Going ‘Into the Woods’ with Creative Writing lessons

Hello,

Before the summer, a colleague surprised me with a gift copy of ‘In the Woods’ by John Yorke, an academic exploitation of stories, narrative, and the intrinsic human motivation behind narrative structure. A cursory glance soon turned into a full-blown highlight fest, and many an excited conversation as I regaled friends and family with my esoteric new knowledge.

 

Having always been fascinated by the shape of stories, it’s no surprise that Yorke’s book resonated so with my academic sensibilities. Cut to a new term at school, and some creative writing sessions to kick off the academic term.

The year 7s and 8s are studying the themes of ‘conflict’ and ‘survival’ respectively. I decided to start both off with personal stories of conflict and survival that they would draft into bigger works to dissect later.

It didn’t take long for the Woods to grip me. As we wrote, I found myself finding the need to explore the finer details of protagonist and antagonist with the students, complete with choice quotes from the book.

 

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The results were illuminating. Kids started to realise the shape of their stories and a new awareness of narrative control blossomed. They started to interrogate their protagonists with subtlety and insight, realising that motivation is a building block of narrative action.

There was even a note of well-being as some students started to interrogate their own psyches, seeing that in many cases, the protagonists were indeed themselves.

 

What does your protagonist need to learn?

What do they want?

What is their basic motivation?

What is their flaw?

What is getting in their way?

 

Profound questions to consider.

Thereafter, a quick audit revealed an exciting ranges of antagonists, including a broken pen, a room, rival schools, great itself, an oyster card, the notion of irresponsibility, and, of course, a pigeon. In the words of John Yorke himself, the antagonist is ‘the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish in order to achieve their goal’. Understanding and exploring this gave my students a subtle and sophisticated appreciation of their own narratives.

Soon enough, we wrote first draft of our stories. And I couldn’t help but go further with our advanced study. Enter Inciting Incidents and Crisis Points.

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crisis

It was a simple task; go through your story and identify the Inciting Incident (near the start) and the Crisis Point (near the middle). The kids could do this fairly easily and what was remarkable was the realisation that all the stories had a recognisable shape. I saw eyes light up when I guessed, simply by the powers of symmetry, where the most exciting point of the story would be, and was right. For the first time in my teaching career, I could see the innate power of structure and the ease with which it invites engagement with literary craft.

Next, it was a simple case of taking the Inciting Incident and amplifying it into a more dramatic piece of writing, ramping up the tension using whatever figurative techniques they could muster.

 

And so begins a whole new outlook on creative writing in my classroom. It feels good to be discussing the finer details of narrative structure with kids who have a handle on their creativity, but don’t really appreciate the whys behind the hows. More on how this progresses, in due course.

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

Using Twitter in the Class: Project-based tweeting Via @TopFilmTip

Twitter can be a serious distraction.

I use it almost daily, largely to procrastinate but sometimes to explore new ideas and make useful connections (like #hiphoped, for example).

Recently, I found myself retweeting a few tweets from an account I follow called @TopFilmTip. Essentially, @TopFilmTip provides excellent, pithy, entertaining micro-reviews of a range of films coming on terrestrial television.

With the end of term nigh, I had a few lessons spare so I thought it’d be an idea to craft a few lessons in which my students would produce tweets of this ilk, of their own. I’ve got this thing about discernment in language and figured that it would be a good way of encouraging (read *forcing*) kids to choose their words wisely to convey maximum impact

Step one was easy – select a selection of Top Film Tip tweets and compile for the kids to analyse.


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After this, some simple analysis to work out how the author was crafting this mini-masterpieces.





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Next up, we watched the trailer to ‘The Woman in Black’.

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Then, we looked in detail at a Top Film Tip tip on this film…

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…and carried out some whole-class analysis/ annotation…

 

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…before the kids discussed and decided on a criteria for the perfect Top Film Tip.

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Using this criteria, I then got them to write a few tweets for films of their choice, with the extra challenge of writing one serious and one funny. Then, in groups, they critiqued each others’ efforts before redrafting.

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It was amazing to see how much care was taken into getting these tweets right, with careful verb, adverb and adjective choice. Some were able to start experimenting with tone and voice, yielding some intriguing results.

Soon, we were ready to put some tweets into Twitter, which I promptly did, anonymously. The feedback was great. Lots of favourites, lots of retweets, lots of validation for the kids, from real, actual, tweeting people no less.

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See? On reflection, it was excellent how successful a project this turned out to be, including:

  • Real audience
  • Multiple drafts
  • Critiquing
  • A heist approach
  • A clear outcome
  • Facilitation
  • Tangible use of skills

Huge thanks to @TopFilmTip for the support and feedback during this process. I strongly suggest you follow the feed and have a go at getting your students to tweet film reviews in September.

Yours, in teaching,

-UF

Don’t Look Back in Anger: Student Reflection and Review

If in doubt, always ask the kids.

We’re approaching the end of the summer term, which means schemes of work drifting to an end and whole-school events interrupting a few more lessons than usual.

With new challenges ahead, I’ve decided to focus largely on reflection and review – working out what happened this year and thus what should happen next year. Weirdly enough though, it only occurred to me this week that I should encourage the kids to do the same.

Cue my patented self-reflection lesson, tried and tested twice this week.

Note: This all followed a whole-school assembly in which the kids made notes on their whole school year.

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Step one: Get all the books out

I dug out every exercise book from the year, and got the kids to go through each one, page by page, after reminding them of the topics/ units we have covered this year.

 

Step 2: Food for thought

Five questions to consider along the way:

What did you find most interesting?

What did you find most challenging?

What did you find most surprising?

What did you find most enjoyable?

What are you most proud of?

 

The kids then wrote a paragraph for each of these prompts. See?

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Step 3: Pair share

Once finished, students swapped books with their partners (who they’ve worked with all year, decided using my Lego Brick Profiles). They had to read through the responses above, then quickly scribe one big conclusion and one big question  raised.

 

Step 4: Coaching

After this, I modelled a coaching conversation with one student, whereby I explained my own conclusions and asked probing questions based on what they had written. The kids then did the same, with a focus on drawing out detailed responses.

 

The kids really went for it. Lots of thoughtful questioning and interrogation, which led to some useful conclusions overall as to the shape of the year.

 

Step 5: Whole-class review

Finally, I gathered the class together to discuss their aims, hopes and dreams for next year. The conversation was a lot more meaningful and detailed than I think would have been achieved, had the kids not gone through a process of reflection and self-critique.

 

That’s it really. If you have any lessons left, I suggest having a go.

As ever, yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

 

Group Talk: As easy as A – B – C

As you know encouraging and facilitating effective group talk is central to establishing a healthy classroom.

The problem is that efforts to do so can often become clunky, ornate and therefore ineffective.

Working at a school with a discrete Oracy curriculum has led me down many an avenue of structured student talk. Something simple that I’ve stuck with along the way is the A – B – C:

A = Agree

B = Build

C = Challenge

 

In a discussion, students should decide which of these they are doing before the next contribution. This keeps conversations purposeful, but avoids overly baroque frameworks and sentence stems. I use this routinely in group discussion, or as a protocol to develop more thoughtful contributions in student-led debate.

Simple design.

Do you agree? Or build? Or challenge?

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

Controlled Chaos: Freestyle Theory in the Classroom

Teachers often over-plan, teachers often under-plan. Either way, planning can often be a major source of anxiety.

Negotiating this can be difficult, but it’s clear that the ethos behind freestyling can help find a path.

In hiphop, the freestyle is an off-the-cuff, in-the-moment stream of lyricism, unprepared and delivered in real time. Because they are completely live, freestyles are an ultimate test in ingenuity and  mental dexterity, requiring a rapper to produce coherent rhymes, edit them in real time and display lyrical skill with the constant threat of slipping up.

As so with lessons.

For me, even ‘well-planned’ lessons require an element of freestyling, as you need to live in the moment and react to fluctuations in the ‘beat’ of the classroom. The completely improvised lesson (which, by the way, I would NOT recommend) is a far riskier variation of this, in which you are improvising the content as well as the structure.

Recently, I found myself living in freestyle mode in a classroom context, riding that delicate wave between control and chaos. Let me explain…

Case in point

The idea was that I would give the kids the chance to complete an active reading mini project, independently, selecting from a range of tasks as outlined below:

activetasks

The basic premise was simple. We read through the tasks and everyone chose three that they might work on. Then, I asked them to produce a first draft.

This is where it got messy.

My teacher instincts were to give some kind of structure and scaffold each activity, but with such a range of tasks on the boil I couldn’t feasibly do this. With the panic rising and the realisation that these kids might end up doodling around doing nothing much for two lessons, I decided to embrace the chaos.

 

 

First, I got one of the kids to audit the class and find out what they were working on. Then we had a quick standing meeting talking through our initial plans and finding any groups that could work together. Freestyle analogy: Finding the rhythm.

After this, took the largest group (and sat them down to come up with a plan for developing a script). A quick search through some existing content from another unit, backed up by a google search for Top Tips, led to this:

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With this group up and running, I could focus my attention on three students who had all decided to interview a character from ‘Inside My Head’ (No, I haven’t read it either. After a quick chat, it was apparent that they hadn’t yet thought about the character’s personality, or which questions to ask, or how to structure their writing, or anything at all really.  Which was fine, but they needed some help.

So, back to my resources and I drummed up some character creation prompts from a year 8 unit on Macbeth to give them a headstart:

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Meanwhile, one student (one of most able in the class) had undertaken the task of writing a song about Romeo and Juliet. She was quietly engrossed in her lyrics, drawing on prior knowledge of the play. I steered her in the direction of a novelisation of the play in the school library, which she promptly went to get. While away, I printed off a section of my own analysis of Act 1 Scene 4 from this very blog, ready to discuss with her on return.

 

Meanwhile, I’d forgotten about a pair of students working together on dramatising a scene from a book they had both read. They were hunched over, conspiratorially, whispering over esoteric scribbles. Upon investigation, it turned out that they were developing a fairly intense screenplay of their chosen scene, but they hadn’t yet interrogated the motivation of the characters. So, I told them to and went off to check another group.

About 10 minutes later, the whispering pair of screenplay writers approached me with this:

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A colour coded diagram plotting emotions and screen time. Genius.

Of course, I stopped all the other screenplay writers and got the pair to explain this to them all, which they did, effectively taking on the role of teacher.

And so on.

 

Now, the point of all of this is that I found myself, in this lesson, completely in flow. By responding and reacting to the students and their shifting needs, I was required to use my expertise in as pragmatic a way as possible. And there’s no plan for this. It was all live, energetic, purposeful and thus rewarding.

So, ever had a freestyle moment in a lesson? Let me know,

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

How to hijack a lesson… and get away with it

Sometimes, you just have to go into heist mode. Allow me to elaborate.

I’ve suggested before that learning cannot be packaged into predefined parameters,  hence the death of the lesson plan. That said, there can be something flat about meandering through a long sequence of lessons with no peaks or troughs to add texture to the learning experience. This is where we start talking about ‘mixing it up’.

Out of all this I’ve stumbled across a theory of design centred around the concept of a hijack, or heist.

Essentially, a lesson heist is an audacious task/ mini project set out over one fixed duration of time. Two examples of this approach below:

 

The Collective Novel 

I’ve run this system twice, in assemblies with years 7 and 8 respectively, in which the entire year group wrote a collective novel in about 40 minutes. The first was a fictional account of missing Malaysian Airways flight MH370, the second was a novelisation of the battle of the Somme as part of a World War 1 project. Because each student was given responsibility for a page of their own, the process becomes entirely inclusive, with differentiation by outcome.

 

A book in a lesson 

After reading a selection of poems from the Allen Ahlberg anthology ‘Please Mrs Butler’, I tasked the class with the challenge of creating a fully illustrated anthology of original poems bases on Ahlberg’s work. We read the poems and analysed their Form Language Imagery Rhythm Tone Subtext, before writing our own poems in the sane style.

Following this, it was a simple case of compiling final drafts into a fanzine style photocopy anthology, complete with pictures.

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The key benefits of a heist approach are:

  • A sense of urgency – nothing quite motivates like a deadline
  • Process and planning – pulling off a heist requires complete transparency over structure and planning. There can’t be any withheld knowledge or hidden plenaries; students and teacher alike must be on the same page
  • In-built celebration – completion is validating and the outcome is a tangible mark of success

Have you ever successfully completed a lesson heist? Let me know how it went.

As ever, yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations 

 

TES Teaching Resources

Designer Teaching: How to ‘Jigsaw Map’ your curriculum

Curriculum mapping is difficult.

Often, the conflict between how to teach and what to teach makes the mapping exercise fraught with pitfalls, and curricula can become a less-than-coherent string of units, linked only by assessment.

Moving into the third year at a new school, I’ve been wrestling with these issues. What is the skills to content ratio? How best to map the necessary skills across key stage 3? How to decide which units should house which content? And so on.

My solution, as ever, has been rooted in design theory – start with the parameters, and work towards an essential simplicity. With each of the following steps, the details of a curriculum map should, in theory, plan themselves, leaving only the creative task of resourcing and crafting specific units of work.

 

Step 1: Work out your pieces

When you start a jigsaw, you have to turn all the pieces face-up and find the edges, asap. This is a neat metaphor for stage one of the mapping process, where you should ascertain exactly what it is your curriculum needs to satisfy.

As an English teacher, the National Curriculum APP criteria are decent enough summary of skills that the curriculum needs to satisfy. That said, you need to work out your school’s particular needs, linked to ethos and vision. This will in turn lay out your objectives and steer you towards the most effective (and relevant) content to include. Here’s a blast of my department’s initial brain dump:

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The trickiest aspect of this is in deciding exactly what you want to cover, skills-wise and content-wise. but once you know, you know what you’re aiming for.

 

Step 2: Evaluate what you already have

Call it an audit, call it review, call it reflection, call it whatever you want, but it is imperative that you start by evaluating your existing curriculum offer. I got my department together and we had a frank and open discussion of every unit of work we had taught so far, using the SWOT (Strengths – Weaknesses – Opportunities – Threats) protocol.

Then it was a simple case of typing these notes up and compiling them for future reference. This proved invaluable in step 3 (below)…

swot mac

Step 3: Match skills to content

We spent an entire afternoon on this. Simply put, this stage involves deciding which units should contain which skills and content. Once you start doing this, it quickly becomes apparent where your skills gaps are, which gives a useful steer as to what to focus on in particular units. The huge benefit of this is that teachers won’t be left to try and cram EVERYTHING into every unit of work, because careful decisions have previously been made regarding which skills can be addressed where.

 

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Step 4: Sequencing

This is the fun bit. I did this with my department kinaesthetically, whereby we wrote each unit of work (including a summary of skills and content) on separate slips of paper, ans shuffled them round on a huge grid (masking taped on the floor) representing the 18 half terms of Years 7 to 9.

This jigsaw approach encouraged flexible debate over how to sequence key stage 3 and, again, made it super-obvious what was missing from different sections of each year.

It also helped us to think strategically about which skills to introduce when, and when to return to them, rather than a vague ‘let’s hit everything at some point during the year’ approach.

 

Step 5: Check the big picture

Getting bogged down in detail is the biggest booby trap of the curriculum mapping process. Once you have an outline, leave it a while (I left it two weeks), then return with fresh eyes to see if it all makes sense. To extend the jigsaw puzzle metaphor, this is the part where you scrutinise the picture on the box with a cup of tea, before deciding which area to tackle next.

It may be useful to link this to some kind of critique of your school’s wider vision, as well as some cross curricular  opportunities (depending on how slick your school wants to be).

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As it stands, I’m currently at this stage with my department. What’s refreshing about having gone through the steps above is that I don’t feel too anxious about finding ‘the right texts’ or revamping existing units of work, because the objectives and parameters are so clear. In fact, we’re fine-tuning the skills map to ensure that all the relevant Learning to Learn skills are being introduced. The energy of lesson planning etc can wait, and it should be obvious what needs to be planned.

 

Let me know how you map your curriculum, and feel free to tweet me a question or two.

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

ps: I did not complete this puzzle. Sorry.

 

TES Teaching Resources

Special Guest Teacher – How to Gatecrash a Classroom

It’s a long established hiphop staple for artists to have special guest feature artists on their tracks.

Mixtapes and albums are full of bracketed (feat.) additions, filling tracklistings with a who’s who of genre stars. I’ve always liked this – it promotes collaboration in an otherwise highly competitive arena, allows for healthy competition within songs, adds texture to a mixtape or album and gives artists a chance to shine in controlled doses.

A featured artist can also raise the profile of a song significantly. It’s an old trick for up and coming artists to feature a more established rapper in a bid to validate their music. We’ve even seen Kanye West and Jay Z ‘feature’ Otis Redding on ‘Otis’ despite the fact he died in 1967.

There’s something in this that can apply to teaching.

I recently had a last-minute cancelled English lesson at school, which left me with 50 whole minutes of unplanned time on my hands. Naturally, I went for a wander. I ended up in a colleague’s room, during an art lesson in which he was demonstrating 1 point perspective drawing:

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He invited me to sit down and join in. So I did.

The rest of the lesson I spent as a student, doing the work, collaborating, and trying not to lose a conduct point. I also bounced off my colleague a bit, discussing his plans and aims with the kids. We also discussed how you might apply technical drawing skills in my English curriculum. Here’s what I produced, by the way:

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In a sense, I had been the featured teacher in that lesson. it wasn’t an observation, or ‘learning walk’, or  pupil pursuit, or TA session; it was a casual interaction with someone else’s lesson in which I could reflect on pedagogy and interaxct with students in a different curricular context.

Have you ever featured in a colleague’s lesson? Anecdotes welcome.

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

TES Teaching Resources

Designer Teaching: How to create a ‘PBL Essay’

Project Based Learning is controversial.

The conflict between impressive real world outcomes and rigorous learning processes is difficult to reconcile.

In honesty, I lean towards the latter, which brings us onto the PBL process of essay planning that I have been crafting for a chunk of this academic year.

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In this model, students independently work through a series of 5 essay planning stages, following any combination of Immersion and Comprehension tasks that you may have crafted.

1. Copy the question and highlight key words

2. Understand the question and explain what it is asking you to look for

3. Generate ideas

4. Find evidence

5. Experiment with topic sentences

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The beauty of this model is that:

The simplicity of this process is in its easy facilitating of careful planning. No elaborate worksheets, no exhausting chalk-n-talk teaching from the front. Just focussed, meaningful 1:1 guidance and a fully differentiated process.

I’ll get some sample kids’ work to illustrate. Watch for the update, and share this among any project-based friends you have out there.

As ever, yours in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations
TES Teaching Resources

Top 10: Things Teachers Can Learn From DJs

I used to DJ quite a lot. It got me into music, scratching, hiphop and ultimately, teaching. Well, not quite, but it got me into rapping. And I rap about teaching.

Anyway, I’ve always thought that the psychology of DJing is something to be considered by anyone who has to interact with large groups of people. DJing is an art, yes, but it’s also a kind of public service.

So, in my current incarnation as a public serving teacher of young minds, it makes sense to consider what we, as teachers, can learn from the DJ. Presenting, the Top 10 Things Teachers Can Learn From DJs. Insert duvva duvva pullback sound.

 

1. Meet the audience where they are

Nothing is as irritating as the DJ who plays for himself. Part of the real skill of DJing is being able to read a crowd and work out what will get them on the dancefloor. I remember playing a party with crates of hiphop records in tow, but the crowd were into party pop, so I had to improvise. I ended up raiding an old record collection for some 80s pop compilations and jacking in my ipod for some dance.

The same logic must apply to teaching. The teacher shouldn’t pander to a class, but it is imperative that we appeal to their preferences and tastes. This is where the Relatedness strand of Self Determination theory comes into its own. Feed off the energy off the crowd, don’t self obsess and make their fun, your fun.

2. Know your crates

For anyone out there who doesn’t know what a vinyl record is, crates refers to the crates a DJ would carry their records in, back in ‘the day’. Anyway, the good DJ MUST have a detailed working knowledge of a lot of music, not least of all the music he actually owns. you’v got to be mercurial in knowing what goes with what, what should follow who, how to start a set, bpms, locations of songs on albums, etc etc.

In teaching, same thing. Some people call it a ‘toolkit’, some call it ‘experience’. Either way, that working knowledge of your own practice is the difference between a busy dancefloor and a dimly lit wasteland.

 

3. LISTEN

A good DJ has to listen, carefully, to everything. In fact, the good DJ has to listen to many different things at the same time, make sense of it, and create something harmonious out of audio chaos. Beat-matching involves queuing up one song in headphones whilst another song plays out to the crowd, which forces you to single out a rhythm in a mess of pulses.

A good teacher has to do the exact same thing: make sense of a disparate collection of individuals working at different tempos and synthesise it into a classroom experience. This takes skill, patience and an ‘ear’ for music. Furthermore, we need to hear the political mood music and negotiate it all, be it changes to assessment, local authority structures or government educational policy.

4. Smooth transitions

Don’t jar. Songs should mix and blend into one another seamlessly, so that the crowd doesn’t even realise they’re still dancing despite a change in song/ artist/ tempo/ etc. Teaching should be equally smooth, with topics and units eliding into each other. I did this particularly successfully with a unit of work on World War 1 which I merged into a unit on London, via Dizzee Rascal and the theme of conflict.

 

5. Be aware of pace!

Peaks and troughs, people, peaks and troughs. 180bpm electro for 4 hours straight WILL clear the dancefloor. ‘Right then!” Do Nows and continual 5 minute blasts of learning WILL exhaust your students. Mix it up.

 

6. Play the background

Ofsted recently announced that they are no longer grading lessons. Which, I feel, is a huge step forward. Recently, I underwent an Ofsted inspection during which the inspector came into my room, and we chatted to and with kids for 20 minutes, while the class got on with a project based essay. In comparison to a few years ago, during an Ofsted inspection where I ‘performed’ at the front of the class, this was a breath of fresh, cliched, air.

Despite the rise of the ‘superstar’ DJ, I firmly believe that the DJ is best left as a party technician, quietly working magic for the benefit of others. Teachers, similarly, should be a quiet force of change in the lives of their students. Besides, most of what we do happens outside of the stage of the classroom, in planning, assessment, curriculum design and so on.

 

7. Format = irrelevant

I know I’ve already WAXED lyrical (pun intended) about the virtues of vinyl, but, let’s face it, the format upon which music is played is pretty much irrelevant. I’ve DJd parties with the following media

  • Vinyl records and two turntables
  • CDs
  • Two ipods
  • One ipod
  • Youtube
  • One record player and a looping pedal

The simple truth is that selection is everything. Play it on what you can. Teaching, I feel can learn from this – pen and paper, Harness debates, ICT projects, booklets and worksheets: all different routes to the same goal. Party on.

 

8. Clean living, clear head

I once DJd a party fuelled by nothing other than cups of tea and words of encouragement. While the revellers revelled on, I stayed calm and cool, doing my job.

Teachers, take note: Keep sober, sleep right, eat well and look after yourself.

9. Be prepared

If I DJ a party, I need to take:

  • Technics 1200 turntable x2
  • Vestax PMC 06 Pro two channel mixer
  • Amp
  • Jamo floor speakers x2
  • Various phono stereo connector cables
  • Speaker wire
  • Cartridges x2
  • Slipmats
  • 200 – 300 records in bags and flight cases
  • ipod
  • stereo to phono cable
  • car to transport this stuff in

As a teacher I need:

 

10. Stay ’til the end

The party ends when the music stops. The learning ends when the teacher drops.

Yep.

 

-Unseen Flirtations
TES Teaching Resources