‘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

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