“Super, smashing, great” – modelling the language of evaluation: superlatives (part 2)

Those of you of a certain age will remember – fondly or otherwise – the 1980s ITV game show Bullseye. It was a Sunday evening staple in my grandma’s house, a winning combination (for an 8-year-old anyway) of darts, or rather ‘arrers’ in Yorkshire, not-too-taxing general knowledge questions, glamorous prizes, such as Breville toastie makers, and its affable, diminutive host Jim Bowen.

jim-bowen

Dour and deadpan, Jim became best known for his anodyne catchphrases: the rhyming couplet’stay out of the black and in to the red, there’s nothing in this game for two in a bed’, the pleading imperative ‘listen to Tony’. and most famously of all, the random asyndetic list of superlatives, dished out in either congratulation or commiseration – ‘super, smashing, great…’.

Last time, I looked at grammatical superlatives and how they can be a very useful tool for language analysis. This time, I’m looking at the other meaning of the term: a general adjective used in praise to recognise something of the highest quality.

In theory, superlatives should only be encountered, therefore, when assessing acts of excellence. A supreme moment of sporting skill, a pop single of majestic beauty, a novel of breathtaking scope. The problem is that superlatives have become overused in modern discourse to such an  extent that they are slowly becoming worthless, or in certain cases have keeled over and died, thrashed to death my merciless wielders of hyberbole. The moribund superlative has become the stuff that cliches are made on. Let’s look at these examples:

  • brilliant – used to mean ‘dazzling, shining’ but now means really good.
  • wonderful – used to denote ‘inspiring a sense of delight and imagination’ whereas it now merely suggests something was very nice.
  • incredible – previously an ambiguous word literally meaning ‘hard to believe’ which has now lost its use and has become synonymous with quite surprising.
  • great – the most overused and downgraded adjective of all, once meant ‘exceptional or highly significant’ but now means… well, anything you want, from decent to good to slightly above acceptable.

I’m a big fan of Sky Sports’ football results extravaganza Soccer Saturday. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s basically four inarticulate and overexcitable ex-pros getting overexcited about a football match they’re watching on telly that you can’t see. It sounds awful but it’s highly compulsive. The anchor, Jeff Stelling, holds things together with his eloquent bursts of statistical know how, interspersed with knowingly dreadful puns. Recently though, I’ve started to lose interest; my affection is beginning to wane. The main reason? The excessive use of the superlative ‘great’. A pass that is a bit better than normal is ‘great’; a goalkeeper doing his job and keeping standard shots out the net is having a ‘great’ game; a team that wins three matches in a row are on a ‘great’ run etc. etc. etc.

How does this relate to teaching English. Well, obviously, we want to prevent our pupils from falling into the trap of reaching for the hackneyed superlative and encourage them to seek out more interesting and meaningful adjectives of praise in their own writing – specifically in the GCSE evaluation question:

  • ‘Capote’s consummate use of spatial shifts at the start of In Cold Blood contributes to…’
  • ‘Steinbeck’s flawless use of zoomorphic imagery cleverly depicts Curley’s animalistic aggression…’

This is all well and good, but what else can we do to model an avoidance of tired superlatives. If we’re being honest, we can make sure we stamp them out as much as possible in our own teacher talk and written feedback:

  • ‘That was a brilliant answer’ could become ‘that was a really nuanced answer’
  • ‘A wonderful piece of analysis’ might become ‘your understanding of different types of repetition is faultless’
  • ‘Great answer, John’ might become ‘The first part of your answer was excellent, John, but to make your answer first-rate you need to reconsider your understanding of…’

Thanks for reading, you’re all my wonderful,

Mark

 

I am the greatest blogger – the superlative (part 1)

What’s the point of getting pupils to learn word classes? It’s the biggest waste of time, especially as the exam board have said – and I was at a recent training session – that just writing ‘the word “suddenly” suggests…’ rather than messing about with ‘the adverb “suddenly suggests…’ will suffice.

Anybody who has followed this blog for any length of time will know that I disagree strongly with the paragraph above. For some time now, my argument has been that technical terminology isn’t fancy frippery, designed purely to impress the examiner. Instead, it allows, I contend, a deeper insight into the writer’s craft, particularly when considering the effect of word choices. And let’s be honest, a large part of our time as English teachers is spent on just that. Let’s take a look at three possible pupil analyses of the opening to my second sentence as an example:

  1. The writer uses the word ‘biggest’ to show how important he feels this pointless exercise is. By using ‘biggest’ he implies that there is nothing more significant in taking up time than word class.
  2.  The writer uses the adjective ‘biggest’ to describe how important he feels this pointless exercise is. By using ‘biggest’ he implies that there is nothing more significant in taking up time than word class.
  3. The writer uses the superlative ‘biggest’ to emphasise the importance of the pointless exercise. Superlatives are used to show extremes, the highest degree of a quality, so by using ‘biggest’ he implies that no other area of knowledge could have such significance in taking up time than word class.

Through understanding what a superlative does, what its grammatical function is, a pupil gains an added insight into the intended effect of the writer’s diction. They might intuitively grasp that ‘fattest’, ‘tallest’, ‘grimmest’, ‘worst’ are highest or lowest example of a quality, but an awareness of the purpose of superlatives makes that kind of clear explanation far more likely.

An example of how this might be taught, can be seen in the following link, with slides from a Year 9 Of Mice and Men scheme I made:

loneliest

This most famous of quotes hopefully takes on a new lease of life (especially when combined with historical context) when seen through the lens of the function of a superlative. Interestingly, pupils usually pick up on the lonelier/more lonely comparative option and want to know why you can choose. This naturally helps with their own creative writing and helps avoid erroneous words like ‘unpleasantest’. I usually give them an explanation from David Crystal’s Rediscover Grammar (amusingly titled for me as my teachers mostly failed to allow me to discover it in the first place):

superlatives.jpg

When it comes to the GCSE English language evaluation question (such as AQA Paper 1 Q4), an appreciation of the role of the superlative can really enhance a pupil’s ability to weigh up what a writer was trying to do and whether it’s been effective. Try this out with the opening paragraphs to The Good Soldier (which Ford Maddox Ford originally intended calling The Saddest Story) or A Tale of Two Cities and get pupils to think about the importance of the superlatives used:

The Good Soldier

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy–or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Yet the superlative also crops up frequently – and usually quite early in the extracts – on the non-fiction paper (Paper 2 on AQA). Non-fiction articles obviously deal often with factual information (‘Everest: The world’s highest and deadliest mountain’) and this allows pupils an easy way in to potentially dry pieces of text lacking in figurative language. But the real beauty of spending time thinking about superlatives is the benefit of noticing the hyberbolic nature of opinionated phraseology: the subjective superlative if you will. The worst film I have ever seen. Quite the rudest man in all of Christendom. The biggest liar in school. The most disgusting thing I have yet to have had the misfortune to digest.

We recently did a practice paper on a non-fiction extract ‘The Boat to America’ by Dickens from 1842, which had a few juicy superlatives that my pupils thankfully picked up on and made good use of in their analysis:

We all dined together that day; and a rather formidable party we were: no fewer than eighty-six strong. The vessel being pretty deep in the water, with all her coals on board and so many passengers, and the weather being calm and quiet, there was but little motion; so that before the dinner was half over, even those passengers who were most distrustful of themselves plucked up amazingly; and those who in the morning had returned to the universal question, ‘Are you a good sailor?’ answered boldly ‘Yes’ and with some irritation too, as though they would add, ‘I should like to know what you see in ME, sir, particularly, to justify suspicion!’

Notwithstanding this high tone of courage and confidence, I could not but observe that very few remained long over their wine; and that everybody had an unusual love of the open air; and that the favourite and most wanted seats were invariably those nearest to the door. The tea-table, too, was by no means as well attended as the dinner-table; and there was less card-playing than might have been expected.

So there you go, the greatest bit of grammar teaching ever witnessed. Not quite. But very useful stuff nonetheless and worth the time it takes to drill pupils on more specific word classes. A word of caution though: as you’ll know, but your pupils probably won’t, separated from the grammatical meaning, superlative means something different as an adjective in its own right. I’ll be talking about that amazing, brilliant and outstanding word in my next wonderful installment.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

Perspective: Teach second? Teach for life?

I’m not a big believer in perspective. Not the artistic technique, obviously. I do accept that it is possible to make things look realistic and have depth on paper. No, I mean the proverbial ‘perspective’, as in: ‘now that puts things into perspective’. This is usually uttered around the time of a mass disaster, act of terrorism, tragic death of a celebrity, abduction of a poor child. It’s meant to signify that one’s own problems are insignificant in comparison to the scale of misfortune and suffering that we encounter at times to help us… well…put things into perspective. My opinion is that any shift of viewpoint is short-lived: our reality dose software update soon reverts to a factory setting refocus on our own personal strife and woes. Maybe it’s just me.

Where I do believe in perspective, though, is when it intrudes into the personal sphere. If bad or unpleasant stuff happens to my family – or, let’s be honest, specifically to me – then I’m far more likely to adjust my Weltanschauung for more than a few days. We’re far more likely, it would seem, to set up a campaign group or donate money to a charity if it involves a cause that has directly affected us. I accept that some people are naturally more altruistic than others (my wife is nicer than me, for example) but I think the general point still holds.

What’s any of this got to do with teaching then, eh? Well, there’s been a few fascinating discussions flying around eduTwitter recently about whether a) people who come into teaching later in life make better teachers (presumably after doing other jobs, rather than a life on the dole, but you never know) and whether b) teaching is a sustainable lifelong career these days.

Having come into teaching in my late twenties, I have views. My views are: firstly, I have known, and continue to know, some exceptional career teachers, who have been teaching kids good stuff since they left teaching college (or wherever). They’ll generally tell me that, like a stinky bit of blue cheese, they have got better with age but, to me, they seem made for the role. Usually, but not always, they have a parent who teaches or taught. Secondly, I think it is often advantageous to have come into teaching late – “Teach Second” as Ms Keenan put it nicely on Twitter today. This hunch is purely anecdotal of course. Having discussed the topic often with fellow Teach Seconders they regularly tell me that they a) feel more mature and balanced as an older practitioner and b) having had another job (or jobs) helps them to put teaching…into perspective.

I agree on both counts. I’m not saying that I’m better than other teachers because of what I’m going to euphemistically term my ‘life experience’ BT (Before Teaching). But I am definitely saying that I’m a better teacher than I would have been as a fresh-breathed 21-year-old. Not that I’d got my degree by then, so that’s kind of irrelevant. The reasons why? Immaturity. Poor work ethic. Issues with authority. Behaviour that may fall short of the teaching standards (or any other standards for that matter). Undeveloped communication skills. Lack of motivation.

So instead – I say this but my 16-year-old self would have laughed in your face if asked if I fancied teaching as a career – I did the following full-time jobs first:

  • factory picker
  • spray painter
  • electrical fitter
  • telesales
  • barman
  • dole office admin
  • filing clerk
  • civil servant
  • hospital complaints officer
  • chef
  • barman (again)
  • journalist

What motivates me to teach isn’t the money (ha); what motivates me is the belief that education can change lives. Trite but true. Which explains my decision to re-train as a teacher. But one thing that definitely motivates me to work as a teacher is not working as a spray painter. Or not working in a call centre. And certainly not working in a dole office, watching, from across the counter, lads you used to go to school with passing out mid signing on as the heroin hit kicks in.

Junkies aside, what was so bad about some of these jobs? After all, perspective should have taught me that at least I had a steady job. As I’ve said, I ignored perspective’s nagging voice and felt sorry for myself. Why? Because, without wishing to sound too much like Adrian Mole, it’s bloody difficult being clever in a job that requires little intellect. At school I kept my mouth shut and learned not to answer questions to which I knew the answers. I disrupted lessons. I fought. Later, in the factory canteen I kept my mouth shut as others talked ignorantly about topics I knew quite a bit about. Eventually, in one office staff room, I finished a crossword in seconds that had the others stumped. Don’t be impressed: it was the Daily Star Quick Quizword. My nickname from then on? Wordsworth. (I’ve yet to find any biographical detail on the Cockermouth bard’s crossword habits.) It was time to move on; I could keep my Smart Alec gob shut no longer.

The beauty of teaching – unlike spray painting – is that it is never boring. Tiring, stressful, relentless, unnecessarily bureaucratic, overly politicised etc etc etc. Yet, significantly, it allows you to have stimulating (or semi-stimulating) conversations each day. Personally, I tend not to feel the grind. Yes, of course there are days. Those days that we all have, where we trudge back to the car park questioning our sanity and pondering the wisdom of dealing with large groups of teenagers or young children. Still, I find these days (or weeks occasionally) are nothing in comparison to the spirit crushing anomie I felt when I worked as a filing temp and was asked if I knew how to file stuff alphabetically. The guy before me hadn’t. So I feel very lucky to teach. And I remind myself of this whenever things get a bit shitty. I’ve felt like this for over a decade. The job’s got harder, I’ve taken on more responsibility – though significantly I still teach a fair whack – and  still I feel lucky, punk. Will it always be like this? Is it a feasible lifelong occupation? Can I imagine myself at 65, rattling on once more about A.C.Bradley’s view of the Shakespearean tragic hero? I think yes. And the reason I think this can be found in perspective. Personal, selfish perspective, of course, not the general ‘other people have it worse variety’.

I was reminded of this the other evening as I re-read Orwell’s seminal, incendiary piece of non-fiction The Road to Wigan Pier. I first read it back in my early twenties. Now, looking back, I started to truly appreciate the hardships described, specifically thinking about the job my grandfather did all his life: mining:

It is impossible to watch the ’fillers’ at work without feeling a pang of envy for their toughness. It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing, it in a position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain kneeling all the while–they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling–and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means. Shovelling is comparatively easy when you are standing up, because you can use your knee and thigh to drive the shovel along; kneeling down, the whole of the strain is thrown upon your arm and belly muscles. And the other conditions do not exactly make things easier. There is the heat–it varies, but in some mines it is suffocating–and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor belt, which in that confined space is rather like the rattle of a machine gun. But the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. They really do look like iron hammered iron statues–under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men, they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere. In the hotter mines they wear only a pair of thin drawers, clogs and knee-pads; in the hottest mines of all, only the clogs and knee-pads. You can hardly tell by the look of them whether they are young or old. They may be any age up to sixty or even sixty-five, but when they are black and naked they all look alike. No one could do their work who had not a young man’s body, and a figure fit for a guardsman at that, just a few pounds of extra flesh on the waist-line, and the constant bending would be impossible. You can never forget that spectacle once you have seen it–the line of bowed, kneeling figures, sooty black all over, driving their, huge shovels under the coal with stupendous force and speed. They are on the job for seven and a half hours, theoretically without a break, for there is no time ’off’. Actually they, snatch a quarter of an hour or so at some time during the shift to eat the food they have brought with them, usually a hunk of bread and dripping and a bottle of cold tea.

My grandfather was a very intelligent man but was forced by family poverty to leave school at fourteen to enter the mines. Born a generation earlier, I may well have followed in his weary, begrimed footsteps. Like me, he believed in the transformational power of knowledge. When he finally finished down the pit he spent his redundancy money (£3000 for 50 odd years of backbreaking toil) on a cruise. He won the ship’s quiz night. There was a sense of shock among the other thousand or so  entrants when he responded to the compere’s question about what job he did.

He would be incredibly proud of me entering a ‘profession’ – especially one that gave young people the opportunity to accrue the knowledge  he was forced to accrue himself from the local public library. Whether they always appreciated my efforts to teach them would not seem that relevant to him.  He died as a result of his industry: pneumoconiosis, caused by decades of breathing in coal dust, got him in the end. His brother James, my great uncle, had been killed in an accident, in the darkness, half a mile underground, on his 26th birthday. Family folklore says that his mother had had a premonition and begged him not to go to work that day. Knowing the dangers of mining and knowing that each day at work could be your last takes its toll on a man. While teaching is a tough, noble profession, for me it lacks that sense of fear, and physical and psychological destruction. I’ve read, with great sympathy, some upsetting accounts of mental burnout caused by the demands of teaching. But placed next to my personal escape from the drudgery of manual labour or office based tedium I feel fortunate to be enveloped by the madness and chaos that often characterises the modern world of education.

So I’ll carry on teaching, thank you. I’ll whinge every now and then. I’ll grumble to my wife when my lessons bomb. I’ll swear at the telly when the latest government educational policy disaster is announced or blindly defended. I’ll resent the pile of mock papers. But I’ll keep on doing what I’m fortunate to be able to do.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

 

 

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

 

 

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