Thursday, 22 May 2014

Teaching 'An Inspector Calls'

Was there a PPT? A YouTube clip? Images? Music? None of the above. Simply paper, pens and copies of An Inspector Calls.

It was the second lesson in the scheme and I wanted an engaging and creative way of starting the play and getting to grips with the characters. For homework the previous lesson I asked the class to research any social or political world events between 1912 and 1946 (when the play was set and written). There were no constraints or limitations, I just asked each student to come to class with at least 3 events.

They arrived to class with slips of paper and quite eager to share their findings. Upon entering, they found the room rearranged with tables grouped in the centre of the room and enough chairs around. But I didn't ask them to sit down. Instead I told them to stand around the table and grab a coloured pen from the front. On the table was some flip chart paper with a timeline drawn on. Armed with pens, the students spent 10minutes plotting their events on the timeline. They had to move paper, pens and themselves to get to where they wanted and there was lots of discussion as they shared their findings. I sat back and watched. Some questions were thrown at me: is the invention of colour tv important? What about the Russian revolution? I just told them to get it all down and they did. In fact, at this point I was pretty invisible.

Once they'd finished we all sat around the timeline and looked at what they had produced: paper covered in different colours: wars, inventions, policies, tragedies. They hadn't just researched the obvious and, whilst I had asked them to think outside the box, I hadn't expected quite so much information. At this point I gave a brief introduction to the text, explaining the context and setting in a little more detail (we had covered Preistley's background and political beliefs in the previous lesson). The students then discussed which events they thought were most relevant to the play and why and they then created their own individual timelines to keep and refer to in their folders using the large one as a guide. I even got to drawing my own, something which the students responded really positively too, I think a sense of pride that I was using their work as a basis for my own, (I was teaching the same text to another class and wanted to use the current lesson as a model).

Next came the play itself. We started with the stage directions and the descriptions of the characters. The students created brainstorms for each character using evidence and then analysed the language and discussed possible interpretations. To get them started I encouraged them to discuss possible meanings and bounced ideas around the class, asking students to agree with possible interpretations, build upon them or challenge by offering alternative views (this ABC method is great and taken from @huntingenglish). Before the characters had even spoken, the students had a great grasp of personalities and relationships e.g. Birling was 'heavy looking' therefore he "was overweight and clearly well fed reflecting his wealth and capitalist lifestyle" but "maybe he's just a serious looking man with lots on his mind." Did I respond? No. Is there a right answer? Maybe. But the students were engaged and were eager to explore multiple layers of meaning and alternative views, something which I have been encouraging since September but which they only just seem to have grasped. The brainstorming continued as we begun to read the play and the students gradually took more control over the pace as their confidence grew. By the end of the lesson, it was the students who started stopping the reading to copy certain quotes and discuss multiple meanings while I worked to facilitate their discussions.

Five lessons on and we have only just finished Act 2 but this doesn't bother me. I'd rather them take their time now and get to grips with the text rather than spend frantic lessons before their exam trying to get them to remember everything they need to know. The thing that struck me the most after this lesson was how simple it was to deliver, making me question my practice last year when I taught off detailed PPT slides which explained everything yet allowed the students no opportunity to learn for themselves. Last year though I was doing the hard work. Now I'm quite enjoying being a 'lazy' teacher, guiding and encouraging their deeper exploration of this play.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Springing into A*ction

When asked to plan three sessions on English A* revision we knew we wanted to get the students to achieve flair and sophistication in their writing, but the question was how? How can you teach flair? Four of us met to discuss and plan our ideas for this and this post outlines what we came up with and how we delivered it to students in the revision sessions.

Creating a 'Spring' Theory:
The biggest issue for A* students is taking a risk, of moving away from structured paragraphs like PEELA (Point - Evidence - Explanation - Language Analysis - Alternative View) and creating a more sophisticated and interesting essay structure. My own top set students are able to write excellent PEELA paragraphs in isolation but ask them to write a whole essay and somehow they lose their way; the coherence disappears and they end up failing to actually answer the question. 
To share my concerns with the group I drew what their current essays looked like: 4 circles sandwiched between two triangles - each part complete on its own but disjointed from the rest. And, whilst our students are good at using connectives to 'link' their ideas, how effective is the word 'furthermore' if the point that follows doesn't link to the previous one? Despite being an English teacher, I couldn't quite articulate what I wanted their essays to look like so I went to the board again to draw my ideas. We came up with a structure that looked more like a spring with the essay being one complete strand looping around. These loops would take the form of their PEELA paragraphs but each one would need to link directly to the next (or former), not through the use of connectives, but by actually choosing certain points or quotes which could be referred to again, in a new and interesting way. And this is where we saw 'flair' come in, depicted through the use of flowers. These flowers could be alternative views or speculation or the effect on the reader. And then, to link these together we used bees (because bees pollinate flowers and therefore link ideas across the paragraphs). We came up with 3 different versions of the Spring theory which could be applied to the different English exams: prose, poetry and unit 1.

Hopefully, you can see from the PPT slides how our spring theory can help students structure and plan their writing. We worked hard to keep a consistent approach that could be used across texts but still with one aim in mind: clear, consistent writing which shows flair and sophistication. 
In Action:

We then delivered sessions to students aiming for A/A* using the spring theory. Some  found the concept easy, one punning, 'it's the beesknees' (I was pretty impressed!) whilst others found it harder to use. The day allowed for students to plan different responses using the theory and this practice helped them in their planning, structure and writing. With one group who were struggling, I explained how the theory was like an electrical circuit, the flowers and bees each being equally necessary components, that if left out or removed would break the circuit and cut off the flow of electricity thereby breaking the flow of the essay and the engagement of the reader. 

Here's what the teachers delivering the sessions had to say:

Alice Swain on Unit 1 Section B:

 "When it came to planning a spring theory session for section B of the Unit 1 paper, it was difficult to consider how you could teach the theory and get students to adopt it to approach a creative task. Our focus for this section therefore fell on the three most important parts of the spring theory: the main argument, the flowers and our bees, placing an emphasis on encouraging students to use their AFOREST techniques in imaginative ways and consistently link back to their main argument.
I started by writing an article myself, challenging Michael Gove’s proposal for longer school days and then we worked backwards, deconstructing the article together and exploring how the article posed a main argument which was consistently linked back to and interwoven throughout with the AFOREST techniques adding the flair. Giving students a model allowed them to see how an article or creative piece could be planned but still maintain a free structure as long as it considered one main argument throughout and discussed points which supported this main line of argument. From this the students then felt more confident to plan, in groups, their own spring theory preparing to write a persuasive letter to their local council arguing that the local youth centre should not be demolished in order to make way for a new Tesco.
Immediately the students identified three main groups (their points) who would be affected by this demolition, however, many of the students had failed to establish an initial main line of argument therefore running into difficulty when trying to think of their links between points and back to the task. The students then went back and re-considered their main line of argument, making it easier for them to look at their writing as a whole and plan a more coherent and logical piece of writing whilst still being able to write creatively. Their final plans provided an opportunity to showcase the spring theory as a concrete technique for creative writing tasks; one which students are more confident now using as a planning tool when approaching Section B."

 Sophia Klier on Poetry:

"As a group, we spent a significant amount of time discussing and developing our ideas about what we wanted to achieve in the A* sessions. We decided from the beginning that we did not want to simply revise content, but rather invest in developing the skills students would need in order to push themselves to achieve 'flair' and 'sophistication'. We also decided early on that we wanted a coherent system that could be applied across all different exam areas, over the entire day. I took on the session on Poetry. I wanted to spend time on both Section A (Conflict) as well as Section B, (Unseen), and decided to spend an equal amount of time in the session for each section. We began the session by applying the idea of Spring Theory to Poetry. We looked at one poem and applied the Spring Theory (specifically an argument/ point which runs through the entire argument, and thinking how to structure and analyse the points for their essay.) From this point we then used this to approach exam-style questions, which students worked on in groups. In the second part of the session, I assigned an unseen poem and also had the students plan an answer, again using Spring Theory. My conclusion is that applying Spring Theory was very helpful for the Poetry Exam. Instead of rushing in and simply beginning to write, it made students pause and instead spend valuable time planning and thinking coherently about their overall essay. This made essays much clearer with a more coherent structure. I am confident that students will be able to apply these skills during their exam."
Theeus Devitt on Modern Texts:

       "Teasing the nuance of an A* from an A* student is one of the challenges most difficult to concretely master as a KS4 English teacher, so it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I set about teaching the Easter revision classes with this newly devised spring theory. The session that I worked through was geared towards our students' two primary texts: Of Mice and Men and An Inspector Calls. The students have spent a long time studying both pieces of literature so their inability to achieve an A* was not a lack of knowledge, but the ability to expressive the knowledge in a cohesive essay robust with flair. 

I decided the best way to do this would be to break them into groups and have four separate questions at tables around the room. Each group developed a main argument which was the backbone the essay for the question in front of them: the string that ran through the essay, as well as three points to support that argument which would make up the body paragraphs of the essay. Once this was completed, the students moved from their first question to the next table, which had another group’s question and essay framework: main argument and 3 supporting points.  As a group they developed the next stage of the essays which remained at the table by finding evidence from the text to support the main argument and supporting paragraphs. Again they moved to a new question and essay at the next table where they explained how the evidence gathered by the previous group supported the main point established by the first group. At the final table the students were asked to link these already constructed paragraphs to the main argument with flair. Then as a whole class we picked apart each group's constructed essay plan to see how effectively they had utilized the spring theory."

Since these revision days, students have been able to use the spring theory in their revision and essay planning. I have also used the theory to help show students how to construct their answers and see links that can be made between paragraphs including structuring shorter responses for Unit 1 Section A. Overall, the department have found the theory extremely useful, so much so, that it is something we are looking to introduce lower down the school across all abilities.