Saturday, 9 February 2013

Questioning the question: regaining some teaching mojo

The Climax of the Crucible meets Exam Preparation

I love my Thursday mornings. Thursday morning involves an incredibly pleasant series of three back to back lessons with my Year 13 Language and Literature class (AQA Spec' B).  I have five pupils, all female, who are a delight to be in the room with and my choice of teaching 'The Crucible' could not be more apt for this group. I am most often the teacher I want to be in these lessons.  

We have reached the last few pages of The Crucible where John Proctor is tormented by the decisions that are enforced upon him; he is in conflict with himself and caught between his desire to live and his desire to tell the truth. Anyone who knows The Crucible will know that these are not compatible desires. It can only be one or the other.  

As I have already said, the girls are just lovely, but as girls are want to do, they often seem to hedge their bets and lack the conviction and courage to theorise and hypothesise (Extended Abstract thinking) about what they see in a text.  I have been using and experimenting with SOLO in these lessons and one of them often tells me how much she likes it when we do because, "I know where I am and I can see where I need to go." Cue teacher beam. 

This lesson was based entirely around questioning, but not mine, it was their ability to formulate questions I wanted to focus on.  The idea being that I could give them the means to a) unpick the exam question with confidence and b) show them how to move their thinking onto Extended Abstract  - something they have made tentative steps towards, but not quite landed in with feet fully planted. 

So, let  me run through the lesson.

Year 13 The Crucible – Act 4 Part 2
Lesson Objectives

TBAT generate lower to higher order questions about the sample exam question
TBAT to reformulate questions to enable you to produce an Extented Abstract response
TBAT use the generated questions to plan and organise your response to a sample exam Q 

We began the lesson by looking at a sample question I had compiled:

Explore the ways in which Miller uses literary, linguistic and rhetorical devices in order to create specific dramatic effects in his portrayal of character relationships in this passage? (pg 108-9)

The wording of the question does not alter a great deal except for the 'steer' which is highlighted in bold.  The page number refers to a short section of dialogue where Proctor is asking Elizabeth what he should do.  I thought it was a pertinent choice because, as typical thematic issue in 'The Crucible' is that established hierarchies are tipped over and trampled on (Proctor is asking his wife what to do, not telling here), the language's sub-text references the themes of honesty, dishonesty and theocracy in the play and the reversal of hierarchy between Proctor and his wife enable students to bring in theories like Lakoff and Grice. 

We discussed the wording of the question, which we have done several times, and knew they had to use the 'steer' to focus their discussion of linguistic features in the extract.  They then had to do the following:

Write the question down on A3 paper and surround it with questions that this question provokes. What do you need to find out in order to answer this question?

The girls did as instructed, and began scanning the relevant pages to see what they could see.  Here the cunning plan fell down a little. They were nervous of writing down questions, worried about doing it wrong which meant I needed to prompt them with some ideas e.g. 'What IS the relationship of the characters in this scene?'  A deliberately simple question whilst telling them it is no problem to write simple questions or ones that deal with the blindingly obvious. Examiners are not mind-readers, the blindingly obvious has its uses. They then felt more able to write their own questions, even if tentatively. 

We then read to the end of the play discussing language features as we noticed them - here it was mostly them doing this rather than me and the girls then felt able to ask questions of the text as we read.  More time was given to then add questions to their A3 sheet. We shared these amongst ourselves and each added to their range of questions about the exam question.  They were generating an essay plan and they didn't really know it! 

The pedagogy of Twitter

The next part of the lessons is largely down to Twitter and the marvellous @JOHNSAYERS.  A while ago, after a Twitter #eyelashflutter or two,  he'd emailed me his magnificent question grid and question cards.  If you have a read of his post on questioning here you'll get an idea of this fella's genius and generosity. And here is a crudely copied and pasted version of his grid. 

Question Grid







I showed the girls this grid explaining the difference between higher order and lower order thinking and questionning.  They then had to assess the question they'd already written, working out which were higher, middle or lower order thinking.   Whilst doing so they were able to recognise when notes they had made in the response to their own questions were lower or higher order thinking.  Here their learning, or the more Ofsted friendly term 'progress' is made very visible to them.

Visible learning: progress, progress, progress

Once this was done, I asked them to choose which questions to re-formulate using John's grid. 
E.g. One pupil's original question was:

What is the explicit and implicit meaning of the conversation between Proctor and Elizabeth?  

Now, I'll be honest, I was quite chuffed with the question as it was because she was already thinking about the layers of meaning within the language AND focusing her idea on the steer of the exam question, but she re-formulated it anyway to:

How might the explicit and implicit meaning of the conversation between Proctor and Elizabeth be interpreted by the audience? 

I have a 'Learning Wall' display in my classroom which has the SOLO symbols and verbs at its heart, which I often refer to through out the lesson.  After this question was formulated, I could show them that their response to it would require them to hypothesise and theorise - creating an Extended Abstract response to the exam question.  

Once this had been made explicit to the class, all were able to confidently re-formulate their questions, sharing them with each other and happy in the knowledge they'd pushed themselves onto Extended Abstract thinking by the end of the lesson.   

Even more noticeable, as the lesson progressed, they were the ones generating questions verbally, e.g."Would Lakoff's theory be applicable here Miss?"  
Which I of course re-buff with a, "Explain why you think so." And she did, confidently.

On their sheet of A3 were a comprehensive set of challenging questions they had generated themselves; notes they had made on how to respond to these questions and relevant quotations.  An essay plan.  Now, imagine, if I'd began the lesson explicitly using the phrase 'essay plan' in my Lesson Objectives you can just imagine the excitement on their little faces can't you? But, they looked at their sheet full of notes and questions and said, "Essay due in next week Miss?".  

We finished a happy band of teacher and pupils, because it felt like many weeks and months of work on the play, linguistic terms, language analysis, application of theory; HOW they are learning had culminated together all at the right time.  The use of SOLO and John's question grid combined together beautifully to help them make real progress in the lesson and they were delighted to know they had reached the Extended Abstract thinking stage of SOLO. They had really demonstrated noticeable confidence in themselves as learners. 

Now, I wonder what kind of grading this lesson would get? *bites nails*

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