Applying Reader-Response Theory to Media and Texts

“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

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

A reflection on my NQT year…

_20170727_214613.JPGThere are loads of blog posts out at the moment with teachers giving hints and tips on what they think NQTs should be doing in their first year.  Although this is, in some ways, useful it  is easy for people that have experienced this nerve – racking year to now say what they think new teachers should be doing. In this blog I’m going to reflect on my own year and a couple of things I have learnt in that time…

I started off my NQT year fairly new to Twitter. I found Twitter useful as it gave me ideas for things that I could do in my own classroom and got me thinking differently about aspects of education. However, on reflection, it is easy to be sucked into the world of Twitter.  I like to follow people who have similiar views to my own. Just like any profession,  teaching leads to people having debates and differing points of view. This can be beneficial and it has certainly helped me to develop my own practice, as I have read up on ideas and challenged views that I feel don’t benefit pupils. I now feel I  have more of a grasp on these differing views than I had before. However as an NQT,  getting ready to start in August 2016, ‘Edutwitter’ was pretty intimidating to me. Everyone seemed to know what they were talking about and I felt a bit out of my depth.  I would often read the debates people were having and feel like I knew nothing about education and this used to really worry me. However although a lot of the debates are useful for thinking and challenging, it is important to remember that much of what is said on Twitter stays on Twitter. The ‘trad’ and ‘prog’ debate, for me, is completely ridiculous as our practice  should always be adapted to suit the children in our classroom. The individuals. The humans. There is no ‘one way’ and I think this is often lost in the heat of some debates…

This leads me to my next point of reflection and that is building relationships with pupils. I started the year with a very ‘assertive discipline’ approach. I had high expectations for pupils and I quickly established boundaries.  Although this worked well to an extent I felt that something was missing. I didn’t have a connection with any of my classes. I was enjoying what I was  doing,  but the persona that I was portraying was stopping me from building relationships with the pupils in my classes.

August and September were a blur for me. I wasn’t seeing the pupils in my classes as individuals but was instead treating them as a class. This did work, to an extent,  as I was warm and approachable whilst still having my expectations and boundaries in place. However, there was always a pupil who did not respond well to this approach. When they did misbehave or not follow instructions I would go through the procedures but it often ended up with the pupil being sent out of the room. For me, personally, I viewed this as a failure on my part. I felt that I wasn’t doing everything that I could possibly do for that pupil. I felt that I was missing something. After observing some teachers and doing some reading of my own I realised that what I was missing was the relationship with the pupil.

In a way I knew a lot about the pupil in question. I knew that they had a chaotic home life and would often leave a class or be sent out. However what I didn’t know was anything about them as a human. I hadn’t taken the time to really get to know what they liked and disliked or even just to have a conversation with them at the start of class. I quickly learnt that this was where I was going wrong.

Little things started to make a big difference. Rather than being on the defence  as soon as they entered the class I would smile and ask them about something they had told me yesterday – even if that was just checking to see how they got on with their science experiment. I would take notice of things they were doing that wouldn’t be a big deal for most pupils but for them, to notice their positive actions, was a big deal. I soon realised that this pupil, who thought had no interest in school or learning,  was more at home in school than they were anywhere else. From changing my own actions,  my relationship with this pupil completely changed for the better.  Having them in class was a pleasure and I soon realised they had a sense of humour and enjoyed aspects of the course.

Although I agree that boundaries and expectations are important, seeing children as the humans they are is even more important. We don’t all have the same home life and just like adults can be impacted by daily obstacles, so can children. I have learnt that having a calm conversation can make all the difference; and this is backed up by  body language and tone of voice.

I have learnt a lot over the past year and I know I will keep learning as the years go on. For me, the most important lesson was taking the time to get to know the pupils. School is often the place where they feel the most safe and have the most trust.  Taking the time to build relationships not only made me feel like a better teacher but it also made me enjoy my job even more.

Using Twinkl Resources with New Classes

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Twinkl Scotland asked me to review some of their fantastic resources in my blog.  I will discuss ways that I think they could be beneficial for pupils in schools and how they could help teachers avoid a heavy workload. As the new term starts in August/September  I have decided to focus on resources for new classes that, I think, could be a useful support for newly qualified and student teachers.

New teachers often feel pressured to reinvent the wheel or panic if every lesson isn’t all singing and dancing. This is where Twinkl can help. These are ready-made resources, created by teachers,  to help save time and take some of the pressure off. Even if you are only looking for some inspiration and ideas,  the Twinkl website is a great place to start.

I remember feeling excited but nervous on the first day in August last year. I was eager to meet my classes but I wondered how it would compare to being a student teacher. I had visited my school prior to the first day and had set a few things up, but I still had the fear of the unknown. At my council induction we were told to take a few days to get to know the pupils in our classes and it wasn’t until a few months in I realised how useful this advice was.

It is vitally important to build relationships with the pupils in our classes. Just as they are new to us, we are also new to them and it can make all the difference to have relationships that are built around trust and understanding. Therefore,  the first resource that caught my eye was ‘Our Class in One Word’. This is very straight forward but could be really useful for asking pupils what they would like to see happening in the class in one word. You could ask pupils to think about the way that everyone should be treated and the kind of things they would like to learn about in the class. As these are colourful leaves you could make a display out of them by creating a tree or you could have them spanning across the top of your classroom walls. Adding colour and displays to your class can help pupils feel that they are in a warm and engaging environment. As a pupil I remember being drawn to the classrooms that were vibrant and showcased pupils’ work.

 

 

Another fantastic resource for getting to know classes is the ‘Dream Jar’. This is something that I have already tried and tested with my first year class. I asked them to write in their jars something they would like to do when they were older, a fear, somewhere in the world they wanted to visit and an interest/hobby. Then in May they all looked at their jars again and thought about how much had changed in a year. This is a task that I will definitely do again and it could be used in correlation with The BFG. The Twinkl website also has colourful banners that you could use to brighten up and show off the display. Getting to know classes and displays are important to help build relationships, however it is also vital that the pupils in your classes get to know each other.

 

There is a big difference between pupils sitting in groups and pupils working together in groups. Therefore,  I am a big fan of team building tasks in order for pupils to get to know each other and work as part of a team. One task that I used last year was ‘The Paper Tower Challenge’. The Twinkl website has an inspiring resource on this which fully explains the instructions and required supplies. You can mix this task up by asking pupils to communicate without speaking and only allowing certain members of the group to have, for example, scissors. You can also make it clear that everyone in the group has to get involved so no-one has a free ride. I have found this task very beneficial and I always use team building with new classes. You can also extend the tasks by asking them at the end to reflect on how they worked as a team and anything that they would change in the future. As a teacher it is fascinating to see how the pupils work together and how they cope with the pressure. Another interesting way to get pupils working together is to have class/group debates.

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I love having debates in the class. Pupils often become very passionate about what they believe in and because they are so desperate to get their point across they have to think about why they have that particular view. The Twinkl website has loads of debate discussion cards that you can use to get pupils talking and listening to each other. The cards could be issued to groups of four and as individuals they have to think about if they agree or disagree with the statements. For example one of the cards states, ‘I live four miles away. There is no way I could walk or cycle to school.’ This could create a divide in the group as someone might suggest taking public transport and another may say a car is easier. The cards are also a really useful scaffold to get pupils engaging with debating. Thinking of what to contribute to a debate can be challenging and I think these cards could really help support pupils put their thoughts into words.

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As well as getting to know tasks, the Twinkl website is great for gaining ideas and inspiration. As an NQT there are times where things are piling up and the resources provided by Twinkl can help bring back motivation and drive. There are a couple of ideas that I can’t wait to try with my classes in August. One of these is the ‘Take it Outside: Summer Reading Challenge’. Weather permitting; I plan to get my classes outside as much as possible next year. This challenge may help pupils to engage with reading and set goals for themselves. As a teacher I think it is vital that pupils see us reading as much as possible, so this is a task that I plan to do with the pupils. Twinkl have a bingo card already made up, however this is easily adaptable by using Twinkl Create at http://www.twinkl.co.uk/create. This tool allows you to create your own resources, so you might get an idea from the website but then change it to suit you. As pupils complete the squares you might want to have prizes (perhaps stationary/ book tokens) or this could be something that pupils achieve at home. They could show you a picture of them achieving one of the squares/ provide evidence of their research. Twinkl also provide a certificate for when pupils complete the challenge; this could be a fantastic motivator for some pupils.

 

The final resource that I plan to use with my classes is ‘The Poetry Slam Competition’. A poetry slam is where people take to a stage to recite their own original poetry. Twinkl have provided ready-made running order sheets, vote slips and differentiated tasks. Rather than having a solo talk this could be something that is a bit different and gets the pupils engaging with their own poetry. Teachers could model it first and then show a few clips of poetry slams taking place. It could also be turned into a department competition where all the teachers recite their poems and then pupils take to the stage. You might want to set a theme for this, for example it could be a good way to celebrate National Poetry Day, or you might want to leave it up to the competitors.

 

I am excited to try these resources out with my classes in August and I will write a follow-up blog revealing the results and how successful they were with the pupils.

Finally, for new teachers, don’t be too hard on yourself. You will have good days and bad days but the most important thing is to enjoy it – good luck!

Twinkl were kind enough to offer me a free subscription for this review, however all thoughts are my own. Twinkl changes lives by providing instant access to a complete range of teacher created, engaging and inspiring teaching, planning and assessment materials. http://www.twinkl.co.uk

Does Relating Learning to Pupils’ Experiences Support or Hinder their Progress?

I have always believed that it is important to relate learning to the experiences of a pupil. You can see them perk up when you mention something that they can relate to or understand out with a learning context. We often call it a ‘hook’ or ‘a way in’ if we feel that a topic will not engage pupils and in case they switch off after one lesson.

With Shakespeare we may expect many pupils to roll their eyes or have looks of complete confusion as they experience the Shakespearean language for the first time so, what do we do? We try to help pupils find links between their lives and the lives of, for example, Romeo and Juliet. We explain to pupils that the issues that these characters experienced are not that far away from problems teenagers face today. We discuss the story with them and see the outraged looks as the pupils realise that Juliet is only 13 years old and is due to be married off with Paris. However, is it possible to know that all the pupils in the class relate to this interpretation of the play? Are we stereotyping the experiences of pupils and anticipating how we think their minds will work?


After reading Mark Roberts’ blog, https://markrobertsteach.wordpress.com/, on boys’ engagement I started to think about how much we rely on relating to pupils’ experiences. We are never going to be able to relate to the events of every pupil in the class. To say that all pupils in a class will be engrossed by a story purely because it is based around rebellious teenagers is bizarre. Not all teenagers are rebellious and, I imagine, not all teenagers are interested in a story about rebellion even if they have experienced it. As teachers, we have an opportunity to expand on what pupils already have knowledge of. Yet, are we guilty of feeling the need to go back to what we think they know in order to feel that our lessons are successful?

For a creative writing stimulus I will show pupils images that I think they will relate to.  These images are often of football stadiums, fairy-tale worlds and some kind of spooky/mysterious setting. This is often great, at first, as many pupils in the class immediately choose the image that relates to them most and the one that they think they can create a story from. However, the finished piece of work is often underwhelming or something that I have read before. We provide a stereotypical image and pupils, often, provide a stereotypical response.

We are often told to write about what we know. Yet, I think we have to take that with a pinch of salt. Teenagers, especially, haven’t had that much life experience and they will write about zombie apocalypses (inspired by The Walking Dead) and the secret house party that resulted in some drama with a parent or a neighbour. They take an experience that they have had (or watched, or read) and rewrite it as a story, with the odd name change here and there. Is it their fault? No. They are writing about things that come easily to them and things that interest them, so how do we progress pupils on from this?
We have to show them more and allow them to experience more. Pupils should read all kinds of creative writing and have the opportunity to understand it and think about it critically. They should know that they can take the experiences that they have had and develop it into something new. This doesn’t mean that pupils need to be travelling the world, although that would be excellent, but it does mean they should be reading about it and watching films and documentaries that they might, initially, not find very interesting. I feel that we have a responsibility to show, and tell, pupils that writing about what you understand doesn’t mean writing the next episode of Pretty Little Liars. They should know that although their experiences are valued being able to take risks and expand on them is more important.

We continue to link back to what we think pupils will respond well to and we are, potentially, putting a blockade in front of what they could be doing. Of course pupils enjoy having a lesson that links to what they know and it can be a hook for many learners in the class. But it is important to remember that not all teenagers have the same experiences. Are we only trying to engage the pupils that may disrupt the lesson? Or are we thinking about every pupil in the class and what they might relate to? We can only aspire to what we know exists and I think that, as teachers, we should be supporting pupils to continually broaden their own understanding.

Developing Characters for Story Writing and Drama

At the NATE conference last weekend I attended a number of interesting workshops that will help me to create interesting and engaging lessons for the pupils in my class.  I am  grateful that I had the opportunity to meet so many inspiring people that shared their ideas and practice that I can now adapt for my own pupils.

One of the workshops that blew me away was Kat Burr’s All work and no play? Introducing new views and creative ways into plays.  In this workshop we gained fascinating insight into ways that we can help pupils to develop characters in plays.  However,  these ideas are not limited to plays and could be a worthwhile starting point for creative writing  and folio work.

One of the first tasks that Kat introduced us to was ‘What’s in my Bag?’   Pupils choose two items from their bag and the rest of the group/class have to work out what the persons ‘holes’ (flaws) might be because of the items.  I would say it is important to tell the pupils to think about the person with the items as a character rather than as themselves so no feelings get hurt in the process!  For example if  I had a small mirror in my bag, my flaw, as a character, might be that I care too much about my appearance and what people think of me.  This immediately allows the pupils to start to develop a character in their own head and what the person might be like.   If you have some pupils in your school that don’t have a bag or you might not feel comfortable doing this task, you could use YouTube.  There are many videos out there with YouTubers promoting ‘What’s in my bag?’ You could pause it in-between items and ask the pupils to discuss or write down what their flaws might be because of their chosen items.  This is also a fantastic task for getting to know a class or letting them get to know you.

Another task ( and probably my favourite) was Killer Lines.   In this task pupils would be given a number of lines in their groups and they have to work out what kind of character would say these lines.   You could make these lines up or use famous quotes from characters and see if the pupils can work out who is the baddie (we all know they get the best lines.) You might want to provide images and see if the pupils can match up the line with the character and give a reason why they think they could say that.  For example if you use the line ‘Long Live the King!”  Some pupils might say Scar because he is desperate to become the King and get rid of his brother.  However, there may be another opportunity for an interesting discussion on ambiguity. Perhaps it depends on the way that a character says a line and the tone they use. Voice is so important in order to develop an accurate character; we have to hear them speak, right down to the laugh that they use.   This line might have been said by a bunch of servants that are loyal to their ruler, so the status of the character is vital.  Where is the character in terms of the food chain?  Are they a boss or are they a disgruntled ex employee looking for revenge?  Therefore an important lesson could come out of this task – delivery is often more important than what the line actually is.

As previously stated delivery is important when it comes to creating a character. Another task that I used from the workshop with my pupils was ‘Words that Annoy You.’  I asked the pupils to write down a word on a post-it that made their blood boil when someone said it (or, at least, caused them some discomfort.)  To say they loved it was an understatement. They were doing this as a group and looking at each others and saying ‘Ugh, I hate that too! Why do people do that?’   I then asked the pupils to start to think about the mannerisms people use or do that annoys them. Now, if you want a successful task you should say the things that teachers do (obviously telling them to keep it anonymous) that annoys them. Each group had loads of words and mannerisms and I then asked them to explore how they think each of these words would be said or what the mannerisms would look like.  I then asked them to think about what kind of character would suit this line.  What personality would the character have?  How would they interact with other people?   How would their voice sound as they said it? Then, and I think this is really important for character development, to think about the back story. What makes this person have this mannerism? Where did the use of a word come from?  Did they start to use it when their status changed in society?  Do they only use these words or mannerisms with certain people and do they change depending on who they are around?   This task really was fascinating and it was interesting to hear pupils saying ‘Well they only say that to us because we are a pupil, I bet they are different around the Heedie!’

The final task, and one that I think is brilliant, is getting the pupils to eavesdrop on a conversation. This could be at break, lunch or on their way home from school. The pupils should take an anonymous comment that they find unusual or funny and bring it back to class.  The pupils can then explore these comments as a group, perhaps putting them all together to create a short sketch. Pupils could also provide the lines that they think came before and the lines that they think would follow. Again, another interesting opportunity to explore voice if you get the pupils to exchange their comment with someone else.

This was a fantastic and beneficial workshop that I will most certainly use to help pupils develop their characters in creative writing. Pupils often only have an image of a character in their head but it is important to delve into the history of a character in order to explore what their strengths and flaws might be.

Statements or Questions?

As a newly qualified teacher I have been working on my questioning skills over the past year.  I have been refining these skills and trying to get the best out of pupils by asking them to expand or catching on to a specific word/phrase to continue on the next stage of the lesson. There is always that sense of achievement when a pupils response flows seemlessly with what we have planned next.  Questioning can also be a useful way to find out if pupils know certain facts; there are some things we just need to know before we can progress further. Yet, it can be argued, that questioning has its dangers in the classroom.  Rather than developing a pupil’s understanding, there is a danger that  questioning can stifle original ideas.

We can expect that if we ask a question that requires a yes or no answer then that is what we will receive, but what about the questions that ask pupils to expand or explain their points? As an English teacher I have always felt that pupils should be able to interpret a text using their own thoughts as long as they can justify it. We all look at something  differently from someone else based on our own life experiences, but that is what makes us interesting –  life would be pretty boring if we all thought in the same way. Just like music means different things to all of us, the same should be said for literature.  However, I wonder if we subconsciously encourage pupils to take a certain route with their interpretations?  Or if the questions that we ask have a specific answer in mind, even if they are as ‘open’ as possible.

I started thinking about this after the NATE conference last weekend. I attended a work shop that emphasised the importance of group work and pupils talking and discussing with each other. One of the tasks involved giving pupils two poems and a set of statements rather than questions for each poem.  The pupils would then discuss the statements in their groups and whether they agreed or disagreed with them.  It was clear from the video that the pupils were engaged and they discussed, with confidence, their thoughts on the poems.  This made me wonder if the reaction would be the same for questions.  Questions have an element of uncertainty about them,  as previously stated, we feel like there is a responsibility to get the right answer and this can lead us to shy away from challenging questions because of the fear that we are wrong. As a result of this, I decided to try this out with my own class to see if the responses were the same for both questions and statements.

All the pupils were given the poem ‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy.  This poem is on the Scottish Set Text list and will be one of six that the pupils may be assessed on. Half the groups were given questions and the others were given statements.  Other than these resources I decided to say nothing else about the poem.  I wanted to see what they thought of it and how their thoughts would be reflected in the discussion.  I gave the pupils a few minutes to independently write down some notes on the poem.  They then discussed their thoughts as a group and I listened to their group discussions.  It was really interesting to hear what some of the pupils were saying; especially in response to the statements.

One of the statements stated ‘ the voice in the poem is a man’.  I wanted to see if the pupils would challenge this and justify their own interpretation. For a first reading they blew me away with their responses.  One boy disagreed and argued that it must be a female poet as the words are meaningful and romantic and he didn’t feel that a man would be capable of that.  Someone else in the group then challenged this and said the gender of the voice is not important as the relationship  between two people is mutual and shared, so the voice could be anybody.

Another group focused on the idea of the onion and were puzzled by why it was being used.  One girl commented that just like an onion can be peeled and when you cut it you can’t put I back together so this could relate to the idea of a relationship. Someone else in the group then stated that breaking something makes it hard to mend so that means that love is delicate.  This was then furthered on by another member who said that some gifts can be basic and we often use them to try and make up with someone but really it is a fake way of dealing with it.

As you can imagine I was so impressed by these responses.  One of my favourite things about teaching is when a pupil says something that I wasn’t thinking of, or makes me look at something in a different way.  The statements seemed to give the pupils confidence and many of them were saying things like ‘well clearly that isn’t true’ and ‘I agree with that because…’  The statements seemed to give them fire in their belly and they wanted to challenge them and get their own point across.

The groups that had questions varied in their responses.  Rather than saying ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree’ their answers were much more timid and unsure.   Rather than challenging the questions they were trying to find a ‘right’ answer.  For example one of the questions was ‘how is love portrayed in a positive way throughout?’ rather than ‘love is portrayed in a positive way throughout’.  After discussing this question with a group they all focused on the positive side of love, for example the wedding and promising light.  Not one of them challenged the idea that love might be explored in different ways, however those with the statement did. One ‘statement’ group discussed the idea of feeling trapped in a relationship and the confusion that being with someone can cause.  This then grew into the idea of nothing being perfect and having to work at something otherwise it won’t work.

This was a really interesting activity and will definitely the way I approach group work in the future.  To finish pupils gave a short response to the poem and I immediately noticed the confidence in those that had been given statements.  Their discussion with their group had developed their thinking and curiosity and this came across in what they felt was significant in the poem.  For a first reading I felt really proud of what the pupils managed to achieve in 50 minutes. I am sure that after a few more discussions their thoughts will develop and grow – I really hope they do.

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