Pupils’ Expectations

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In life we always have set expectations for an event. We develop these expectations through our own prior experiences and through word of mouth. As we live the experience we soon begin to gage whether it is living up to our hopes or letting us down. For example, the expectation for a lecture is students sitting in rows facing a lecturer and taking in information. This can seem exciting to some fresh undergrad students as they hope to be inspired by this new form of learning; however most students have heard that lectures are boring and to skip them because ‘they just put the slides online anyway’: is this what we want learning to be?

 
I have been to many inspiring lectures, as well as the not so inspiring ones, and I have come to realise that expectations can often be dangerous and misleading: they can determine the attitude we have as we approach a new experience and our level of engagement with it. If more lecturers began their sessions with active learning and discussion, would we still class it as a lecture or something else? If we call an experience within a lecture hall a ‘workshop’ does that mean it is different or does it depend on what actually happens within the ‘workshop’?

 
These thoughts got me thinking about the expectations pupils have for what happens in the classroom. Yes, we may set our high expectations for them but what are their assumptions about us and our teaching? Do their views change as they enter our classroom and are we presented with opportunities to alter their outlook?
I have been considering this mainly in relation to senior classes and the change of timetable that is almost ( or already for some) upon us. Senior pupils will enter our classes with a set expectation of what the class will be like through word of mouth from their peers (unless we are new) and if we have taught them in the past. From the moment the pupils steps through the door we have an opportunity to either stick with what they expected or start afresh and try something new.

 
It is pretty common to spend the first few periods going over the course outline with a senior class and to discuss the exam structure; however I find this detrimental. For me, it puts the exam at the centre of importance rather than the pupils’ learning. If we lecture to pupils for an hour about what they ‘need’ to know for an exam we have, in my opinion, already set their expectations for the rest of the year: this teacher is going to tell me what to think in order to pass this exam. 

 
Although exams are important I believe it is vital that students are aware that it is their learning that should take centre stage. I believe that starting the year with a discussion about literature, and giving pupils the opportunity to develop their own opinions about texts, is far more beneficial. We should take that opportunity to build pupils’ confidence rather than get them worked up about an exam and set them in the ‘just tell me what I need to know’ mentality. If we begin the year by letting pupils know that we aren’t going to tell them what to think and if we encourage them to contribute their views, then I believe we will all gain more out of the school year.

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Text-Worlds in the Classroom Seminar

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I recently attended an inspiring seminar, with  Jess Mason and Marcello Giovanelli, looking at Text World theory and the way that it can help structure classroom activities.

At the beginning of the seminar we were asked to picture how we would visualise a short piece of writing and draw this on paper.  The extract was taken from The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill and it was interesting to compare our drawings with other members of the group and see the elements of the story that we each, individually focused on.  There were many similarities with the drawings and these occurred most frequently in the same groups.  For example each individual in my group did not use the whole sheet of A2 paper and focused on smaller images instead; whereas other groups used the whole sheet with much larger drawings.   Marcello then explained that this comes from our mental representation of a text as we are more likely to  create similar images to those who are near us and may influence our decisions.

This would be a fantastic task to use with a class as it would allow pupils to build an individual mental image of a text that can then be shared and discussed with their group.  It would also be interesting for pupils to think about why they focused on certain words in the story and why they discarded others. There will be words in the extract that some pupils may have vocabulary gaps with.  For example, in the extract we were given, the word ‘London’ triggered mental pictures such as Big Ben and the London Eye; however if a pupil has little/no knowledge of London they may not choose to focus on that word. This, therefore, highlights the important connection between comprehension and interpretation: if  there is a lack of understanding then it may make it more challenging for pupils to think critically about a novel and create their own interpretation.

Quick minute drawings to create a mental representation of an extract from The Mist in the Mirror.

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This task also tied in well with Jess Mason’s thoughts on personal preference.  As we read more we start to gain an understanding of what we like and dislike.  Due to our own experiences we may also be more likely to focus on certain elements of a text.  This was made evident in a whole group discussion. Some members of the seminar stated they enjoyed rich character description and voice, whereas others preferred descriptive setting and landscape.  Interestingly, this reflected on the drawings we created in our groups.   Certain words in the extract created an individual trigger for each of us and we focused on that element of the story.  This, perhaps, indicates the influence our personal preferences can have over what we focus on in a text and the mental image we create.

This idea of personal preferences led Jess into a discussion about pupils and their experiences with novels in a classroom.  This was really insightful for me as Jess explained the difference between a teacher’s experience with a class novel and a pupil’s. Teachers will, normally, read a novel before they begin it with a class.  This means that a teacher experiences an authentic reading of a text and, therefore, can create their own interpretation of the novel.  However, pupils often only experience a class novel within a classroom.  They might read some of it with the class for 15 minutes of the lesson and then start tasks in groups and this may potentially result in the pleasure of reading being denied for these pupils.  There will be pupils in the class who wish to read at a slower pace or those who read ahead and we must ask ourselves how much this disjointed experience of reading is influencing the pupils’ enjoyment of a novel.

Furthermore, because the teacher has their own interpretation of the text they can, consciously or not, influence the way the pupils perceive a text.  This means that pupils are experiencing a manufactured reading of a novel and are being denied the right to engage.  If we think about sharing our thoughts with someone on a TV series we have watched,  we expect to have similarities and differences in terms of likes and dislikes and we expect to interpret characters in different ways .  Yet, because teachers have already had the experience of a novel , they are more likely to encourage pupils to create their  mental representation of a text rather than allowing pupils to have the freedom to create their own.

As a result of teachers having a natural reading experience with a class novel, it may influence the tasks chosen for a class.  This perhaps highlights the potential dangers of learning intentions if teachers feel the lesson cannot take another direction.  There is also a danger in waiting for the ‘right answer’ and then moving on when that has been given.  This can, therefore, exacerbate the issue with pupils experiencing a manufactured reading of a text as they may switch off if they feel that their views are not important or lose confidence if they feel they are wrong.   However, viewing something differently often has real value and this led Jess to a discussion on the idea of a character being perceived as a ‘villain’.  A teacher Jess was working with asked the class to think about what makes the Warden in Holes  a villain.  Jess then asked a group of pupils if they thought she was a villain and after some hesitation one boy suggested that the Warden was only doing what she knew and following in the footsteps of her family. Therefore this highlights the importance of the way we ask questions, as teachers, as it can lead pupils to share their personal view of a text.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable seminar and I have gained loads of ideas to use with my classes over the next few weeks.  It is always interesting to consider the differences individuals can have in terms of their approach to a text and the way we can, as teachers, utilise these differences to create uplifting critical discussions.

 

Giovanelli, Marcello and Mason, Jessica (2015) ‘Well I don’t feel that’: schemas, worlds and authentic reading in the classroom. English in Education, 49 (1). pp. 4155. ISSN 1754-884

 

 

 

 

Using the Outdoors To Support Disadvantaged Pupils

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I am always amazed by how much of an influence a change in the environment can have on pupils.  We often expect so much from pupils through the restrictions of four concrete walls. We ask pupils to describe the smell of the beach on a hot summer’s day  and to write down the sounds of an ocean during a storm.  In these circumstances we are hoping that the pupils will have experienced this at some point through real life, a film or a book. We might even set a group task to create a word bank filled with ideas – but who is really producing these ideas?  Are they coming from the pupil who has never experienced a beach?  Or are they coming from the highflyer who experiences a captivating new destination every July? We might, then, ask pupils in their group to choose their ‘most descriptive words’ and we can all guess who has provided them.

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In the classroom, it’s my belief, that we are often in danger of unintentionally excluding some pupils from our lessons.  Even if we were to check pupils’ prior learning we may find that, for some pupils, their prior learning is really the learning of their classmates. They have picked up certain ideas and words through the experiences of their peers. Although some may argue there is nothing wrong with this as they are sharing the learning, we must remember that many pupils may have never experienced a beach or a theme park.  We might be able to provide visuals for these pupils through images and videos, however does this give them a sensory experience that will enable them to add description and excitement to their writing?

I am currently taking one of my classes out on monthly trips throughout the year. As their peers add more experiences to their collection, my class are being left stationary, or worse, slipping further behind due to the vital early years now being behind them.  Their peers are constantly adding to the knowledge and skills they have through their experiences. They have the prior knowledge to help them adapt to situations and new learning.  However, I realised that my class, often, don’t have this prior knowledge.  They may have picked up parts of it from their peers but they have never fully experienced it for themselves. Therefore this encouraged me to start taking my pupils to new places for their creative writing.  My aim is for them to start thinking about their senses and how they can use them to enhance their writing.

One of my first trips allowed pupils to experience creative writing in a woodland parkland with over 170 acres to be explored. We had discussed sensory poems in class and we were now going to create them in the outdoors.  It was a perfect day for it. The Autumnal leaves were starting to fall and the winter air was apparent but not too harsh.

The pupils first task was to think about 4 of the senses: sight, sound, touch and smell. The pupils’ task was to walk around an area of the park, on their own, and consider some describing words for each of the senses and I said that I would do the same.  The pupils were all provided with a booklet with a box for each of the senses.  I noticed that having this structure and separating the task into sections, rather than just delving into the poem, helped pupils to focus. Before I set the them off I also asked them to consider the way the leaves fell from the trees, the colours they saw, the sounds they were hearing around them and to touch the grass and the trees to get a real sensory feel.

Some of the describing words were fantastic. One pupil  described the leaves falling as ‘dancing’ and another described a tree as ‘looking like a monster’. As well as sight pupils considered the grass as ‘smooth at first but with an unexpected jag’ and the leaves on the ground having a ‘satisfying crunch’.   After we had our words we began to think about moulding them into  a short 4 line poem; with a sense for each line.  I have attached some pictures at the bottom so you can see some of the work the class produced. Although some people might look at them and think they are nothing amazing, I was really proud of the work the pupils produced on this trip. To describe a tree as ‘like a monster’ was fantastic and I am sure they would not have said this in class. In fact  a parting comment from a pupil was, ‘my poem in class would be different and it probably wouldn’t be as good.’ This shows the benefits of a short trip like this.  I am lucky enough to have a small class but most schools will be within a 15 minute walk from a park and I would definitely recommend branching out from the classroom and allowing all pupils to experience the outdoors and all it can offer.

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Trees like monsters with scary branches,                                                                            The cold frosty air moved on my legs.                                                                                  The sweet smell of the autumn leaves,                                                                                Ducks talking to each other through quacks.              

_20171030_203152                                                                      Leaves rustling in the grass,                                                                                                 Leaves changing colours like,                                                                                               Red, orange and yellow.                                                                                                          Wet and soggy grass like a dog,                                                                                             Birds chirping a pretty tune.

_20171030_203142                                                                            The leaves are multi-coloured and falling slowly,                                                              The birds sound like a chatter.                                                                                             I feel the cold on my hand,                                                                                                     As the winter air creeps in.                                                                               

 

 

 

Using the Outdoors to Foster Creativity

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I remember the pressure of sitting in English lessons and being asked to come up with an idea for a short story in 50 minutes. The teacher would read out one example then we were expected to get started. The pupils who could write 3 pages in 50 minutes were often praised for their hard work and their writing would be read out to the class. I never produced my best work in the limitations of the classroom and I would often ask to take my work home to finish it there. I had quiet places I could go to write and would subconsciously think back to my own experiences with books, films and the outside world in general as a stimulus for my work. As a teacher I have been considering this idea in more depth: what about the pupils with limited experiences and no place of solitude?

We all find it difficult to write about something we know nothing or little about. We will attempt to weave any prior knowledge we do have with our experiences of the world in order to support our writing: this can then be enhanced by the use of media and discussion with peers. There is also an argument that the more experiences and knowledge we have the easier we will find it to use our imagination and engage the reader with our writing. However, I am uncertain about whether knowledge and experiences automatically equal creativity. We have to know how to use them together and the benefits they can bring to our own work.

The impact of experiences has always been something I have been interested in as a teacher. They help us to respond to texts and think critically about our own interpretations. We will often rely on what we know to support our creative pieces of work.  Therefore this is why we receive so many zombie stories based on The Walking Dead and reflections of wild house parties: they are what many young people are interested in and relate to.  As we  go to more places and live our life there is a high chance that what we write about will not only change but become more original: potentially explaining why authors’  adapt their writing style over the years. From these notions of experiences and writing I decided to see what kind of impact being outside the classroom would have on a group of pupils.

Many of the pupils in the class have little experience outside their hometown. They often find it challenging to come up with ideas for their writing; even with scaffolds and differentiation. This, therefore, leads to a dangerous situation where they are constantly behind their peers. As other classes gain more experience and progress, we can have a situation where some pupils stay stagnant or move backwards due to lack of interest and self-belief. They are one year away from their senior year and I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be in what is deemed as the ‘bottom set’ throughout school.

My hope was that by taking these pupils on trips outside of the classroom they would gain life experience and knowledge from the excursions. I hoped that these trips would support pupils to write in a much more engaging manner that truly reflects the experiences they have had. We have had one of our trips already and what I have gained, and I hope what the pupils have gained, from this is so much more than improving writing.

Even as the pupils boarded the mini-bus I noticed a change in them. There was a feeling of excitement but also uncertainty at experiencing something new. I remember from my own school years the change in mood and atmosphere being out of the classroom caused. Yet, we still teach in a predictable room with desks and a board: another example of tradition suppressing reform?

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I made up booklets for the pupils to take notes on the senses and ways that they could use these senses to enhance their writing. I asked pupils to look at the nature around them, the different angles and also the people  walking around. Their ideas were unbelievable. One girl described the trees in the distance as looking like silhouettes because of the misty air. We then discussed this further and came up with them being blurred white silhouettes and one pupil mentioned them resembling weapons. It was amazing to see the confidence that the pupils had and the way they were interacting with each other and building on each other’s ideas. Language that they would find challenging to produce in a classroom was coming to them naturally outdoors.  We were on a hill at one point and they were comparing houses to dolls’ houses and cars to toy cars. This then led to the idea of the people below us resembling ants as we were giants in comparison. The way that the pupils were expressing their ideas was something I had not fully anticipated. They were talking to each other naturally rather than being forced into a group discussion.

As we returned to the classroom and reflected on the trip, the pupils were still able to think and express their ideas; however I noticed that some of the spark was now gone. The pupils had started to write about their experience with the class word-bank we created and were using a lot of the language we had discussed; yet there was something forced behind it. I think this is what led me to consider the idea of experiences + knowledge = creativity: it is often not as straightforward as that. Other factors can influence how we respond to a situation,  such as the environment we are in or how we are feeling,  and this is definitely something I have learned from this trip.

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I hope that as we go on more excursions the pupils will find it easier to transfer all their enthusiasm and use of language into the classroom. I am also going to start the writing on the trip to see if this makes a difference. I left this excursion feeling like my relationships with the pupils had improved and I’m certain they have gained something from it. I felt really emotional seeing them coming out of their shells and having the confidence to speak up about not only what they were experiencing on the trip, but also how they were feeling in general.

We are often so caught up in results, data and improving outcomes that we forget to look at the bigger picture. I’m not sure yet if these trips will have a huge impact on enhancing the pupils’ writing; but I do know they will gain much more from them than an improved creative piece of work.

Exploring the Motivation behind a Character’s Actions

 

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The other day I had an interesting discussion with one of my higher pupils.  She was talking about her advanced higher drama course and the idea of ‘given circumstances’.  This is a term coined by the Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski and is a methodology for actor training.

The term given circumstances is applied to the total set of environmental and situational conditions which influence the actions that a character in a drama makes.  The character (in the play) is often unconscious of these decisions, however the actor playing them is aware of these conditions in order to deepen their understanding of a character’s motivation.  This discussion got me thinking about the play I am studying with my higher (‘Men should Weep’ ) and the way that characters’ actions are often underpinned by a deeper issue.

In real life we will interact differently with people depending on who we are talking to and the same can be applied to characters in a play.  Their relationships vary depending on  whether they have status over other characters and their emotional connection to them.  Pupils often understand the ‘surface’ issues in drama relationships but can find it challenging to think about why a character is reacting in a certain way.

I modelled, with my class, an example of a relationship between two characters: Isa and Alec.  I asked the class to write down what they knew about the characters and then focus on their knowledge of their relationship. Pupils then shared with their group and we started to discuss it as a class. Some pupils mentioned the turbulent relationship that the two characters have and the fact that  Isa often overpowers Alec.   Although this was a good point it isn’t taking into consideration their motivation. Why does Isa choose to control Alec? This then resulted in one of the pupils stating that Alec is an easy target for her and she has a different relationship with other characters.   This is shown in her interaction with a removal man as she is taken aback when he notices her lack of respect for Granny.  We then discussed the idea that Isa is actually an insecure character and Alec allows her to treat him badly, so why does he put up with this?  A pupil then mentioned the idea that Alec is mollycoddled by his mum. This led to a discussion about Alec needing strong female characters in his life and this results in his desire (need) to be loved by Isa.

By asking pupils to think about characters’ motivations and their reason behind an action they produced some fantastic answers. If a character shows anger is that the only emotion they are feeling or is something driving the anger? If a character is making fun of someone else is something driving that nasty trait? I think that, as English teachers, these are really important elements to think about. They can definitely help pupils gain a deeper understanding of a text and build confidence so they can explore  their own interpretation.

This could be a useful task for exploring relationships/character development with any text. It may also help pupils structure essays and think about how the evidence in a text helps support a response rather than it being the main focus.

Some examples of pupils’ work:

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Applying Reader-Response Theory to Media and Texts

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“There is a correlation between the richness of the reading environment in which readers live and the richness of their talk about what they’ve read.” (Chambers 1996)

On Wednesday I attended an inspiring SATE seminar by Professor Sue Ellis.  This seminar explored how success in literacy and language can improve the wellbeing of young people.

We are all aware that our pupils come from a diverse variety of backgrounds and often have unequal childhoods.  Some are read to (and read) from a young age and others will only experience books for the first time at primary school.   This results in some advancing way ahead of their peers as they already have experience with reading books and thinking about how they relate to their own life.  We all have a different life and a different sense of self: that is what makes us interesting.  This means that we apply what we know from our own experiences to the books we read and to the things we write.  Just as going to different places and hearing different music enhances our life experience; so do books.

By reading, or being read to, we develop our own reading identity.   We do the same with music and films. A horror film will be some peoples’ worst nightmare, however others will enjoy the scenes of darkness and the moments of suspense.   I have a friend who suffers from anxiety and would never go on a roller coaster, but loves the adrenaline rush from a scary film.  For her, the roller coaster would be a loss of self control, but a film is not real and can be stopped at any time.  She made this decision based on the experiences she has had; resulting in it contributing to her identity. We do the same with books.  We will read things based on what we know we like and from recommendations from others.  If we have no interest in Science Fiction we are unlikely to jump at the chance of reading War of the Worlds and the same applies to children.

Pupils will see reading as a task if they are told what to read or if they are told to read a book from every genre in the library. Rather than fostering a love of books it can be a competition to read a book as quickly as possible in order to reach that genre ‘finish line’. We have to ask ourselves if this is leading pupils to develop their own reading identity or if it is hindering a potential love of books that pupils will develop a strong personal response to.

Sue discussed Reader-Response theory in the seminar and it got me thinking about the way we approach texts as English teachers. Pupils in my classes have recently started responding to statements rather than questions due to the unconscious bias that we can create through questioning.  When we ask a question we always have an answer in our head and we wait with anticipation for a pupil to mind read (or get lucky) our ‘ideal’ answer.  This can lead us to skim over some interesting contributions from other pupils because we are so focused on our own interpretation.   Rather than telling pupils ‘that’s not quite right’ and moving on, we should be exploring their thoughts and ideas: how did they get to that response?

Reader-Response theory involves pupils thinking about their own views of a text.  It allows pupils to explore what they like and dislike about a text as well as what they find puzzling.  Pupils will also make connections with their own life and their experiences so far: does the text make them think of anything or remind them of something they have read before?  This theory, in practice, allows pupils to have their own opinion.  It is important to remember that everyone has something to contribute: we can learn a lot from pupils’ views.  I have previously  noticed a change in my senior pupils’ responses,  when asked to give a personal view,  and I was now inspired to see what kind of responses a film and a play would evoke.

I provided both classes with sheets as a focus for their responses.  Pupils wrote down notes as the film was on and then, after 20 minutes of the film, individually responded to each statement. I decided to let pupils independently respond first in order  develop their on response and reduce the chance of peer influence/someone taking a free ride.  Pupils then shared their ideas with their group and the responses were thought provoking and, of course, suited to the individual and their own view.

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It was interesting to hear about the way that the pupils related to the characters.  One girl related to Katniss because she played archery and found to difficult to trust people.  Another pupil stated that they struggled to relate to any of the characters because of the environment the characters were in and stated that the threat of death would change them as a person and they wouldn’t know how to react.

It was also interesting to hear  what pupils would change about the film if they were the director.  Some of the pupils stated that they would save a man who is killed to add drama but also because they didn’t want him to die. However another pupil stated that as a director you would have to think about what would have the biggest impact on the audience rather than simply finding it sad that someone is killed.

Pupils also discussed some of the techniques in the film and whether they liked them or did not.   This is where reader-response theory works well because the pupils are not only discussing elements of media, but how the techniques relate to them.  One pupil stated that although they didn’t like the dark and dull colours, they thought they were worked well at showing the poverty within the scene.  Another pupil said that they liked the difference in costume between those from the Capitol and those from district 12 as it made it clear who was who and showed who had more money/belongings.  A few pupils also said they liked the use of the sad music as it helped show how the characters were feeling in the scenes.

It was fascinating to hear the responses from pupils and how their responses developed as they discussed their views as a group.  They were more willing to contribute as this was about their view and opinion rather than finding the ‘right answer’.

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I also used this theory with my Higher English class.  We are studying the play ‘Men Should Weep’ and have already been having discussions, through statements, about the play in general and character relationships.   However, we hadn’t discussed their own personal view of the play yet and how it related to their lives, so I decided to try this out.

It was great to that some pupils enjoyed the use of the Scot’s language as it helped them to gain a better understanding of the characters and understand the setting of the play.  A pupil also commented on the dialect helping to show the differences between characters and this lead to an interesting discussion on the importance of voice within a play.   It was also interesting to see that one pupil felt the conflicts within the relationships helped to show the poverty that the characters were experiencing: would they be reacting in the same way if they had enough food and personal space?

Pupils also discussed the character that they felt they related most to.  One pupil stated that they felt like they understood Jenny’s reaction to situations as they have had difficulty with their family and independence in the past.   Another pupil stated that they related most to the young children in the play as they still see themselves as childish and immature and ‘looking in’ on the issues with families.

Overall these were very beneficial lessons and it is definitely something that I will use in the future.   As secondary teachers there can be a pressure to get through what the pupils need to know, however I have found that giving them a chance to put across their personal opinion and interpretation helps deepen their understanding of the texts.   We must remember that all pupils have something to contribute and we can all learn from their contributions.

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Further Reading:
Brooks W,  Brown S (2012) ‘Towards a Culturally Situated Reader-Response Theory’ Children’s Literature in Education (43)

Chambers, A (1996) Tell me: Children, Reading and Talk. Stenhouse Publishers

Chambers, A (1996) The Reading Environment: How Adults Help Children Enjoy Books. Stenhouse Publishers

 

 

Interpretations and Evidence

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Teachers are under an immense amount of pressure to ensure that pupils are well prepared for their exams.   As pupils reach their senior years, often, crucial elements of teaching and learning are put on the back-burner in order to simply tell pupils what they need to know.   Pupils themselves start to develop this attitude as they just want to know what they need for the exam.  In English, for example, they are happy to take our interpretation of a text and use it as their own in order to gain an A or B grade.  However as English teachers should we be asking ourselves if this is right? Yes pupils will do well as long as they regurgitate, but surely our job is more than simply preparing pupils for an exam?  We should be allowing them to have opportunities for critical thinking and problem solving.

I remember being in my first year at the University of Glasgow. I had always managed to achieve high marks in my essays at school and I felt confident submitting my first response to a text.   However, it was completely ripped apart ( to say the least).   The lecturer slated me for using phrases such as ‘suggests’ and ‘this could mean’.  She immediately blamed schools for the ‘wishy-washy’ approach encouraged by teachers, and stated that students were starting off a university career with no ability to think critically or really make the reader consider their interpretation of a text.

Yes, there can be many interpretations  but we should be confident in our own one and should be convincing the reader of our point of view rather than making them feel like we have no real opinion.   The beauty of English is that  as long as we have the evidence to back up our interpretation we should be allowed to share it.  Pupils interpretations should vary depending on their own experiences and how they have responded to the text.  We are in danger of spoon-feeding pupils to the point that they have no belief in their own views and rely on us to make decisions for them.

Of course, knowledge of the text is crucial.  Pupils must have knowledge and understanding of events in the text  in order to have plausible interpretations.. However, they can explore elements such as relationships between characters and the reasons why certain events have occurred in a text:  do we blame Friar Laurence for the death of Romeo and Juliet or did their immaturity lead to their inevitable fate?

Getting pupils to think for themselves is no easy feat, especially if they have had years of only hearing the teacher’s interpretation.   However  by encouraging pupils  to think about whether they agree or disagree with what we say, the cogs immediately start to turn.  It is human nature to have opinions and think differently from other people, yet because of  an exam we can be guilty of disregarding a pupil’s view because we are worried that the person marking their paper will disagree.  We want the best for them, but we have to think about this in the long term rather than a few months down the line.

We can also be guilty of spending lesson after lesson making sure that pupils understand what a simile and a metaphor are.  Yes, the definitions can roll of many people’s tongues; but is the definition the important element or is it the way that a writer uses them in a text and why, we think, they have decided to use them?  Again, by asking pupils why these techniques are used and what they bring to a text we are helping them to mould their own response.  This response will be based on their own experiences and how they feel about the text as a whole.

I have been using statements rather than questions with my classes since June. I have already noticed the differences in pupils’ responses and their ability to put across their view.  However, what stands out the most is the individuality of their responses.  As long as they are backing up their responses with evidence they are allowed to have different interpretations.   For example, two pupils responses to Jenny in Men should Weep vary greatly but they are both plausible.  The pupils were asked to respond to the statement Jenny is a character who evokes sympathy:

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These responses demonstrate the difference in pupils’ opinions  and this relates to the way that we all think differently.   No one has the exact same opinion on a person or a place, therefore we must encourage pupils to have their own views and use techniques and evidence to back these views up.  This will encourage pupils to think critically and better prepare them for life beyond school whether their path leads them to further education or work.