After what could best be a described as a traumatic start to the week with a particularly difficult Year 11 class, I had all but mentally composed a resignation letter and started tunnelling my way out of teaching. Twitter chums responed in their droves to my plea of help with this class, and morale was lifted a little out of the cesspit it was in.
The part of the lesson with a Year 8 set 4, a delightfully small class of amiable pupils who have brighter bulbs in their heads than they give themselves credit for. They are, most of the time, quite adorable. Today, they made me skip to my whiteboard to note down a comment that one of them made, although bitterly, I am struggling to remember what made me skip. Damn my Dory brain.
Our current SoW is 'Developing Writing Skills' and it suggests we look at an opening chapter of a novel to work out how an author reels the reader in. With a few well known tweachers comments ringing in my ear - @JamesTheo, @LearningSpy and @TheRealGeoffBarton to name but a few, I plumped for the opening chapter of 'A Christmas Carol'. It was bit of a gamble as their reading ages are quite low, consequently the complexity of the language could potentially alienate them. I ploughed ahead anyway.
I did an on the hoof lesson starter, that mutated into taking up nearly half the lesson, but I believe it was time well spent. After reminding each other who Scrooge was and what he was like as a character, we re-capped some of the text by listening to the glorious Patrick Stewart's reading of A Christmas Carol - easily accesible on YouTube (with the original text in front of them) Hurrah!
On an English teacher whim, I stopped the recording and focused on a simile that described Scrooge with surgical precision:
"Scrooge was as solitary as an oyster"
Remembering the wise words of Geoff Barton at the Wellington College Education Festival and some posts by @GoldfishBowlMM, I took nothing for granted and assumed no knowledge on their part.
I ask the class, "Do we know what 'solitary' means?"
The class respond with an honest, "No Miss" and a sea of fairly blank faces.
I was glad I asked, and taking a leaf out of @kevbartle's penchant for using synonyms to explore the fuller meanings of words I adapted this for words that have the same root.
"Right," I continue, "the word solitary as the same root as solo and solitaire, a card game you always get on computers for free." There is a pregnant pause.
A, who prior to this half term was so very quite to the point of mute, offers an answer, "By yourself Miss?"
"Bingo!" I respond with, I continue, "So, any idea what an oyster is or what it looks like?"
I see more blank faces, thinking about our geographical location, that shouldn't be surprise.
I see more blank faces, thinking about our geographical location, that shouldn't be surprise.
I try describing an oyster, flailing my arms around, telling them about the shucking knife needed to open them, I even vere off into a tangent about a chat with English teachers working out why on earth it was an aphrodisiac (our conclusions were that they were so vile that you were so relived to still be alive after having eaten one, it made you a bit frisky) but they are still not sure what it is.
Praise be for Google images, for I hop on the laptop and find photos of oysters. We have a look at the images, they respond with, "Ewwwww!" and we notice a picture of a solitary oyster, floating in a dark sea and I decide we will focus on this image to analyse the simile. A quick copy and paste, followed by some nifty printing out, they have the picture of the oyster to glue in their books. Thus ensues a rather in-depth discussion of why Scrooge is like an oyster.
The inital words they come up with associated with this picture are: lonely, isolated, in the dark and THEN the lightbulb moment for one pupils as he tells me that, "Scrooge is contained." We then try and work out WHAT contains Scrooge in himself, and if this has anything to do with his loneliness.
We then move onto a rather more forensic analysis of the mollusc's shell. "What does it look like?" I ask.
"It is dull and dark Miss" replies one boy.
I respond with, "Thank you, what does this tell us about Scrooge?"
Another boy quickly replies with, "He is not fun, he doesn't really know what fun is."
"Good, what do we think stops him from having fun?"
Another, using what they already know from The Muppet Christmas Carol, chips in with, "It's because of what happened in his past Miss"
There is further discussion of his happiness in his past life, and how he is now, how and why he has changed into this mullusc.
I ask them to look even closer at the shell of the oyster, I tell them, "It reminds me of something else made by nature, that takes thousands or millions of years to form."
A lightbulb pings above another boy's head, "A rock Miss!"
"Good! What do this rock like shell and Scrooge have in common then?"
The same boy replies with, "He's been like that such a long time Miss. Now, it's really all he's ever known."
Others respond with comments like, "It's very tough and hard." "You can't break it, or at least it's very hard to."
We zoom in to the shape and sharpness of the oyster shell, I ask, "What do you think it is like to pick up this oyster shell or come in contact with it?"
"It will hurt your hand Miss," a lad responds with,
I bat back with, "Right, so how is Scrooge sharp like an oyster shell?"
A different pupil responds with, "It's how he treats people Miss,"
"Be more specific," I tell him, "How exactly does he treat people, in what way is he sharp?"
"How he speaks to people Miss, he is rude, unpleasant." We find some 'sharp' language and also put that around our oyster picture.
I then tell them that actually oysters are not solitary animals at all, they colonise rocks and stay together, we discuss why they are together, "To proctect each other." a boy tells me.
I think of more questions: "What do they (and we) need protection from?"
Referring to the setting of London, they can find links to the poverty mentioned in the text, the lack of a welfare state and how poor people are treated.
The Nelson interrogation continues, "Ahhhh, so what isolated Scrooge from his community, his protection?"
"HE did Miss!"
"So who or WHAT has made Scrooge into this solitary oyster?"
Again, "HE did Miss, it is the consequences of his actions."
This much deep discussion ensues about the cost of self-imposed isolation verses the benfit of being very much within your community, and how the individual suffers as a result of this self-imposed isolation.
This 'starter' took up about half the lesson. Was it time well spent? I think so. They said an awful lot more insightful and intelligent things about our solitary oyster and Scrooge than I have documented here. Annoyingly, I can't remember them all. At least once, I skipped merrily towards my whiteboard to record their ideas on it, so very pleasantly surprised by the depth of their thinking.
After examing other features of the opening chapter, such as Dickens use of place, atmosphere, and them choosing some of Dicken's best sentences so that we can use them later in our own writing we land upon the tricky thing that is 'tension'. How on earth do we convey this idea clearly?
This leads me onto rounding off with a discussion about what the word 'tension' means, and one of my girls can easily relate it to tension between friendship groups, so I focus on that meaning (rather than narrative tension) and go with it. She happens to have a hairband handy, so deftly knicking this from @Xris32 I flop the band around likening it to a 'normal' Uncle and nephew relationship, I ask, "Is Scrooge's relationship with his nephew relaxed, like this hair band?"
I interject with, "Ok, so what is it like?"
"It is tense Miss,"
"WHY is it tense and HOW tense is it?"
I begin to stretch the hairband with it's owner and ask them to tell us to, "Stop," when it is tense enough then explain WHY it is tense enough. We PING the hairband when we have an agreed level of tension combined with sufficient explanation, linking to the tension between Scrooge and his nephew.
At the start of the lesson, they did not know what 'solitary' or 'oyster' was.
By the end, they had made the connection between the two words, worked out why they had been chosen by Dickens to describe Scrooge and made numerous other connections between the simile and the character, explaining their purpose, and exploring the sub-text in some level of detail. They also know what tension between between characters in a narrative is for.
This lesson has really taught me how important Geoff Barton's mantra is about making the word poor, word rich. However we choose to go about it, it is worth while. Those pupils are much more word rich than they were at the start of the lesson.
I would say that was 'good' progress for that particular class. I'm not sure an observer would agree, nor would they agree with me spending nearly half a lesson on one simile from a text.
No matter, I remain delighted with what the group achieved in that lesson. That will do me.
The Knowledge/Skills Thingummy
The following uber-tweachers: @LearningSpy @andrewolduk @webofsubstance @pedagogueinthemachine and @imagineenquiry and @daisychristo have written AT LENGTH about this, so I will not.
However, reflecting upon this lesson DID make me give this some thought.
The SKILL was to be able to analyse the simile's purpose in describing Scrooge's character.
The class lacked the rather basic KNOWLEDGE of the words within the simile meant, nevermind what the words did once combined. This did need to be taught. The teaching was done through questioning, extensive questionning to the point of interrogation. They were not 'lectured' however, the method of 'chalk and talk' was nothing new. But it worked.
This SKILL of analysis needs to be further developed so that this becomes much more embedded; so that they are able to do this without me. This, then must be repeated, in various guises, gradually withdrawing the level of 'coaching' by me, so that eventually they can analyse almost anything that is put in front of them. This will take time.
While they remain 'word poor' this will remain difficult for them. Making them more 'word rich' also takes time.
So, when we think of the lesson observations hot potato also, what happens when a class are at this kind of stage in their learning of language, when they are not YET ready to be completely independent of the teacher? What then?