Yesterday I travelled, along with approximately 1599 other English teachers, to the Big Smoke to attend my first PiXL English conference. I doubt there has ever been so many English teachers all in one room which was quite something in itself* (even if parallels were drawn to that scene in ‘The Witches’).
Every conference gets its own metaphorical title; previously the organisers have gone with ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Oh Brave New World’. This time, however, they went with ‘Touching the Void’. The intention, of course, was for us to make the connection with mountain climbing but, call me puerile, to me it sounded a little… ahem… rude. I wonder what they will go with next – perhaps ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ or ‘Country Matters’?
In the first keynote speech, Rachel Johnson explored some of the lessons we might learn from mountain climbing (e.g. it’s difficult to sleep when you’re hanging off a cliff’s edge) and characterised PiXL as our Sherpa guiding us through the climb and making things a bit easier. Lindsay Skinner followed with the best title I’ve seen for a keynote yet: Tracking in the Year of Doom. Lindsay made the point that, as English teachers, we are responsible for 30% of Progress 8 and consequently we are now the single most important subject in the school. She also shared this very concerning table showing how many students will no longer be achieving a good pass.
If we didn’t already know it, the message is very clear: this mountain of a year is likely going to end with tens of thousands of our year 11s failing to get to base camp. It makes for sobering reading.
Main Takeaways from ‘Approaches to the most difficult questions (AQA)’ with Jo Heathcote
Jo focused on Paper 2 Questions 2 and 4.
This is an AO1 task and is a test of basic comprehension – something which Jo reminded us students have been doing since Key Stage 1. This is clear when you look at the mark scheme:
The key words: ‘inference’, ‘reference’ and ‘difference’ should guide how we teach students to approach this question.
Example Curve question: You need to refer to both source A and source B for this question. The places which Alain de Botton and Mary Shelley visit are very different. Use details from both sources to write a summary of the differences.
Jo gave some great advice that I’ll be taking back to my team:
- Guide students to summarise their ideas using clear statements of the differences, supporting quotations and inferences to show their understanding.
- Give students the confidence to put their pen down and think before they start planning and then writing their answer.
- With practice questions, get students to list the differences – they’ll soon find that there’s loads e.g. one is a quiet place and one is a town.
- Ensure that students use the focus of the question in their answer e.g. place.
- With students who are struggling, work on the basics by getting them to make a statement supported by a quotation e.g. Alain de Botton visits a quiet place. He tells us, ‘It was as quiet as a library’.
- With more confident students, work on developing inferences e.g. The place where Alain de Botton is staying is very quiet. He tells us it is ‘as quiet as a library’. This could suggest it is very peaceful but also perhaps that there is very little happening there.
- For our most able students we need to work on encouraging them to make perceptive inferences – seeing things others might not.
- Remember Statement + Quotations + Inferences.
- This is NOT a comparison question.
- This is NOT a language analysis question.
Unlike Q2, this is a comparison question and is about the writer though not just about what the writer is doing but what they are thinking, feeling, imagining and experiencing. It’s about the methods they use to show those thoughts, feelings, imaginings and experiences.
The key words ‘compare’, ‘methods’, ‘textual detail’ and ‘perspectives’ should, again, guide how we teach students to approach this question.
Jo’s great advice for Q4:
- Just because the question says ‘whole of the source’, the students should NOT feel they need to write about everything that is there – they need to be selective. Selection is the key to success in the time that students have to answer this question.
- Students should ask themselves: What is the writer’s intention in each text? What message is each writer trying to give me?
- Challenge students to boil down each text to one quotation that encapsulates what the writer is trying to say. Jo suggested blowing the source up to A3 so that students can cut out their ‘boiled down’ quotation (I’ll be doing this next week).
- When they’ve boiled down the text to a quotation students should ask what the writer is thinking, feeling and experiencing before considering HOW the writer shows those thoughts, feelings and experiences.
- For students who are struggling with this question, work on getting students to build their response using one well-selected quotation from each text.
- More able students can work with two quotations form each text whilst our most able students will look for subtle differences and shifts in tone.
The clarification on these two questions was really helpful and I’ve come away with a practical activity I’ll be using with my students next week to help build their confidence with some of the more tricky questions they’ll be faced with this Summer. Thank you Jo!
Main Takeaways from ‘Approaches to writing for the most able’ with Lindsay Skinner
I’ve seen Lindsay speak a couple of times now – most recently at #TLT16 – and I always enjoy her presentations and come away with ideas I want to use in the classroom. Here’s a few of her approaches to teaching writing for the most able:
- For the narrative questions, teach students the narrative arc and get them planning answers to a variety of questions. I’m sure my students will enjoying planning my death in a car crash very soon too… I love Lindsay’s challenge to her students of, ‘make it matter if I die’.
- Students tend to get their understanding of narrative from longer forms e.g. films and novels. A good thing to do might be to get them to find short animations to look at condensed narrative forms e.g. ‘The Present’ with its clever moment of revelation.
- Ensure students don’t rant in their viewpoint writing – they ought to give strategies and be deferential to their audience when appropriate.
- DON’T start viewpoint writing with a rhetorical question.
- Teach students to be subtle and nuanced – it’s OK to tell students that animal metaphors such as, ‘His heart was racing like a cheetah’ are RUBBISH! Students should write imagery that is appropriate to the tone and should aim for originality.
- Teach students what the point of a simile or metaphor is (to create atmosphere) and then explore HOW to create that atmosphere.
- Move students away from their fixation on including particular devices and instead focus their attention of the effect they want to achieve and HOW they might do that.
- Get students to rank similes and metaphors for the same image to evaluate which are the most effective.
All in all it was a really useful day and I’ve come away with a lot to think about and some new strategies to use in the classroom and share with my team. It was also really nice, albeit brief, to catch up with some of my Twitter pals. I’m looking forward to the next PiXL English Conference already.
* I’m still waiting for a definitive answer on what the collective noun is for a group of English teachers. Current suggestions include… an anthology, a worry, a hope, a grammar, a poem, a novel, an excellence, a rhyme and a scuttle (thanks to @LPLFlippedEng, @FionaFellows, @SimonMurray2012, @bellmanclaire and @heymrshallahan).