Half-Term Break with SPaG

Having decided to move to a weekly posting, I have also decided to give any larger posting a miss for this weekend as teachers will be enjoying the start of their well-deserved half-term breaks. Seems stupid to attempt to intrude on this!

Instead, here is some light relief with a tinge of attitude. I was recently asked if I would be interested in developing multiple choice questions for SPaG practice as a potential online learning tool. A genuine request for a genuine project and something that will happen, but it wasn’t for me.

The last time I was ever involved with MCQs would be between 1980-83, I think, with a then CSE English examination, and I have questioned their value ever since. One very personal experience validates that view over and above my more general and considered objection: in order to attain my Teaching Certificate I had to pass an ‘O-Level Maths Equivalent’ test. Now in any genuine sense I can assure you this would have been an impossibility. However, the exam questions were multiple choice, and I guess I guessed well, but I do also remember clearly one of the questions was based on a quadratic equation and of the four possible answers only one contained the x and y that was in the maths question being asked!

The idea then of devising MSQs for SPaG, where the weighting in the new GCSE English Language Orders for this latter is going to be punitive, was bound for many reasons to be anathema to my particular interest in supporting students as writers. Thus the following:

SPaG MCQs

a. is this the way, you will ask? the question [or]
b. is this, the way, you will, ask the, question? [or]
c. Is this the way you will ask the question?

is this the way you will ask the question
this is the question the way you will ask
ask is this the way you question the will
is the way you will ask the question you
question is this the way you will the ask
will you ask is the question the you way
the question you ask is the way you will
is this the question the way you will ask

d. the question
you will ask
is this the way?

Poetry/Creative Writing Ideas – Beheaded Poems

Moving to a weekly, Sunday posting I thought I would in addition to English subject and general education reflections, share a few creative writing ideas/worksheets I wrote and produced some years ago. These were available to purchase back then, but it is a considerable time since and I trust no-one who did buy would mind my sharing these like this now. I have in fact been re-shaping and revising a number of these, accompanied by a significant selection of new poems written for a younger audience, and hope to put together an anthology with creative writing ideas targeted for a Key Stage 3 audience. We shall see.

An important element of these was obviously encouraging students to experiment and explore, but equally the intention was to provide exercises that prompted students to select and use language for precise purposes, thus developing language and writing skills, but always within this creative context.

I am not able to present as downloadable resources/worksheets, so I hope anyone who would like to use could cut and paste [and maybe then revamp for presentation if desired] for their own use. Do let me know. The work is addressed to students.

Beheaded Poems

The aim of this unit of work is get you to write beheaded poems. These are poems that use beheadings, words that can have their first letter removed to leave another new word – for example, when the word pear is beheaded (p/ear) it becomes ear. Here is an example using this word:

Eating a Pear

Hold a pear
to your ear
and hear the tone
of just one
sound: the slow
rhythm of a low
and steady beat
you’re able to eat.

You do not have to make your lines end with beheadings. You can try writing with the beheaded words anywhere in a following line, for example:

In the Night

Somewhere in the black of night
there is a lack of anything good.
Here is the absence of a bright idea
to show what is right or wrong,
and in the swish of its darkened air
you’ll hear a wish for something better.

Can you work out the beheadings in each pair of lines?

Both of these poems are examples of ‘stream of consciousness’ writing – this is writing which is done spontaneously and without planning. By using beheadings these can act as prompts for subsequent lines because you know what the word is that has to be used in that line.

Writing the Poem

First stage: If you are going to attempt ‘stream of consciousness’ writing you will simply need to select your first beheading and see where this takes you!

However, if you feel you need more back-up and support, you can begin by building up a collection of words that can be beheaded before you begin writing your poem (and you can, in fact, use these to support ‘stream of consciousness’ writing as an acceptable cheat).

Second stage: You need to decide where you want to place your beheadings. These can be at the ends of lines, as in the first example you have seen, or consecutively in pairs of lines, as in the second example.

You can, of course, be more relaxed than this and have the beheadings occurring anywhere in the poem, as long as they are still consecutive.

Final stage: It is useful to have some idea about what you want to write, even with a ‘stream of consciousness’ approach. The poem about the pear is about eating it, so this is a fairly obvious idea! The poem about night explores negative ideas associated with this, for example the lack of anything good and the absence of a bright idea.

Be prepared to edit your poem carefully. If a beheading has taken you away from what you really want to write, get rid of it and start again! Sometimes you have to be prepared to sacrifice a good sounding phrase if it doesn’t actually fit with the overall tone and meaning of your poem.

Writing Ideas – Teaching the Empathy of a Long Sentence

It is hard to teach students when and how to use a long sentence, not least to punctuate it carefully [yes, ‘correctly’, but hearing the shifts and turns in the rhythm is in many ways the best way to achieve both, so by ‘carefully’ I am suggesting an intuitive, if informed by practice, approach rather than the mechanics of a learned accuracy]. Good writing benefits from good sentence variety – written to again emulate shifts and turns and changing emotions and so on in the meaning and dramatic/visual/aural purpose – but we also know as teachers that ‘sentence variety’ is a big one in assessment criteria, especially at GCSE.

The worst way to teach this is in order to hit that assessment criteria. Easy to say; sometimes hard to avoid. Hard if you feel bludgeoned by expectation in target-setting and have an inkling that hitting that assessment criteria – no matter how mechanical – is one step closer to a student ‘improving’ their potential to get the best grade possible in their Writing.

I saw plenty of this manufactured writing when I examined a GCSE Writing component for two years [as well as plenty of superb writing, let’s be clear!]. This assembly-line writing also included the deathly three-adjectives-in-a-sentence proliferation – as if this is the ‘magic three’ rather than a naive example of over-writing – and that other composition coffin-carrier, the endemic use of metaphor and simile: at least one in every other sentence.

I might exaggerate a little. But not that much.

The best way to teach the use of a long sentence isn’t something I can explain definitively. Why? Because good writing is hard to do and hard to teach. I’m sure we all know that one of the most effective guides to exemplify overall good writing, but also in this case the use of sentence variety and in particular the long sentence, is reading good writing. The other is practice. So how do we find engaging ways to practice?

A little pitch: in the book I have co-authored Writing Workshops [see here], one of the units looks at the writing of Charles Dickens from Dombey and Son. With the caveat that one isn’t suggesting we try and write like Dickens did in the mid-1800s, by reading and discussing how he brilliantly mimics the relentless movement of a train, we are ‘hearing’ how he uses long flowing sentences to achieve this, and by some natural osmosis, the collaborative talk of students and reading aloud, and more explicit teaching/doing, we begin to appreciate how his use of punctuation allows this to happen.

I tried to match but also ‘counter’ Dickens’ excellence at such writing through the use of complex sentences with a contemporary example from Cormac McCarthy who also writes glorious long sentences but does so in the [sweeping statement alert] American tradition of using compound sentences, the connective ‘and’ being the magical vehicle for this other journey. But McCarthy doesn’t allow his writing to be used for such a purpose!

So – finally – here’s an idea, but it is primarily a creative writing idea: this wonderful poem by Billy Collins is written as one long sentence. The poem describes the fall of the Elk River, and does so through the mimesis of sentence flow and, of course, the structure of the poem itself. Whilst the latter would seem impossible to work as prose, that is actually just a visual cheat because although the enjambment of the poetic form allows the ‘sentences’ to fall from one line to the next and thus describe the river’s journey to the sea, it is both the punctuation and conjunctions that in fact create the shifts and turns and visual purpose and effect of the whole piece.

Read the poem first

Elk River Falls

is where the Elk River falls
from a rocky and considerable height,
turning pale with trepidation at the lip
(it seemed from where I stood below)
before it is unbuckled from itself
and plummets, shredded, through the air
into the shadows of a frigid pool,
so calm around the edges, a place
for water to recover from the shock
of falling apart and coming back together
before it picks up its song again,
goes sliding around the massive rocks
and past some islands overgrown with weeds
then flattens out and slips around a bend
and continues on its winding course,
according to this camper’s guide,
then joins the Clearwater at its northern fork,
which must in time find the sea
where this and every other stream
mistakes the monster for itself,
sings its name one final time
then feels the sudden sting of salt.

What a great poem! If I was reading/teaching this, I would obviously read aloud again.

Now here is the proof in the sentence pudding:

is where the Elk River falls from a rocky and considerable height, turning pale with trepidation at the lip (it seemed from where I stood below) before it is unbuckled from itself and plummets, shredded, through the air into the shadows of a frigid pool, so calm around the edges, a place for water to recover from the shock of falling apart and coming back together before it picks up its song again, goes sliding around the massive rocks and past some islands overgrown with weeds then flattens out and slips around a bend and continues on its winding course, according to this camper’s guide, then joins the Clearwater at its northern fork, which must in time find the sea where this and every other stream mistakes the monster for itself, sings its name one final time then feels the sudden sting of salt.

In one important and definitive sense this destroys the purpose and effect of it being a poem. However, in another, I think it also illustrates how it is entirely the rhythms of this one long sentence – punctuated perfectly, conjunctions providing connection and impetus – that generate the actual visual emulation.

Enough of this. Speaking of long sentences, this exposition is pretty damn long! So how to use this poem in the classroom?

I won’t produce a worksheet here [but maybe I should have a go later…] and will simply suggest the poem could be used initially as a model for prompting a copycat creative writing response.

Students can take a similar theme, or expand and/or change

• the fall [journey] of a river
• a waterfall
• the ocean’s waves [what they ‘encounter’ on the way: boats, islands, debris, beach…]
• a storm [researching the meteorology of this]
• movement/motion of a train [thinking of the Writing Workshop unit on this]
• any other mode of transport
• a bird in flight [crossing various terrain]
• a plane [!]
• anything similar….

For any of the above, I would encourage the hard work of researching and/or making notes about the content that will form the detail of the long sentence, or as a differentiated option, a number of long sentences. Collecting and collating the information will obviously help in then shaping this into the sentence flow.

I have always believed in and put into practice the principle of copycatting to encourage creative writing. Students benefit greatly from a model to literally copy or adapt and use as a varying guide.

Revisit Collins’ poem and work though how the enjambment – in the first instance – tends to create most of the rhythmic shifts in what is actually being described as the river’s falling shifts. The punctuation used can then be mapped against this, though at times it isn’t a punctuation mark but a conjunction/connective like ‘and’, ‘which’, ‘where’, ‘before’… so there is no single pattern to how Collins keeps his long sentence flowing [and I apologise for ‘mapped’ because that has connotations of some more prescriptive type of teaching and learning but I’ll leave it in for the hopeful irony.].

And did you notice that final parenthesis? Collins only uses one in his poem, and I find I use this quite a lot in my own writing, especially across long sentences [though I often prefer the use of the dash to brackets].

Couldn’t resist.

Once students have written their copycat poems, you could move on to them re-presenting this as a prose piece, preserving the punctuation and so on – or, using the prose ‘conversion’ to highlight the further need for careful punctuation. Word-processing and formatting will obviously make this whole process easier.

I quite like the creative writing idea and have some reservation about appropriating it for another purpose, but the overall intention is to enjoy reading good writing and improve our own writing skills: if a poem to read and copycat aids that intention, then all is well in the world of teaching Writing, certainly far better than the illness of hammering on the dead-heads of assessment objectives.

MF 20.3.15

Teacher Training

Teacher training for those who can
Teacher training leaning into the rails
Teacher training as one of the four
Teacher training with bells on
Teacher training without rhyme
Teacher training to the tune of Ray
Teacher training in four part harmony
Teacher training unplanned
Teacher training whose art arcs science
Teacher training with the umbrella
Teacher training forever
Teacher training waiting for coffee
Teacher training with springs to leap woodcocks
Teacher training like foreplay
Teacher training for outer space
Teacher training spelt conceptually
Teacher training as a mirror
Teacher training before the heartbeat
Teacher training that knows its magic three
Teacher training in its paisley shirt
Teacher training playing the bongos
Teacher training riding the wave
Teacher training inside your head

Sir Toby Belch

[The following chapter is one that didn’t make the final edit for my novel Writing with Hammers. I am posting here because I am still fond of it, for a number of reasons: [1] It is based on a real event – this chapter recounts my school’s first ever Ofsted Inspection and the man who inspected English was about as ludicrous as the caricature presented here. I did in fact have to make a formal complaint half-way through the process because he was ignoring/forgetting details he was given, and in the end the lead Inspector asked that the school did not pursue the matter further as his birthday was imminent and he would also be retiring from Inspections! As my Department had received a reasonable seal of approval, it was decided to let this one go. It never did for me, thus the chapter; [2] This was an early example of using satire – perhaps elements of the absurd – to try and capture the incredulous reality of what actually happened/happens in schools. I have found it difficult to stand back far enough from this to judge if that satiric ruse ever fully worked, and therefore I have not included it in the published novel. Difficult to believe, this wasn’t the worst experience I had at the hands of those who thought they knew better…..]

When the school is Inspected, my department gets dealt the crap hand – not that there’s ever going to be a ‘happy’ deck from which to deal when it comes to these stomach-churning visits. Teachers probably work themselves up into unnecessary frenzies, but the general approach of a fault-finding scrutiny hardly puts us into a party mood.

Our Inspection team is fairly stereotypical: a residential home for the elderly has been picked at random and the occupants trained for the job within a couple of weeks of their selection. The teachers get to meet them all at a pre-Inspection buffet held in the school canteen, a ruse to appease the fear and anxiety we are all feeling. Cheese on sticks and sausage rolls don’t quite do the trick, but I am personally a little comforted to meet my Inspector, a seemingly affable, roly-poly bear of a man who exchanges chit-chat with the ease of a travelling salesman (and for all I know, this may well be his main profession).

He introduces himself as Sir Toby Belch and I am surprised but in no way impressed to hear that he has a royal seal of approval for his Inspection work. He is quite pedantic and cheesily theatrical in his speech, but I put this down to attempts to impress. His rotund bonhomie soothes away my concerns and I decide that there is little to fear in his impending visit.

Some weeks later, and I’m less convinced that I should be quite so relaxed, but I recognise there isn’t much I can do about classroom observations other than have myself and the team prepare thoroughly. However, I know that he and I will have regular one-to-one meetings in my office. Not entirely certain that Sir Toby will be a complete push-over, I decide to secretly record these since the canteen tête-à-tête. I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about misinformation and misrepresentation coming out of the Inspection of other schools, and I am going to do everything I can to avoid this nightmare. I decide to bug my office by putting a tape recorder in it, concealed in a box just underneath my desk.

During the week of the Inspection I record every conversation and debriefing session we have. Sir Toby and I meet each morning before lessons begin as well as occasionally in my non-contact periods. It is a disturbing experience. I soon work out that there has been a big mistake in Sir Toby being let out of the residential home and imagine that whilst there he is normally restrained in a straightjacket. And a gag. I begin to think that his thespian’s prattle at our first meeting was probably restrained by Prozac or some other tranquilliser he subsequently stopped taking.

Halfway through the week I decide to make a formal complaint to the lead Inspector and the Head. I can’t have this mad man making judgements about my department. I grab the Head in the staffroom at breaktime on Wednesday.

“You’ve got to do something about Sir Toby,” I nearly scream. “The guy is a complete fruitcake and can’t be allowed to continue with his Inspection. I want him reported.”

The Head, already at the edge of a precipice by having to oversee every aspect of the Inspection so far, looks at me like I’ve asked for a million pounds.

“What are you ranting about?” he asks, trying to remove my grip from his arm. “This is so typical and I wondered when you’d start to complain about some aspect of this Inspection. But to actually get rid of Sir Toby! Well, that’s more outrageous than anything I could have imagined.” He tries to move away but I still have his arm in my hand and give it a squeeze that makes him exhale a tiny squeal.

“Come with me,” I demand, pulling him after me like an errant child. I drag him all the way to my office with passing students gawking at us in disbelief. When we get there, I sit the Head down on one of the chairs and finally let go of his arm which he immediately begins to rub.

“I’ll have you for physical assault,” he moans. “You’re the only fruitcake I know in this school at the moment.”

I grab the tape recorder and slam it on my desk. I also pull out some sheets of paper from a file on my desk.

“After you’ve listened to this,” I say, pointing at the tape player, “you can make your final decision on who is and isn’t insane around here. I’ve been taping all of the conversations this Sir Prat and I have been having, and I think you’re in for a shock. And just in case you can’t believe what you do hear, I want you to read those sheets of paper, because I’ve transcribed these tapes just in case anyone wants to claim they can’t hear things properly or don’t want to believe it.”

I give the Head the following transcript and play the recording of one of our absurd exchanges:

Meeting – Wednesday 13th March, 12.15-1.15.

(Sir Toby Belch meets me in my office)

Mike

Hello Sir Toby

Belch

Why, how now, my bawcock! how doest thou, chuck?

Mike

Yes, well, I’m fine Sir Toby. I see you’re in Shakespearean mode again. I don’t suppose there’s a chance of a more normal conversation this morning? (There is a long pause) I’ll take it that’s a ‘no’ then. I also wondered if you had seen Smith’s lesson as we arranged?

Belch

He’s as tall a man as any’s in Illyria

Mike

Yes he is, but I don’t see – look, I really just need to know if you saw the actual lesson we talked about?

Belch

Pourquoi, my dear knight?

Mike

Well, because you were adamant that you needed to see some ICT use in lessons and you claimed you hadn’t seen this in the other ICT type lessons I’d arranged for you to observe.

Belch

Wherefore are these things hid? Wherefore have these gifts a curtain before ‘em?

Mike

There’s nothing hidden about the ICT work Sir Toby. The lessons I’ve arranged for you to see use computers as a part of the whole lesson. We don’t teach ICT – it’s an aspect of the work we do and that’s what you wanted to see. I have to say, I think I have every right to be annoyed if you missed this again.

Belch

What dost thou mean? Is it a world to hide virtues in?

Mike

Would you please stop talking like that! As I’ve said, there’s nothing ‘hidden’ and, yes, we’re actually proud of what we do with ICT in English. Why do you assume we wouldn’t be open about this?

Belch

A false conclusion: I hate it as an unfilled can.

Mike

Hang on, hang on Sir Toby. This is getting bloody ridiculous! If this session carries on like this I’m going to have to take this matter further and complain about these silly conversations we keep having.

Belch

It comes to pass oft that a terrible oath, with a swaggering accent sharply twanged off, gives manhood more approbation than ever proof itself would have earned him.

Mike

Look Sir Toby, I don’t know what you’re trying to do – push me as far as you can to test me or something – but this has got to stop. I’m doing everything I can to organise things properly for you and you seem to be doing everything you can to make a mess of it. We’re all trying to take this Inspection seriously, you know.

Belch

Thou’rt a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink

(At this point Sir Toby gets up from his seat and turns towards the door. It is obvious that he wants to go to lunch because this has been his main concern at about this same time for the past two days)

Mike

Sir Toby, I really don’t think you’re listening to me! You just seem to want to get out of here as quickly as possible and have another bloody school dinner.

Belch

Thou’rt I’ the right. Go, sir, rub your chain with crumbs

Mike

Look, the last thing I want to do now is go to lunch with you.

Belch

Taste your legs, sir; put them to motion.

Mike

I’m staying here until we sort this out. This is just crazy behaviour by someone in your position.

(At this point, Sir Toby is half-way out of the door, beckoning me to accompany him, and he clearly intends to leave with or without me)

Belch

These clothes are good enough to drink in; and so be these boots too: an they be not, let them hang themselves in their own straps.

(With this, Sir Toby leaves the office, and the meeting we are having finishes)

I turn the tape off and look at the Head who is still rubbing his arm in nervous, spasmodic movements. He flicks through the pages of the transcript again, but I can tell he isn’t actually reading anything. After some minutes of this genuinely stunned but annoying procrastination, I interrupt the silence.

“We either take this to the lead Inspector,” I tell him bluntly, “or I’m going to send this stuff to the local or maybe even a national newspaper.”

It’s the next day when we have an official meeting with the lead Inspector, Mrs Morey, a rather large and malodorous woman, who fills the room with her considerable presence. I play the tape and let her read the transcripts. It is a long meeting and there are many knowing nods and looks of stern concern. Eventually, Mrs Morey speaks, looking directly at me.

“This is obviously totally unacceptable behaviour and I can assure you that I will not allow this to ever happen again.”

I’m immediately put on my guard by this response, even before she gives a knowing glance to the Head. I’m not in the least bit concerned about what happens in the future, not that I’d wish this experience on anyone else, but I want something done now about what’s happened to me and my team.

“I would like you to consider,” she continues, now looking at me again, “that Sir Toby has given very good service in the past and this does seem to be an aberration, as upsetting as I’m sure it has been for you. I’d like you to know that this Friday is his birthday and he will be 87 years old!” she tells me smiling and with the kind of jolly encouragement you’d expect from someone arranging a collection for a birthday gift. “This is, in fact, Sir Toby’s final Inspection and I’m sure you’d agree that it would be a terrible thing to blot his record with what I think is just some rather silly behaviour. After this he will no longer be involved directly in Inspections, apart from an advisory capacity, and I’m more than happy to make a report of your complaint to put on file for future reference.”

What amazes the most is that the Head readily endorses this whitewash. I suspect a part of this is his petty way of getting back at me for hurting his arm. I also sense that I have met a brick wall, as immovable as Mrs Morey and taller than I can climb alone, and very quickly give in to their conspiratorial urgings just to get away from the cynicism and increasing stink of the office.

Ironically, although by no means undeservedly, the department gets a glowing report from Sir Toby at the end of all of this nonsense. I do not learn anything I don’t already know and Sir Toby doesn’t criticise any of those areas that need improving. I still contemplate making an official complaint to someone outside of the school but the Head’s view is that I shouldn’t ‘rock the boat’ as we have all come through the process relatively well.

I have no idea what Sir Toby goes on to do after this unbelievable example of his work with us. I half expect him to become Education Secretary, and whilst he hasn’t yet achieved this, I would think that a man of his age and attributes still stands a very good chance.

SCREWS LOOSE IN THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT

SCREWS LOOSE IN THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT
THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT IN LOOSE SCREWS
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