example from the Star Wars:

Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

Yoda’s s powerful wisdom is certainly amplified through the use of anadiplosis. The original emotion mushrooms to more destructive feelings. Anadiplosis is domino rally repetition and deserves our attention not mockery.

3.They are best saved for A level

If a teacher feels that pupils are ready to deal with more complicated-sounding ideas and terms, why should we wait? I walked in on a colleague teaching (or rather re-teaching) the concept of liminality to a group of Year 9s the other day during an Of Mice and Men lesson. Their mature appreciation of the notion astounded me. But no, let’s wait until we’ve just got our nice small A level class (full of well-behaved hardworking girls no doubt) to go over these things in a nice, cosy environment.  Why shouldn’t Key Stage 3 pupils be able to grasp litotes? Suggesting otherwise is low expectations in my opinion. I’ve taught anagnorosis, dysphemism and portmanteau neologisms to ‘bottom set’ kids before and they’ve risen to the challenge. This may be an unpopular opinion, but part of the problem lies in some teacher’s preconceived notions of what some kids can achieve.

4. We need a hierarchy of terms

Why don’t the exam board tell us what to teach, point us in the right direction, give us a list? Let’s teach to the mark schemes while we’re at it and direct our curriculum rigidly to what will appear in the exam while we’re at it. This sounds arrogant (okay it is arrogant but it’s also true), but I don’t need an exam board to tell me what’s appropriate for my pupils. I’m an expert in my subject. I’m trying to educate comprehensive, state schools pupils to appreciate unrestrained intellectualism in a way that will not disadvantage them when they come to compete with more privileged public school counterparts. Two of my Year 13 pupils recently sat the Cambridge English entrance exam. I’d hate to think that they came unstuck by reference to an ‘esoteric’ term that kids from Eton had learnt in Year 9.

Also, why should one Greek word – ‘metaphor’ – be more seen as more accessible and appropriate for younger pupils than another – such as ‘microcosm’? Yes, there’s the question of frequency of occurrence, but I’ve seen metaphor explained so badly at times by some teachers that it was almost not worth bothering. The concept of microcosm – when applied to Lord of the Flies for example – is arguably easier to get your head around – certainly to define – than trusty old metaphor.

And when it comes to feature spotting, some common language features are just as likely as obscure newbies to lead to empty comments. This happens a lot with our old friends alliteration and rhetorical question. How many times have you seen pupils identify alliteration and fail to clearly explain its purpose, or have read that the rhetorical question ‘makes the reader think’?

5. They’re only being used to try and impress examiners during analysis questions

Not only do these terms help appreciate the writer’s craft, they also help improve pupils’ writing skills.

Look again at the paragraphs where I paraphrase the AQA representative’s case against complex terms:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Words like anadiplosis, polysyndeton and anthropomorphism aren’t required. They are fancy words, glitz and glamour terms that are used purely to dazzle. These words are superfluous and hinder clarity. They get in the way of meaning and are devoid of real impact. (commoratio)

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary. 

Complex terms are fine at A level but aren’t required at GCSE. Pupils will do fine without them; pupils will analyse more effectively in their absence. They’ve been put there purely to try and impress examiners but, in reality, they aren’t rewarded. They are an unnecessarily complicated substitution for the technical terms that we’ve always used. They’re show off words, given to pupils by teachers who have misunderstood what the exam board really want. (commoratio)Teachers tell pupils to use fancy words. Fancy words irritate the examiner. The examiner awards low marks. (anadiplosis)

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

These words are ridiculous and unpronounceable. I don’t even know what some of these words mean. These silly Greek and Latin words will just confuse pupils, not encourage them to arrive at perceptive responses. (commoratio)We shouldn’t teach them because:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary. (epimone)

I can use these rhetorical features in my writing precisely because I learnt them when analysing texts. For instance, I used epizeuxis when I wrote about ‘effect, effect, effect’. And I’ve used other ‘lesser’ types of repetition as well. Simple, easy-to-spell and easy-to-identify Greek words like err… ‘anaphora’.

So have my pupils. They can take Yoda’s famous anadiplosis and do things like this:

Fear of the headteacher leads to homework being set. Homework being set leads to miserable pupils. Miserable pupils forget to hand in homework. Forgetting to hand in homework leads to suffering in a lunchtime detention.

So, you’ll hopefully forgive me for getting annoyed by the AQA facilitator’s well-intentioned but, I think, potentially damaging remarks. Let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

The Word Spectrum: explaining, exploring and evaluating word choice

With a bit of training, most pupils can explain why a writer uses a certain word. You know the kind of thing I mean:

Dickens uses the word ‘clutching’ to portray Scrooge as a miserly and selfish character. ‘Clutching’ suggests he doesn’t want to let go of the money that he has in his possession, which makes the reader feel as if he lacks generosity and only thinks off his own needs.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. What pupils tend to be less good at, in my experience, is exploring and, especially, evaluating the choices of diction that writer’s make every time they craft a sentence. Put simply, pupils often forget that writers have a wide vocabulary at their disposal and make deliberate decisions about the precise words they select, consciously or otherwise. It’s obvious to us, but pupils sometimes don’t grasp (or clutch? No, that wouldn’t make sense) that characters are therefore constructs, shaped by the writer’s imagination and the words that are used to describe them go on to define them.

Students can be trained to explore choice of diction through alternative interpretations of the same word or phrase. If done well, this can develop their analysis, like this:

The word ‘clutching’ can also mean an action where a person tries to grab something that belongs to someone else. So, in this case, Scrooge can be seen as self-centred but also actively trying to take wealth from others.

Sometimes, however,  this type of exploration can be come mechanical: pupils search for alternative interpretations when the first interpretation is the only plausible line of analysis. A more fruitful form of exploration, I find, is exploring alternative word choices, explaining why the writer didn’t select them, and evaluating the diction that the writer eventually plumped for.

As a class, we often discuss these choice. For that reason, I prefer to do this exploration graphically on the board; I’ve inadvertently ‘invented’ a type of thinking map – a word spectrum line – that I think does the job well.

Let me give you an example. The play DNA by Dennis Kelly includes a juicy little quotation by Cathy, one of the play’s potentially psychopathic characters – ‘I threatened to gouge one of his eyes out’.

gouged_out_eye_by_bebose-d7am9an

Left to  their own devices, most pupils can tell me that ‘gouge’ shows how violent she is and how she wants to intimidate the other character involved. But when we look at where that verb fits on the spectrum of choices for an action that involves removing an eye, things get more interesting:

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Every time I’ve used this technique, despite much wincing at the grotesque direction of the discussion, I’ve found my classes really get to grips – if you’ll pardon the pun – with Kelly’s choice of verb. We talk about how ‘gouge’ is really nasty as it is done with the fingers (like ‘yank’ we feel), which implies lasting damage. Unlike the more neutral ‘remove’ or the gentler sound ‘pop’, although one pupil felt that the plosives suggested an unpleasant sense of force. Recently, my Year 11s could only come up with ‘claw’ or the Shakespearean ‘pluck’ as potentially nastier alternatives. Then we wrote a paragraph explaining the writer’s choice, the precise effect, discarded alternative diction and evaluated the overall decision. The standard of analysis was significantly better than the first attempts.

In passing, I shared this technique with my colleagues the other day and they were much taken with it. The next day I popped into a couple of other lessons where it was being used in KS3 classes to explore writer’s choices in other texts.

I’ve got the feeling that this technique could prove useful in the ongoing battle against the GCSE English language evaluation question. Or would ‘war’ work better? Definitely not ‘skirmish’…

Thanks for reading,

 

Mark

Nice or nasty? The case of the ambiguous euphemism

We all know what a euphemism is right? Yes, it’s a mild or polite expression used instead of something harsh or unpleasant sounding. Euphemisms are often used when dealing with taboo topics and are helpful for avoiding embarrassment. For this reason our discourse on subjects like sex and death is usually littered with euphemistic language, such as:

  • ‘John passed away yesterday evening’
  • ‘Grandmother is no longer with us
  • ‘Did you sleep with my boyfriend?’
  • “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived.”

Euphemisms are not always used for polite reasons, of course. They can often be employed for evasive reasons, allowing the speaker or writer to attempt to skirt around or deliberately avoid an awkward issue. Militaristic jargon offers plenty of examples of this slippery language use:

  • collateral damage – killed and wounded civilians
  • friendly fire – accidentally shooting soldiers from the same side
  • enhanced interrogation techniques – torture

Typically, George Orwell was one of the first writers to highlight the use of this equivocal and deceitful language. If you haven’t read it, check out his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language”.

So far, so straightforward.

Less well known is the opposite of euphemism: dysphemism. Etymologically euphemism comes from the Greek eu (‘well’) and pheme (‘speaking’), whereas its antonym means ‘bad-speaking’. Dysphemism therefore deals with the vulgar and the derogatory, deliberately making things sound worse or at least less dignified than they might otherwise be:

  • kicked the bucket
  • topped himself
  • ‘They have made worms’ meat of me’ (Mercutio)

As this is a respectable and well-mannered blog, I’ll not share any examples of sexual dysphemisms. I’m sure you can come up with some if you think long and hard.

Dysphemism is a term that is well worth teaching your pupils, given that it allows a nice counterbalance to efforts to modify language in a more pleasant direction. Knowledge of both terms offers pupils a greater opportunity to evaluate language choice. Let’s look at the example above and consider why Shakespeare used dysphemism for Mercutio’s death throes dialogue. ‘Worm’s meat’ evokes a gruesome image for Romeo and Tybalt (and the assembled feuding families) to dwell on. It acts as a reminder of the grim consequences of the frivolous violence: Mercutio’s corpse will decompose and he will become food for insects (are worms insects? Probably but I can’t be bothered to look this up). Look at the results of your honour and testosterone-fuelled dispute, his blunt language seems to say.

This is all very interesting, but my favourite part of teaching these two terms is when they intersect, when we are confronted by a word or phrase that blurs the lines between well- and bad-speaking. My Year 13 class came across an example recently when we were looking at the poem ‘On Her Blindness’ by Adam Thorpe:

If I gave up hope of a cure, I’d bump/myself off…

One pupil nailed this down as a euphemism:

  • It’s avoiding direct reference to a taboo subject (suicide)
  • ‘bump’ is a gentle verb, as opposed to ‘crash’ or ‘hit’ say

Which is difficult to argue with. But another pupil (politely, of course) did, identifying it as a dysphemism:

  • It’s blunt and direct – instead of something like  ‘fall on my sword’ or ‘take my own life’
  • If you consider what would make the ‘bump’ – jumping off a tall building or in front of a vehicle – the verb actually seems a lot harsher and more violent than on first appearances
  • It’s an insensitive phrase. Unless you were callous you wouldn’t use this phrase to discuss someone who had tragically taken their own life

Which is difficult to argue with also.

Since then, we’ve started to notice more of these ambiguous occurrences, these grey areas between propriety and disparagement. And recognition of these nuanced phrases makes for sophisticated grappling with the writer’s use of language.

Right, I better go now. I need to use the bathroom/go for a slash.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

Back to school. Beware novelty.

“We survive on novelty, so much less demanding than commitment.” 
― Mikhail Lermontov

Unlike the rest of the population, who do this kind of thing at the start of January, teachers usually make their new year resolutions at the end of August. We skip (or sometimes trudge) back, full of new ideas, new goals, new pedagogical practices gleaned from a summer of reading blogs and edubooks, while the rest of those on the beach flicked nonchalantly through Dan Browns and thrillers with the word ‘Train’ in the title.

Workload and burnout issues to one side, this is a good thing. If only as many pupils as teachers turned up for that fuzzy first day determined to improve and work smarter, after a period of reflection about their work habits, and the effectiveness of their intellectual input and output. I’m just as guilty of this as the others. I write blogs to (hopefully) help people think about, and even improve, their teaching. I want them to make notes. With a highlighter, if they must. I believe in picking up new ideas, in becoming a better teacher. And yet. And yet…

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Sometimes the quest for improvement becomes a search for novelty. Novelty is great. It is fun, fresh and funky. To start with. The successful novelty single enters the Top 40 (younger readers, ask your parents), spends two weeks at the top of the charts, gains ubiquity on the nation’s radio stations, sells a gazillion copies, appears on Top of the Pops (younger readers, ask your parents), before finally making a swift, undignified descent out of the charts and into oblivion (otherwise known as local radio).

The same often happens with new teaching ideas. It especially happens with new school policies. In the meantime, the kids – who at the start of term are bombarded with new tasks and sexy strategies – are sometimes left bewildered and dizzied by change. Until the next new thing comes along.

In the past, I was very guilty of this. My pupils will get bored, I’d tell myself, if we do the same thing over and over again. Repetition is the enemy, I thought. The boredom, of course, was all mine. I wanted something shiny and unaccustomed, not them. Not all the time anyway. They were quite happy revisiting topics, using the same skills, until they’d got the hang of it.

Now, I do less and do it more often. Familiarity hasn’t yet bred contempt in my classroom. I asked my Year 10 class last year – I’m aware this is a methodologically dubious way of garnering evidence – what single thing I’d done that they thought had helped them improve over the course of the year. Number one was the use of memory platform starters at the beginning of nearly every single lesson. I was worried that my students might find this dull. Instead, they enjoyed the routine, found it reassuringly predictable, and most importantly, found it most helpful in advancing their knowledge.

So what am I going to do differently this year? I will be:

  • introducing a couple of things I picked up from Andy Tharby’s excellent Making Every English Lesson Count
  • finally getting round to buying and using a visualiser
  • spending a bit more time on teaching root words and etymology when developing vocabulary

And that’s about it. In other words, I’ll be refining, not charging in gung ho like a child tearing open presents on Christmas day.

I hope you’re feeling energised and revitalised by your break and by the splendid new tips you’ve picked up. Do yourself and your students a favour though: don’t lob out the sparrow from the fount of new found knowledge*. By all means innovate, but don’t tear up what already works in your search for improvement.

 

* and don’t invent bad new idioms, when perfectly serviceable cliches will do

Rethinking Boys’ Engagement – My talk from #TLLLeeds17

Lots of people have asked me to share my talk from the Teaching & Learning conference held at The Grammar School At Leeds on Saturday 1 July. As you can expect from a 40 minute session, it’s quite a long read. I wrote this script in advance and memorised most of it, but of course the wording will differ slightly from what I actually delivered. I’ve also attached my slides at the end:

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Teaching boys is straightforward.

That’s what I was told as a trainee teacher. There were strategies to follow. Top tips to implement. Sure fire ways of guaranteeing engagement in every single lesson. These strategies were logical. They were common sense. They worked for me.

Think back to the start of your career; I’d like you to write down three of the boys’ engagement strategies that you were given. Let’s see if they match with mine. We’ll come back to these later.

Let me start by telling you a bit about myself and how I ended up here standing in front of you today as “the boy guy”. I grew up not far from here, in an ex-mining town. I went to the local comp and had a very poor experience at school. I caused lots of problems for my teachers. It took me a long time to finish my education and, having taken the scenic route, I ironically ended up deciding to be a teacher.

Towards the end of my PGCE year, I found myself in a job interview, at the school where I did my second placement. An inner city comp for boys in Manchester, it was located in an area of very high deprivation, very high EAL, very high FSM. A challenging school. As you can imagine, most of the questions were about engagement and behaviour. To be honest, I found it dead easy to answer these: all I needed to do was parrot back the advice I’d been given in university and explain how I’d adapted these in my practice so far. I got the job. The school was the perfect fit for me. I understood boys. I grew up with my three brothers in a masculine household. Back in the day, I was even was a boy myself. This was going to be fine.

And things were fine. I implemented my boy-friendly strategies, tested out my top tips and my classes did really well. My pupils’ GCSE results were excellent. I was promoted three times in three years. This struck me as a vindication of the teaching strategies that I’d used so far.

OK, so my career was motoring along – cruising actually – and sure enough, now in the role of Head of English, I was asked to lead CPD on…yes, you’ve guessed it: boys’ engagement. People came out of these sessions saying nice things. Really enjoyable. Very useful. Hell, some people might even have used some of the strategies I gave them in their own classroom. We can but dream.

In 2014 I decided to do something radical. In search of a new challenge I got myself a job at a school that was a mixed comp. This meant that I would now be teaching girls as well. I know… crazy. It also meant relocating to Devon. The new school was in a lovely, affluent middle class area but had a significant intake from local villages that followed the pattern of rural deprivation. The English results were below where they should be given the entry data. Boys in particular were massively underperforming.

I was under no illusions that the main reason I’d been given the job was my reputation as  the “boy guy”, the answer – no, the panacea – for all their boy-fuelled nightmares. The first year, I’d sort out English. The following year I’d spread my magic fairy dust over the rest of the college. And the funny thing is, that’s what started to happen. The results for boys began to improve. Oddly though, they also did for girls. I put that down to girls being compliant. It was obvious that they’d just gone along with the boy stuff.

Towards the end of that first year in Devon, I wrote a blog – my first ever – on how to improve progress through boys’ engagement. And to bring things full circle, I was also asked to deliver more CPD sessions on – yes, you’ve guessed it – boys’ engagement. Things were going exactly as they should be. My strategies continued to bear fruit.

Not long after writing that first blog, I had an epiphany. In the shower. My epiphanies always happen in the shower. I don’t know why. Suddenly, I was struck by a thought. In fact, it wasn’t sudden; it had been niggling away in the back of my brain for a few months, including while I was writing my boys’ engagement blog.

What happened is I realised that all of my views on how to teach boys were actually… bollocks.

Well, not all of them. But a fair chunk. Especially the boys’ engagement strategies that had been the bedrock of my teaching practice.

So what made me rethink boys’ engagement? What had occurred in the meantime to bring about this dramatic U-turn – the sort that would make Theresa May blush.

Two things has happened. 1) Since joining Twitter, I’d started to read what other people – clever people – had to say about gender and education. 2) I’d started reading books about education – properly reading them, not just skimming over for juicy quotes like I’d done in my busy PGCE year.

The rest of this talk will take you through some of those boys’ engagement strategies that I’d had preached to me, and I had preached in turn. I’ll show you why they are myths, not facts. Then I’ll show you what I did next with my newfound knowledge. Then I’ll give you a list of three things to take away, which I think make all the difference when teaching boys.

Myth number one is:

  1. Boys like competition
  • Demotivates boys who don’t immediately succeed
  • Boys who don’t succeed are the ones who need most motivation

Jackson (2002; 2006) Elkjaer (1992)

Now of course some boys love competition, including myself. But the problem you have when you start introducing competition into the classroom is this: in a classroom, there can only be a finite amount of winners. And boys are very good at quickly working out if they are going to be one of the winners. And if they aren’t they will opt out or not try very hard.

I remember vividly a competition I used to run in the early years of my career: the PEA World Cup knockout. As the winning pair of pupils held aloft their prize (a box of Maltesers) I recall looking at their joyful faces feeling proud that I have inspired them to excel, to produce outstanding work. What I didn’t realise, that I do now, is that the many losers were left silently deflated.

Myth number two is:

  1. Boys and girls are ‘naturally different’ and need to be taught differently
  • Differences between the ‘male brain’ and ‘female brain’ are slight and contentious
  • More within gender differences than between gender differences

Baron-Cohen (2004), Slavin (1994)

Like many other teachers on Twitter, I’ve been very much influenced by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? Reading and re-reading it, I was struck by the fact that this book, all about how we best learn and retain knowledge, doesn’t mention gender. At all. So I asked him why it didn’t. And very generously, he replied. His email said:

  • boys do better on standardized tests, girls earn better classroom grades
  • distributions of boys’ and girls’ performance on either one is largely overlapping
  • addressing it is not likely to make either group learn more in school

This is the biggie for me. Myth number three:

  1. Boys need topics that are relevant to them
  • ‘Boy-friendly’ curricula do not improve boys’ achievement
  • Gender-stereotyping ignores pupils’ genuine interests and limit aspirations of boys (and girls)

Pickering (1997), Lingard et al (2002; 2003), Keddie and Mills (2008), Younger and Warrington at al (2005)

I spent days, weeks, years designing curricula that were as boy-friendly as possible. Every element of my planning was based around making learning as relevant as possible to boys’ lives. There are many reasons why this was wrong, including:

  • It is practically impossible to make things relevant to all the pupils in your class. Unless, of course, you teach to stereotypes and assume there is one thing called ‘the boy’ who is an extrovert and likes football, gaming etc. And we’ve all met plenty of boys who don’t fit that description
  • We all get bored eventually, even of things that we are normally interested in. As Willingham notes ‘the content of a problem may be sufficient to prompt your interest, but it won’t maintain it.’
  • We often only remember the ‘relevant’ part (e.g. a mention of a football player) but forget the actual learning bit
  • On the other hand, how many times have you found yourself reading an article, or watching a documentary, about something you had no interest in, only to find yourself gripped?
  • Therefore, the search for relevance limits our pupils. It deprives them – especially our most disadvantaged pupils – the opportunity to accrue cultural capital about topics we presume will not interest them. And that is unacceptable.

Now let’s look at a couple more common myths. These ones are different though: I knew they were bollocks from the outset:

4.Boys have different learning styles

How many times were you told that boys were most likely to be kinaesthetic learners and needed the opportunity to move around or touch stuff? Luckily, I intuitively ignored this long before it was debunked. The problem is that 90% of teachers apparently still believe this kind of crap. Keep spreading the word.

5. Boys prefer male teachers

During my time as “the boy guy” at no point was I arrogant enough to believe that being male made me a better teacher of boys. I’ve met many female teachers who do a fantastic job with male pupils.

6. All boys are struggling

Not all of them. Some are doing fine. Others, like white working class boys are generally not.

Now you’re probably thinking wait a minute. You told us your results were really good. How come that was the case if you were following these bollocks strategies? I’d asked myself the same questions:

  1. How had I managed to get such good results while following these strategies?
  2. How come I’d managed to get good results out of really difficult boys?

 After the original crushing devastation of realising I’d swallowed a load of bunkum for years,  I realised something that left me feeling liberated. Joyous even. The answer was obvious. My pupils had done really well despite these strategies. Which meant that my other teaching approaches must have really worked.

Once I’d grasped this I was asked to undertake a whole school improvement project as part of my NPQSL.

Risk factors

To identify which boys were most likely to underperform, I devised a risk factor model. I trawled back through our data and realised that the boys who did worst in exams at my school were likely to have been:

  • Boys
  • FSM
  • L4OE
  • Placed in bottom sets
  • Poor attendance

I gave every pupil in Year 11 a mark out of 5, based on the risk factors above. 15 pupils had the maximum risk factor of 5 in English and maths. They became my target group. Here’s what their results looked like at the end of the project:

  • 12 of 15 pupils gained C or above in English, 10 in maths
  • 9 pupils got C or above in both

Now, to put that into context, at the start of the year 4 pupils were forecast to get a C in English, 3 in maths, and we were hoping that maybe 2 would get both.

  • 8% A*-C rise in English
  • 7% A*-C rise in maths
  • 12% rise in Basics measure
  • FSM gap narrowed by 17% in maths, 15% in English

So what did we do to get those results? Well, let’s start by looking at what we didn’t do:

  • Intervention
  • Peer coaching
  • Academic mentoring
  • Pastoral support
  • Rewards
  • Incentives
  • Increased parental engagement
  • Notify the pupils

The emphasis was not on intervention or coaching or peer mentoring or parental engagement. The pupils didn’t even know they’d been targeted. The focus was on one thing and one thing only: the quality of the teaching in the classroom. I did training with English and maths, looking only at three areas. Unlike in previous years, this time I went back to make sure the training had worked, to check that people understood it and knew how to implement the ideas.

So what made the difference. I was able to reflect back on the stuff that had worked despite my boy-friendly diversions. The stuff that had worked all along. These became my alternative list of strategies for making sure boys do well:

  1. Quality feedback that encouraged lots of repetitive practice in their areas of weakness
  • ‘live’ or ‘short’ marking
  • Onus on motivation of immediate improvement

Hattie and Timperley (2007)

The pupils were initially reluctant but by the end of the project they were asking their teacher to come over and give them immediate feedback and tell them there and then how to improve their work. The impact on their output in both subjects was significant. It really did make a difference.

2. Positive relationships based on effective behaviour management

My list included:

  • Depersonalise behaviour
  • Don’t hold grudges
  • Very clear expectations
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Let them know that you care (but not too much)
  • 80% pep talks/instilling a sense of belief
  • 20% letting them know when you’re disappointed
  • Stay calm at all times (apart from when you’re pretending to be really quite cross)

And now comes the most important thing. If there is one part of my talk today that I want you to remember it is this:

3. Really high expectations for all pupils

Jones and Myhill (2004) ‘Troublesome boys’ and ‘compliant girls’

  • ‘tendency to associate boys with underachievement and girls with high achievement’
  • ‘80% of the teachers expected that boys and girls should get same results. This commitment to equal achievement, however, was not reflected in teachers’ perceptions…about classroom attitude and behaviour and ability within different areas of the curriculum.’

This study involved interviewing lots of teachers from across all different key stages. The first thing you notice is that 80% of teachers agreed in principal that there is no reason why boys and girls shouldn’t be able to achieve the same results. Now the very worrying thing about that is that 20% had presumably written off boys from the outset. The rest believed in the equality of opportunity. The problem was, there proved to be a disconnect between what they said they believed and their actions once they got into the classroom.

  • ‘Teachers give voice to a deficit model of male achievement. Boys are principally seen in terms of the things they cannot, will not and do not do. Girls are seen in terms of the things they have achieved and in terms of compliant behaviour.’

I’d like you to discuss this. It’s not an easy topic to address:

  • What implications does this have for your classroom practice?
  • Do teachers in your school ‘give voice to a deficit model of male achievement’?
  • How do you know?

I’d like to give you an example of how this might happen. Let’s call this the Top Set Effect. Imagine a head of faculty decides to set on potential rather than current ability? They sit down and discuss this with the teachers in the faculty. They all agree that morally (and for the sake of results) it’s the right thing to do. Let’s give boys going into their GCSE groups – especially FSM boys – more of a chance by putting them in the top set based on their KS2 score, not what they got at the end of Year 9.

Then six weeks later the HoF asks for any suggested set changes. What happens next? There are ten requests to move down pupils who are ‘not top set material’, who ‘don’t have the right work ethic’. Nine of them are boys. Seven are FSM.

This is when difficult conversations need to be had about high expectations. Not just saying it. Not just believing it. But actually doing it and showing it day-in, day-out in every single lesson. Because, believe me, boys are pretty good at quickly sussing out how much you really believe in them.

So, you now have my real boys’ engagement strategies. In  fact, can we drop the word ‘engagement’ along with the strategies themselves? Yet you might also be thinking: but couldn’t these ideas (1. quality feedback, 2. positive relationships, 3. very high expectations) also apply to girls? And my answer to that is yes. Of course they could. In future, I’d like to no longer be known as “the boy guy” and instead be “the guy who has some ideas about how best to teach pupils”. It’s less catchy but I think you’ll find it’s more helpful in the long run.

TLLeeds Slides Rethinking Boys Engagement M Roberts

Memorising quotes – should we expect pupils to remember more?

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“More? You want MORE?” (Oliver!)

Over the past year or so, there has been a lot written about closed book GCSE English literature exams. Some blogs and articles have argued that expecting students to remember about a hundred quotes or so for a couple of exams is an unnecessary form of cruelty, devised only to test those with decent memories. Others have countered that closed book exams encourage pupils to engage with texts in a much deeper way, embedding content in their brains in a manner that allows them to truly appreciate the text’s deeper meaning.

What’s my take? Me, I want MORE.

Not only am I convinced that pupils can, and should, memorise upwards of a 100 quotes for the Literature exams, but I also believe that they can, and should, aim to memorise some extra quotes to enable them to have a deep understanding of a text and show off this knowledge.

The purpose of this blog is not to state the case for closed book exams. Others, such as David Didau, have already put forward very convincing arguments. Instead, this blog is intended to offer an insight into my practice and explain how I think that demanding more of a pupil’s memory will enable them – eventually – to offer vastly improved interpretations of the GCSE English Literature texts.

Memorising more

So what more do I demand? In addition to the key quotes for each character/theme etc., I also expect pupils to memorise quotes that a) showcase their awareness of context or b) introduce a critical viewpoint. That sounds like what A level pupils have to do, I hear you say. Yes, and that’s what I’ve been expecting of my two mixed ability GCSE groups. So far, they’ve largely risen to the challenge, having gone from wailing in unison, a la Harry Seacombe, ‘You want MORE?’ to recognising the impact this has had on their performance in assessments.

To see what this might entail, let’s look at some example sentences for Romeo and Juliet essays, focussing on the context of male violence:

  1. In that time there were lots of duels between men.
  2. In the Elizabethan era there were lots of duels between young men.
  3. Tybalt behaves like many young men from the Elizabethan period – quick to fight a duel if challenged.
  4. Shakespeare uses Tybalt as an example of the violent and quarreling nature of young men from the Elizabethan period, many of whom were quick to fight a duel if challenged.
  5. Neil McGregor has written about the explosive tempers of privileged young men during the Elizabethan period, many of whom were obsessed with the idea of defending their honour and were quick to fight a duel if challenged.
  6. Neil McGregor has written that in the Elizabethan period ‘weapons were part of everyday life’.  Privileged young men, like Tybalt, were obsessed with the idea of defending their honour and were quick to fight a duel if challenged, preparing themselves with daggers that were ‘part fashion accessory, part murder weapon’.

The six sentences should, I believe, correlate with the six bands of context bullet points of the mark scheme.

Imagine my delight when the extract and question on male violence came up on the AQA GCSE Lit paper 1 exam and lots of my pupils (including many Grade 5 hopefuls), told me “I got McGregor in”.

In my opinion, the examples above don’t just add to the memory burden – although, of course, they do have to learn them in advance. In my experience, they act as a context prompt, helping to develop wishy washy statements about ‘patriarchal society’ and so on. If a pupil is struggling to articulate the significance of Tybalt’s ‘Fetch me my rapier, boy’ I’ll say something like what did Neil McGregor say?

I’ve found that these context quotes are particularly helpful for the poetry anthology questions, especially for “contextless” poems such as The Emigre and (god forbid they might need it one day) T****e.

Here’s a flavour of some of the things I’ve asked mine to memorise:

  • Poppies – ‘The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’ Stalin
  • London – ‘Man is born free and everywhere is in chains’ Rousseau
  • Ozymandias – ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ Lord Acton
  • The Emigre – ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there‘ L.P. Hartley; ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant‘ Louis D. Brandeis
  • Charge of the Light Brigade, Bayonet Charge – ‘If I stay here and fight, I will not return alive but my name will live for ever‘ Achilles, The Illiad

Some will inevitably argue this is asking too much. Some may want to ‘aim a blow at my head with a ladle’. Some will continue telling their pupils that they are hard done to and that it is unfair for the exams boards to expect them to remember so much. I’ll keep on drilling them in memory platform starters and making sure they have a sound awareness of context and critical thought.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

 

 

Structure and evaluation revisited: some reflections on language paper 1

Along with my dissection of ‘Tissue’,  the two most popular blog posts I’ve ever written focussed on the teaching of the structure and evaluation questions on the new GCSE English language specs. Given that these involve skills that were previously only really taught at KS5, this wasn’t much of a surprise. For the structure question, I attempted to identify the most relevant structural features that writers use, and give tips about how pupils could apply them and explain the effect they have on a reader.  For the evaluation question, I introduced the GRANDDAD mnemonic (somewhat apologetically given how fed up we rightly get with some of these often unhelpful aide memoires). Since then this creaky little amalgam of the elements of fiction have taken on a life of its own, to the extent that it’s even been pilfered, more than once, and sold on TES resources (not acceptable – don’t even think about it). More amusingly, a colleague in my faculty told me about a pupil from a nearby school whom he tutors. This pupil told him not to worry about teaching her Q4 (AQA’s evaluation question) because her teacher had ‘invented a new way’ of answering it… yes, it was everyone’s favourite geriatric mnemonic.

I digress. Now into my second year of teaching the structure and evaluation questions, I feel ready to do my own bit of evaluation- what’s worked and what needs to be gently and discretely euthanised, away from the glare of the classroom. The reflections that follow will focus on the AQA paper (specifically the sample paper that uses Isabel Allende’s  City of the Beasts), but as ever will include general points that will apply to all specs. I’ve just finished marking a Year 10 paper lang 1 assessment, not long after marking a Yr11 mock on the same paper. Here’s what I found.

Structure

Q3  How is the text structured to interest you as a reader? (8 marks)

My original list for the structure question, I’ve come to realise, is too long and some of the structural features on it are too hard for the majority of GCSE pupils. With my current bunch of Year 10s, I’ve pruned my list of ten features down to five:

  1. Narrative time (narrative summary, scene time, exploded time and flashbacks/flashforwards)
  2. Spatial shifts
  3. Todorov’s narrative stages (specifically equilibrium and disruption)
  4. Exposition (through thought, background information, conflict, dialogue and dates/time etc.)
  5. Patterns (types of repetition, contrasts/juxtapositions, semantic field etc.)

I’ve found these likely to appear in most texts, the easiest for pupils to learn, and, crucially, the ones that best enable pupils to identify the effect on the reader. If I had the narrow down these even further I’d say focus on spatial shifts, Todorov and patterns. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that other structural devices that I’ve introduced while teaching literature – such as foreshadowing, anagnorosis, in media res, unreliable narrators etc. – have kept on appearing in pupil answers as well.

Responses to the question

Very common errors – across all ability ranges – include:

  • not identifying any structural features (often involved mainly paraphrasing the bullet points)
  • not using evidence to support point about use of structural features
  • misunderstanding of structural features (in the City of the Beasts extract for example, most pupils erroneously identified the narrator’s exposition through background information as a series of flashbacks)
  • not explaining the precise effect on the reader (the perennially vague assertion  ‘makes you want to read on’)
  • Analysing language instead of structure

Slightly less common errors

  • Evaluating i.e. giving a Q4 response
  • re-telling the story

Impressive responses

  • noting that spatial shifts are often imagined rather than physical movements, implying Alex’s disinclination to face up to reality
  • the use of pleonasm and traductio (especially on the pronoun ‘her’) highlighting Alex’s obsession with his mother’s welfare

Generally, this is a question that most pupils find a real struggle. Most of our pupils are gaining 3, 4 or 5 marks.

Evaluation

A student said ‘This part of the story, set during breakfast time, shows that Alex is struggling to cope with his mother’s illness.’

To what extent do you agree?    (20 marks)

Having taught the evaluation to two classes now I can indeed confirm the bloody obvious: it’s a lot, lot easier to teach this questions to pupils who read. Or have read a book. Ever. I can also confirm that GRANDDAD works. But I feel obliged to point out that it is far from essential. I marked or moderated quite a few papers that I or my colleagues had awarded 16 or above (18 is the highest we’ve given yet). Most used GRANDDAD to frame their response. Some – voracious readers of course – ignored it and did their own thing to great effect. Funnily enough, the second group made me even more pleased than the first. But the non-readers who didn’t use any of GRANDDAD generally crashed and burned.

Responses to the question

Very common errors – again across all ability ranges – include:

  • By far the most common mistake: not using the language of evaluation (as Nick Wells has helpfully pointed out, AQA clearly expect a hybrid of analysis plus evaluation)
  • Not using evidence to support evaluation
  • Re-telling the story

Less common errors:

  • Not leaving enough time to answer Q4 properly, or at all. Thank god that this is nonetheless a big improvement on last year’s Q4 fiasco where many pupils failed to write anything at all
  • Focussing only on their own opinion – using Alex’s domestic woes as an opportunity to vent their own grievances against their feckless parents and the adult world at large. Often entertaining, but not rewarded with actual marks

Impressive responses

  • Lots, using David Lodge’s quote about names, focussed on the averageness of the protagonist’s name and linked this to the universal themes of love and death that affect all readers. Some, cleverly, linked the name and the everyman/ordinary guy archetype. Others focussed on his unusual surname (‘Cold’) and made perceptive use of the lack of domestic warmth in his mother’s absence
  • Some pupils, presumably GCSE Psychology students, made great use of Freudian psychoanalysis of the character. Even Little Hans (I thought they were referring to Donald Trump for a moment) got a look in, as did Freud’s dream theory. Cracking stuff
  • Allende’s use (and subversion) of cliche: the dream sequence, the incompetent father thrown into the domestic role, the strict yet loving mother
  • My favourite: symbolism about the crow. One pupil recycled something I’d mentioned when teaching R&J: the collective noun for the crow being a murder of crows. They then expertly evaluated its use as a symbol of death in this context

A BIG ‘HOWEVER’

While it’s easy to get frustrated that pupils have failed to evaluate properly, AQA have certainly not helped with this example paper. Look again at the question. It’s a shocker. Most pupils have, quite reasonably, read the statement and accompanying question and thought I have to say whether I think Alex is struggling or not. Which, of course, is not what the mark scheme is looking for at all. What the question is asking them is actually do you think the writer does a good job of showing that Alex is struggling? This is a very poorly written question – unlike, I have to say, the other examples which are absolutely fine – and AQA have to get their act in order to ensure this doesn’t happen in the real exam. The question is bloody hard enough as it is without this kind of misleading statement.

While we’re at it, the bullet points don’t help one bit. Pupils who tried to structure their answer around the bullet points generally did a lot worse. The bullet points are not your friend, is what I say to my pupils and I suggest you do the same.

Thanks for reading,

Mark