My most viewed blogs of 2016

In reverse order:

10. Comparing texts – next steps – GCSE English language – in which I offer practical strategies for comparing unseen texts in GCSE language exams

9. Boy Trouble: some questions to help close the gender gap in English – a reflection on ways I have tried to improve the performance of boys in English (although other subjects leaders apparently found this useful too)

8. How to be a Head of Faculty – my advice for all new and aspiring heads of faculty/department

7. How to compare texts – a general guide to comparison. I had about 17 followers before this was retweeted by some Twitter heavyweights, such as Geoff Barton, Tom Sherrington and Chris Curtis

6. Part 3: Some proper exemplars for the GCSE English Language Evaluation question – an initial rant inspired by a frustrating AQA training day that went on to offer my own take on what pupils will need to do to succeed with the new English GCSEs

5. Exam essay questions, and how to avoid answering them – as Andy Tharby noted wryly, this off the cuff blog wasn’t one for the purists. My cheeky take on how to manipulate exam questions to play to your strengths. It turned out Stephen Fry used the same approach at Cambridge

4. Teaching structure – a model answer – my guide to producing model answers, with a specific example for the infamous structure question

3. Etiquette, sexual repression and body snatching – A Guide to the context of Jekyll & Hyde – a bibliography of context resources for Stevenson’s classic novella. With a little help from Rob Ward and James Theobald

2. Teaching the Evaluation Question for GCSE English Language – in which I introduced the creaky mnemonic GRANDDAD to the unsuspecting world, as I way to try and slay this 20 mark beast

And by far the most popular blog:

1.  Teaching Structure for the new English GCSEs – English teachers around the country were apparently desperately searching for a way in to this topic. Like a snake oil salesman, I knocked out a structure elixir (hopefully without any dubious long-term side effects)

Thanks for all your feedback this year,

Mark

 

 

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The cliché that is not a cliché

When is a cliché not a cliché? That’s a question I asked my pupils during a recent lesson. They had been reading through an article from The Guardian that appeared to be full of the little horrors. They had taken great delight in criticising the writer’s hackneyed turn of phrase. They had clearly paid attention to my recent lessons on avoiding clichés like the plague. They weren’t pulling any punches: it was no holds barred stuff. The reason they were enjoying themselves so much? They’d realised that the writer of the article was their teacher.

‘This is weird sir… the writer’s got the same name as you.’

‘I know.’

‘Did you write this?’

‘Yes.’

‘But it’s from 2005.’

At which point I always explain that many, many years ago, in the years BT (Before Teaching), I used to work as a journalist. They’re usually impressed. And then they normally say, with pity glistening in their lachrymose eyeballs, something like ‘So why on earth are you teaching?’. Then I say – in full truthfulness – something like ‘because I enjoyed writing for a living but I love teaching much more’. We then drift off into a scene made for flashback, in which I regale them with tales of perks and glitzy events, and nerve-wracking interviews with minor celebrities they’ve never heard of. I sometimes tell them about the time I interviewed the then poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who was in a very grumpy mood, for half an hour before realising I’d forgot to press record on the dictaphone. Usually, I recognise that I  have digressed away from my… ahem… lesson plan, just like I have now digressed slightly off the topic of this blog.

That didn’t matter though. It’s rare that kids get to quiz a journalist about a piece that they’re critiquing, even if it was an obscure column tucked away in an obscure (now defunct) supplement.

Anyway, during the discussion on clichés, one of them came to my defence:

‘What do you call it, sir, when the writer – you I mean – uses a cliché but sort off… knows it’s a cliché and is, well, doing it deliberately? Playing around with the words. Doing a pun with it.’

I call this a subverted cliché. Have a look at the column and see what you think:

True tales

The orange man takes his revenge

  • Mark Roberts
  • The Guardian, Monday 20 June 2005

An amiable and tolerant person, Jules was nevertheless a man with an obsession. The only thing that could get him through the long tedious days our office specialised in was an artificial stimulant. Jules was a non-smoker and was indifferent to chocolate. If offered crack he would probably say he could take it or leave it. For Jules craved only one substance: he was addicted to orange Fanta.

When I first joined the company, Jules used to buy six tins a day from the vending machine. Given our paltry salary and the prohibitive cost of the cans, it became evident that he was spending a fair chunk of his wage on his sugary vice. Like all addicts, he demanded as pure a hit as possible, so insisted that his pop was as cold as the boss’s wife. His solution was to buy a two-litre bottle each day and stick it in the communal fridge.

In it went on his arrival at 8.30am, allowing it to cool sufficiently to quench his raging thirst by exactly 10.27am. Until then he would fidget nervously and chew on a biro until his mouth was blue. When the magical time arrived he would hold aloft the frosty Fanta and make the sound of the contents of a mop bucket being poured down a drain.

Despite the torturous daily wait, things went smoothly until something mysterious happened: Jules’s Fanta began to evaporate. Initially he questioned his sanity – in his pre-Fanta haze had he somehow misjudged how much was in the bottle? Or perhaps the supermarket from which he procured his fix was selling faulty Fanta in leaky bottles? After a week of hell Jules came to a sinister conclusion. One (or more), of our esteemed colleagues was stealing his Fanta.

Jules did the sensible thing. Certain that the thief or thieves would see the error of their ways if they realised it was not a victimless crime, he put a large sticky label on his next bottle, which read: “Jules’s pop – hands off!” Alas the stealing persisted.

Suddenly Jules turned into Agent Orange and life in the office resembled a deranged hybrid of Quincy, Poirot and Murder She Wrote. A man possessed, Jules the Fanta Fiend began the kind of interrogation that would make the Stasi squeamish. Despite wild accusations – aimed at everyone from the company accountant to the 76-year-old toothless cleaning lady – the bad cop/bad cop routine failed to extract any tearful confessions. Subtler methods were employed. Anybody going to the staff room was discreetly followed to see if he could catch them orange-handed. The thorough reconnaissance stage proved equally disastrous – the Fanta vessel continued to empty, but his in-tray overflowed.

Gripped by tartrazine rage, Jules now abandoned attempts to catch the culprits and set out for old-fashioned retribution. He clearly agreed with the adage about revenge being best served ice cold. One day as I entered the gents I saw Jules leave the cubicle zipping up his flies with one hand as he screwed back on the top of his Fanta with the other. He winked at me and told me that he was officially switching to tap water from now on. He said the Fanta thief would eventually come to the conclusion that orange Fanta “tastes like piss”.

They felt the following, were examples of subverted clichés:

  • ‘the bad cop/bad cop routine’ – exaggerating the unpleasant atmosphere in the office and amplifying the intensity of the addict’s obsession
  • ‘catch them orange-handed’ – taking a clichéd metaphor and tweaking it to fit the motif of fixation on the colour orange
  • ‘revenge being best served ice cold’ – The insertion of ‘ice’ saved this by linking back to the second motif of refridgeration
  • ‘tastes like piss’ – the obvious colloquial insult was rescued by the removal of the profane simile with the substition of a more literal fact

So that’s it. Case closed. I’d proved that I was so clever that I could manipulate tired, overused langauge to humorous effect.

Except a few of them suddenly began to “piss on my bonfire”. They started to notice –  as I stood back like a proud, doting father – some genuine, bona fide clichés:

  • Suddenly – a word I had specifically banned in their writing a few weeks ago!
  • A man possessed
  • see the error of their ways
  • raging thirst

I could go on. Strangely, they didn’t pack up and walk out in protest. They’d admired my writing and were impressed that I’d been able to get published (regularly, I naturally added) in a respected national newspaper. They were reassured by the fact that the cliché is so invasive that I – an expert writer in their eyes – had succumbed. They found it interesting that I considered myself a much better writer now, as an amateur scribbler. Growth mindset and marginal gains and all that, innit. You’d never find any clichés in my writing these days, of course, I told them. Any that you did spot would be used knowingly, with a nod and a wink to my educated audience. They would be thoroughly and utterly subverted.

Thanks for reading. Have a nice Christmas,

Mark

 

‘So what?’ and ‘Tell me more’ – effect and exploration of key quotes

When I first started teaching my current mixed ability Year 11 class they were hopeless at word class. A year of “beasting” them and they are now getting very good at identifying types of word. Most of them can now separate their abstract nouns from their in definite pronouns, and distinguish between comparatives and superlatives. To begin with, they knew only the most basic of language features – rhetorical questions, similes and triples – but can now identify anthropomorphism, epizeuxis and aposiopesis, among others. Their vocabularies (none of them read for pleasure, to my knowledge) were pretty basic, but 15 months on they can now rattle off decent synonyms when put on the spot during the flow of the lesson. But an area of stubborn resistance for many is explaining precisely the effect of the writer’s choice of language and remembering to explore different interpretations of key words.

In an attempt to combat this, I’ve started to adapt my questioning style. I’ve gone from politely probing to brutally abrupt. We had a cracking lesson the other day in which they seemed to thrive upon the clarity of my impertinent questions.

We were revising a quote from the poem ‘Poppies’ by Jane Weir: ‘Sellotape bandaged around my hand, I rounded up as many white cat hairs as I could’. For memorisation purposes we’d got down to the two key words ‘sellotape bandaged’. For the next 20 minutes or so my questions to various pupils went something like this:

  • ‘Language feature? Yes, it’s a metaphor.’
  • ‘Bandaged – word class? Yes, verb. Why ‘bandaged’? What other word could Weir have chosen? Yes, wrapped would have been the obvious choice… so why ‘bandaged?’ ‘It suggests pain and injury, sir’ ‘So what?’ ‘It suggests she’s in pain’ ‘Who’s she? The poet?’ ‘No, the mother – the persona that Weir has adopted’ ‘Tell me more’ ‘She’s feeling psychological pain because her son is going to war’ ‘So what?’ ‘Well, ‘bandage’ implies her trauma is mental rather than physical.’ ‘Tell me more. Give me an alternative’ ‘It could be his pain. In the war’ ‘What does that mean? Explain‘ ”Bandaged’ conveys her feeling of anxiety and foreshadows that he’s going to be wounded in the war.’

The ‘so what?’ responses elicited far more precise writer’s effect explanations than my usual wordier questions. ‘Tell me more’ largely prompted alternative interpretations. I continued this approach for ‘sellotape’ and got the following connotations:

  1.  It’s adhesive – ‘so what?‘ It implies the bond between mother and son. She’s desperate to keep him close to her. ‘Tell me more…’
  2. It’s one-sided – ‘so what?‘ It implies that the relationship has become unbalanced; She believes she is being protective and loving but he sees her affection as suffocating. ‘Tell me more…’
  3. It’s fragile – ‘so what?‘ It implies the hold she has over her son is delicate. ‘Tell me more…’ Just like her mental state is fragile. ‘Tell me more…’
  4. It’s temporary – ‘so what?‘ Well, sellotape is sticky but only for so long. Eventually it loses its adhesiveness (is that a word Sir?). ‘Yes. So what?’ It symbolises the breakdown of the mother and son’s bond. ‘Tell me more…’ As young men reach maturity they want to have their freedom. Become independent from their mother’s protection. Prove their masculinity.‘Tell me more…’
  5. It’s transparent –  ‘so what?‘ The son can see right through her. Her desperation to cling on to him is obvious. He can tell she just wants him to stay a child so she can always mother him. ‘Tell me more…’

By now the class are all scribbling down each other’s bits of mini-analysis of effects of word choice and are building up an impressive collection of alternative interpretations as they collectively explored this noun (or, as a trade mark, proper noun if you’re being pedantic, and of course we were). One of them said ‘This is amazing, sir, but I’ll never remember all these ideas’. You probably won’t, I told her, but it only takes a couple of juicy readings of a quote, explored effectively and in detail and they are already up towards the higher mark bands. Keep doing this, I say, and  – like the opaque, flimsy, inadequately adherent product itself – you’ll find that some of it sticks.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

The Art of Making Strange – Creative writing done differently

A pallid creature walks towards me, brandishing a selection of wooden clubs.  His mouth is smeared with blood, matching his snooker ball nose.  The hair on his head is wild, unkempt and of an inadvisable brightness; his shoes are utterly impractical, representing a clear health and safety hazard. Intermittently, he honks like a demented seal as liquid erupts from the shoddy rose adorning his unspeakable blazer. 

What am I describing here?

Yes, it’s a clown. I know, teachers have had enough of bloody clowns this year. You probably worked it out with the shoes, or maybe the nose. But you had to work for it, I think. I didn’t use the word ‘clown’ for example. And I tried to avoid mentioning obvious references to clown paraphernalia. Perhaps I could have done this better. Perhaps I could have been still more obscure, removing any use of the words ‘nose’, ‘hair’, or ‘shoes’, which are all closely associated with the beloved ‘comic’ entertainer. Even so, it presented, or rather re-presented, the clown in an unusual, indirect and oblique way.  The technique I’ve used is defined by David Lodge:

Defamiliarization is the usual English translation of ostranenie (literally, “making strange”), another of those invaluable critical terms coined by the Russian Formalists. In a famous essay first published in 1917, Victor Shklovsky argued that the essential purpose of art is to overcome the deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways.’

If employed skillfully, defamiliarization allows for a shift in perspective, a way of reframing the dull expectations of everyday objects, removing what Shklovsky terms the dreaded ‘habitualization’ of life. The purpose of art, he argued, is to find new ways of revitalising our perspectives through a magic wave of the author’s wand.

Shklovsky, naturally enough, celebrates Tolstoy as the doyen of defamiliarisers, while Lodge lauds a particularly impressive passage from Charlotte Bronte’s Villete. My own favourite example of the technique, which I shared with my Year 10s recently, is taken from the opening section of Julian Barnes’ sublime A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters:

THE STOWAWAY

They put the behemoths in the hold along with the rhinos, the hippos and the elephants. It was a sensible decision to use them as ballast; but you can imagine the stench. And there was no-one to muck out. The men were overburdened with the feeding rota, and their women, who beneath those leaping fire-tongues of scent no doubt reeked as badly as we did, were far too delicate. So if any mucking-out was to happen, we had to do it ourselves. Every few months they would winch back the thick hatch on the aft deck and let the cleanerbirds in. Well, first they had to let the smell out (and there weren’t too many volunteers for winch-work); then six or eight of the less fastidious birds would flutter cautiously around the hatch for a minute or so before diving in. I can’t remember what they were all called – indeed, one of those pairs no longer exists – but you know the sort I mean. You’ve seen hippos with their mouths open and bright little birds pecking away between their teeth like distraught dental hygienists? Picture that on a larger, messier scale. I am hardly squeamish, but even I used to shudder at the scene below decks: a row of squinting monsters being manicured in a sewer.

There was strict discipline on the Ark: that’s the first point to make. It wasn’t like those nursery versions in painted wood which you might have played with as a child – all happy couples peering merrily over the rail from the comfort of their well-scrubbed stalls. Don’t imagine some Mediterranean cruise on which we played languorous roulette and everyone dressed for dinner; on the Ark only the penguins wore tailcoats. Remember: this was a long and dangerous voyage – dangerous even though some of the rules had been fixed in advance. Remember too that we had the whole of the animal kingdom on board: would you have put the cheetahs within springing distance of the antelope? A certain level of security was inevitable, and we accepted double-peg locks, stall inspections, a nightly curfew. But regrettably there were also punishments and isolation cells. Someone at the very top became obsessed with information gathering; and certain of the travellers agreed to act as stool pigeons. I’m sorry to report that ratting to the authorities was at times widespread. It wasn’t a nature reserve, that Ark of ours; at times it was more like a prison ship.

Barnes’ genius here involves taking a story that has flooded the consciousness of every young person in Christendom (and beyond) and making it fresh. The eponymous ‘stowaway’ narrator is of course the lowly woodworm, whose woodworm’s eye view allows for a deeply ironic take on Biblical narratives.

So far, so entertaining. But what’s the point? Well, it’s my belief that defamiliarization is weapon number one (or at the very least a major weapon) in the long-running War Against Cliche. It also has the benefit of adding clarity to vague instructions about showing not telling.

Here’s a few creative writing tasks I’ve done with my Year 10s and Year 11s recently, inspired by Shklovsky’s manifesto for the newly odd:

  1. Describe the picture below. The catch being, you can’t use the following words: trunk, tree, leaves, mist, branch, forest or wood.

forest

2.  Describe an object in 50 words in a way that defamiliarizes it. You must not make what it is explicit. If you are stuck try: a piano, a pineapple, a Christmas tree, a tank, a launderette or a giraffe.

3. Write a 500 word story set in an abandoned place. Do not reveal where the place is or why it was abandoned until the final paragraph.

4. Write a description of something using a David Attenborough style narration. It cannot be an animal!

Here’s a delightful example that one of my Year 10s did for homework recently:

Attenborough description.jpg

5. Write an article for a broadsheet newspaper on a given following topic. Your first paragraph must use defamiliarization and cannot reveal which side of the argument you are coming down on.

I guarantee you, the writing produced in response to these tasks will be more interesting, enigmatic and downright bizarre than using the same tired old prompts of AFOREST and the like. And the final bonus? Pupils will start to recognise examples of defamiliarized passages in Section A of the GCSE Language papers, which could make for highly sophisticated evaluation.

Thanks for reading,

Mark