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.

 

protag

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.

inciting

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.


tft

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.

tft5

 

 

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.

tweets2 tweets tweets1

 

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

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

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 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

blake1 blake2 blake3 blake4 blake5

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

Designer Teaching: How to run a Project Portfolio

Can Project Based Learning, in itself, satisfy curriculum needs?

Maybe.

The challenge with a PBL approach is in finding a balance between glossy, rich outcomes and a rigorous learning experience.

Now, I’m not claiming to have solved this by any means, but I have found a neat compromise through which any ‘traditional’ scheme of work can be funnelled into a PBL framework, driven by outcomes.

pbl

Essentially, the Project Portfolio is a list of written outcomes that, at some point, can be compiled into a portfolio of work. I’ve trialled this with a year 9 unit based on ‘London’, during which students were required to produce essays, descriptive prose, poetry, critical analyses etc, etc. In keeping with the PBL approach, the ticklist includes first and second drafts, making room for critique and redrafting.

It sounds simple because it is. Essentially, using the portfolio approach allowed me to give shape to an otherwise disparate collection of tasks.

Next SOW, try experimenting with something similar. The kids may thank you for it…

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations
TES Teaching Resources

Autonomy – Relatedness – Competence: The Quick Teacher’s Guide to SDT

On a recent visit to Cannes, I found myself in conversation with an Ed Psych. Naturally, conversation drifted from the weather and supercars to Self Determination Theory.

In short, SDT refers to the concept that intrinsic motivation comes out of a sense of Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence. Without these elements, the success of an individual’s activity will have to rely on external motivational factors, which, of course, are pretty unreliable. Autonomy = Feeling a sense of ownership and choice over your actions Relatedness = Feeling connected to an environment/ situation Competence = Feeling able to do something   This got me to thinking. From a pedagogic standing, Self Determination is the holy grail of effective teaching. We want and need our students to be intrinsically motivated and competent enough to meet unforeseen hurdles (like exams, or new tasks, or… life) and try to facilitate learning that will meet this aim. Unfortunately, pressures to demonstrate continued progress and perform according to extrinsic targets means that we can quickly lose sight of this core need. Immediately, I started to consider how SDT might apply to curriculum design. My first scribblings were as follows:

which I turned into this:

ARC 1

 

My aim here was to strip a curriculum down to to its bare essentials, based on Self Determination Theory.

Autonomy – Students need an element of choice otherwise the learning experience is passive. The PBL process can be an effective context for skills to be applied, and constant reflection and self-critique will encourage a sense of ownership over learning.

Relatedness – All of the best teachers I have worked with have developed a contract (often unspoken) with their students whereby expectations are clear and relationships are balanced. This relatedness to environment is crucial for learning to flourish.

Competence – If you don’t feel able to do something, you won’t intrinsically want to do it. Curricula must offer a sense of competence to all students, and this is where thoughtful differentiation is important.

 

Next step :what is the role of the teacher in all of this?

 

Another mad scientist sketch, which I subsequently realised into this:

ARC2

 

Simple design. The crossover sections between SDT components led to some fairly obvious conclusions as to what a curriculum should look like, with the Teacher’s role distilled to:

  • Designer – of resources, curricula and learning experiences
  • Mentor – of students
  • Facilitator – of learning

I have introduced this model to my department and it instantly focussed our conversations on curriculum design into something more essential than simply crowbarring skills into content. Furthermore, we could map the whole Key Stage 3 curriculum with a clear understanding of what we are trying to achieve, at a core level.

How might you use this approach in your own curricula? Would be very interested to find out – drop me a comment.

As ever, yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations
TES Teaching Resources

Designer Teaching: How to ‘Lego Brick’ your Class Profiles

Knowing your class is the most important aspect of developing best practice.

This very simple fact has often been misconstrued as a need for complex and onerous assessment monitoring. Not quite.

Over the past year, I’ve developed a far better working knowledge of my classes, but the usual combination of progress levels + anecdotal evidence was not quite efficient enough to help me in my pedagogic development.  This all changed with what I call ‘Lego Brick Profiling’:

 

lego brick profile1

Very, very simple. Names in a spreadsheet. Categories for Reading, Writing, Behaviour for Learning (these categories can of course be adapted). Each category colour coded 1 – 4 (1 = Novice, 2 = Developing,  3 = Confident, 4 = Expert).  Each category includes an anecdotal note explaining the grade, eg: “secure vocab and verb choices. some work needed on commas for clauses

Nothing groundbreaking in itself, this is essentially a live spreadsheet in which I colour code various aspects of my students, ranging from core skill ability to attitude and barriers to learning. What makes this an example of good design is in its flexibility in application:

  • Identifying cohorts – by sorting the spreadsheet according to whatever category I choose to focus on, I can very quickly ascertain different ability cohorts within one class. This helps with differentiating work, seating plans, establishing working partners, etc, etc
  • Live tracking – because the sheet is not focussed only on grades and progress, it’s easy to amend with the latest information. I frequently change a level based on recent outcomes, which is far more relevant than using clunky assessment points alone. I also add categories as necessary. For example, ‘Expert area’ in the screenshot above.
  • Formally informal – The anecdotal nature of these notes makes this a far more human approach to monitoring than simple assessment monitoring. I actually use this as a kind of crib sheet for parents’ evenings, allowing me to articulate my thoughts quickly and precisely.
  • Better than a seating plan – rather than ornate, baroque seating plans, all I need to do is produce this sheet and justify the set-up of my class accordingly.

I recommend you have a go profiling one of your classes in this way. The most technical bit is formatting the spreadsheet to automatically change colour when you input a number 1 – 4 (conditional formatting). After that, easy.

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations
TES Teaching Resources

Designer Teaching: The Death of the Lesson Plan

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Let’s forget the lesson plan.

As a concept, it doesn’t work. The reasons are manifold.

First, they artificially demarcate learning experiences into predetermined phases of time, outlined by arbitrary durations.

Next, they encourage the kind of frantic, fruitless planning that is resource-heavy but objective-thin.

This is poor design.

It’s taken me a few experiments in planning to realise this and, ironically, it was in attempting to devise a better method of lesson planning that I have designed a highly flexible model of mid-term planning, replete with benefits for students and teachers alike.

 

Hook – Immersion – Comprehension – Analysis – Creation

LO: To explore themes raised by the text

LO: To understand how the author has attempted to convey their message

Phase Description
Hook/ Launch Use a stimulus to introduce text or themes raised by the text
Immersion Read text, make notes, develop essential questions and subsidiary questions. Introduce contextual points and discuss relevance. (Is it important that…)
Comprehension check Differentiated Blooms-related tasks or Question Time Grid (see below for examples). Can be as rigid or as ‘fun’ as you wish. A list of questions, or exploratory tasks.
Analytical/ inference task… Generate question using P4C model and complete independent essay using PBL protocols
…and/ or creative writing task Create an original piece of writing based on focus text. Teacher should provide scaffolding and prompts for different text types. Can be used to demonstrate skills? Unit plenary?

 

Originally, I experimented with this (very generic) model as a means of carving out one lesson, but it soon became apparent that there was more potential in this model than I was giving allowance for. Key benefits:

 

1. Each phase is entirely flexible in duration

In some units I have planned in this way, the hook has lasted 5 minutes. In others, 3 lessons. The beauty of this is that emergent needs can be met by the teacher as is necessary, rather than trying to fit a whole arc of learning into an arbitray duration

 

2. Resourcing is secondary to objectives

All that resourcing which is usually MISTAKEN for ‘planning’ can be left until necessary, and it has a clear direction. A far better use of teacher energies.

 

3. You know where you are

I recently underwent an Ofsted inspection during which I didn’t produce a lesson plan, but simply pointed to the phase I was in at that current moment. This gave instant context and a far better insight into my strategic thinking than a Scheme of Work/ lesson plan could ever do. Students can also be shown this plan in advance, with no pressure to detail the ins and outs of their subsequent learning experiences.

 

4. Flexibility in assessment

Depending on emergent needs/ your own paranoia, you can fit plenaries and assessments into any phase, with as much frequency as you see fit.

 

Here, for your perusal, are a number of mid-term plans I have sketched using this design.

Dizzee Rascal – London

Phase Description
Hook/ Launch Listen to instrumentals. What is the overall tone? Hook question: Are you at conflict with London?
Immersion Read text with a focal question: How many problems can you identify in these lyrics? Groups to then brainstorm issues. Introduce contextual points and discuss relevance. Or P4C with note-taking?
Comprehension check Differentiated Blooms tasks and/ or Question Time grid. Or sentence work.
Analytical/ inference task… Generate question using P4C model and complete independent essay.
…and/ or creative writing task Write a story based on the ideas and themes raised in Dizzee’s lyricsTurn his song into a formal essay, explaining his subtext in academic language.Write a remixed version of ‘Sittin Here’ based on themes raised by WW1 projectWrite a detailed review of Dizzee’s songs

 

William Blake – ‘Songs’

Phase Description
Hook/ Launch Quick context from ‘My Name is Mina’; Quick context – what was changing in London?
Immersion Read poems in pairs – what is troubling Blake? What does each poem suggest about London? Class decides on Blake FLIRTS criteria.
Comprehension check Focus on ‘London’ – Differentiated retrieval (can you find?); Close reading practice; Differentiated Blooms tasks based on selection of poems
Analytical/ inference task… Generate question using Pardoe model and complete independent essay (after mini P4C?)
…and/ or creative writing task Write a poem in the style of Blake, using FLIRTS criteria

etc.

 

Can you map out a unit using the same model? Have a go.

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

Fresh start

 

Mind Tricks: Playing games with Differentiation

Intrinsic motivation is a difficult thing to manufacture in the classroom.

In a bid to improve independent reading comprehension, I’ve been playing with a means of developing motivation while offering adequate support for those less able, via some fairly simple differentiation.

After reading a text, I offer a ‘Can you find?’ grid, as in the following two examples:

grid1 grid2

Now, the design of this grid is what I want to focus on. Key features are:

  • There are three (supposed) difficulty tiers, clearly labelled, without euphemism
  • There is very little difference in difficulty between the NOVICE and DEVELOPING tasks
  • There is usually a new, untaught concept introduced in the EXPERT bank
  • There are far fewer examples to find in the EXPERT bank
  • Pre-taught concepts feature in the DEVELOPING bank
  • Some of the more difficult tasks are in the DEVELOPING bank

 

What’s interesting, from a psychological perspective, is how students respond to this type of grid:

Autonomous exploration

Many students strive instantly for the most difficult task, and quickly seek out the knowledge necessary. An example is where I introduced the concept of ‘superlative’ in an EXPERT bank, which I had not yet raised with the class at all. A number of students managed to not only work out what it meant, but also identified examples successfully.

 

Everyone’s ‘Developing’

Because the NOVICE and DEVELOPING tasks are relatively similar, it’s a very small leap from the former to the latter. This gives everyone a sense of competence, which makes for a smoother transition into subsequent inference and language analysis.

 

Competence and confidence

Because pre-taught concepts feature mainly in the DEVELOPING bank, the entire class feels able to access this middle tier. By then including some difficult concepts in the DEVELOPING bank, there is a natural elision into EXPERT territory. I have seen ‘weaker’ students comfortably access more difficult textual features.

 

Focussed annotation

An easy win here. Students can be steered into focused analysis and annotation of text, rather than just wading around in the hope of finding something of not that they recognise.

 

Over to you.

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations