“Eagerly I reached for my delightful new purchase: a five pound pair of silver speedos.”
The great debate this week: spend five hours marking thirty copies of my middle set Year 11 pieces of creative writing or spend an hour writing my own example and sharing with them? The ponder: which will have more impact in improving their understanding of what makes engaging writing? Which will enthuse them more about the process of writing? Which will get them to value the notion of creativity and the shared process of developing writing?
Year 11 are as tired and irritable as I am at this point in term. They are about to face two weeks of intensive mock exams. Teachers are hounding them: demanding they invest more time in revision; throwing exam questions at them; returning work strewn in red ink. Intervention demands are left right and centre, they are overwhelmed with endless homework. Will my five hours of marking make a difference in their learning?
Decision made. I gave my Year 11 class a choice of four titles to write for homework, the format of the exam they will face next week. They had to time themselves and spend exactly forty five minutes:
- The catastrophe
- Change is going to come.
- Write about a time you helped someone.
- Write a story that begins: Time stood still…
I told them I would spend the evening doing exactly the same: spending an hour writing a narrative called ‘The Catastrophe’. Time to think carefully: what exactly am I looking to demonstrate to the students?
- Their writing at this stage is inordinately dull, usually centred around the most recent Newcastle United disaster.
- Their vocabularies are developing but they are still hesitant to experiment.
- Paragraphing and sentence structure is weak.
Naturally the feedback I give them is slightly more optimistic! Time to address this by writing something that will hopefully encompass the above. Luckily when I was a naive Highland eighteen year old starting at Glasgow University I had what could only be described as a catastrophe: I didn’t have the ten pence required for the swimming pool lockers so I decided to risk it (nobody stole anything in the Highlands!) Me, my new bargain (comically tight!) silver speedos and a very embarrassing robbery was the outcome: speedo-writing.
I did have a slight cheat and type mine up, but this will live stored in my lovely memory stick now for eternity – ready to pop up whenever I need to explore narrative writing. This piece from another era, about a disastrous shopping mission in Oxford Street on Christmas Eve is one I always use to start narrative writing: a-walk-through-oxford-street-model-answer
First confession: sitting writing for an hour was delightful. Inordinately more enjoyable than marking a set of books. On a purely selfish and hedonistic level, I was certainly enthused and motivated – even if no-one else was! It also made me reflect on the challenge of compressing a narrative into five hundred words; it made me clearly see things from the student’s perspective, therefore empowering me to teach it better! Win win.
So the next lesson the students entered to the single question on the board: what makes engaging writing. They had three minutes to create a mind-map (fantastic news when you arrive in year eleven and can’t spell sentence!)
We expanded on this as a class, giving us a range of elements to focus on when it came to exploring my example. I read the story to the students first, suitably dramatically and coupled (naturally) with an example of the classic dramatic music as the story reached its disastrous conclusion. I asked students to circle any unfamiliar words as we wrote and we then clarified the stages of the plot together. They gave their initial impressions on post it notes: what made the writing engaging? It was all very light hearted and dare I say it fun, as they chuckled at my speedo nightmare.
We then unpicked the opening line: “Warning: thieves operate in this area”, together, looking at ways to create narrative hooks. Based on the annotations we had gone through together on this, the students had ten minutes of the tartan timer to work in pairs to continue with the annotations. This was followed by dialogue together in which we shared ideas and consolidated annotations. I wanted students to go merely beyond feature spotting and consider the nuances of language and structure. We also talked about how it could be developed and improved (they were far to good at this part!). This constructive criticism and evaluation of how to move forward I feel is very important, particularly when trying to encourage students, not demotivate them by presenting yourself as some kind of lord of writing. Some progress:
I then explained that while the fundamental thrust of the narrative was true: I had everything embarrassingly stolen from a swimming pool locker, I wasn’t at the time sporting a pair of obscenely tight speedos. The “do I look like the kind of chap who would wear speedos?” question wasn’t shot down as quickly as I had hoped! This led to a good discussion about artistic licence and about trying to be creative and imaginative when writing.
Now the application to their own writing. The tartan timer reared his head again and the students had ten minutes to begin to self assess their own writing, seeking to apply what they had done with my writing to their own. This is the start of one student’s annotations:
Again rather generic but he has got the idea: he is identifying the features he conceives as successful so far in his writing. Even if this lesson made this process clearer for students then it has had a degree of success. The important next step was students identifying their weakest paragraph, recognising when their short story or narrative lacked in engagement and focus. They then spent ten further minutes developing this paragraph further. One example:
There are some interesting touches of writing here, and what appears to be more deliberate attempts to build detail and engagement, particularly through his new discovery of verbs!Tentative progress but lots more to do, there is some way to go before they can produce engaging writing in timed conditions. What was important was the lesson finished with a lovely celebratory atmosphere: students sharing their paragraphs and articulating how they had sought to develop them and move the quality of the writing forward.
The endless wheel of marking and throwing back work at students will not always lead to the most impact. Ultimately what it may serve to do is demotivate and exhaust both them and us. Joining the collective mission with students and writing with them is far more empowering and much more enjoyable. It breaks down barriers and builds more positive relationships, students start to see our human side. Although perhaps the image of their English teacher exposed in silver speedos is too far!
Thanks for reading, I’m off for a swim. With money for the locker.