1. The rules of writing
I always tell students that there are no set rules for writing and they can write whatever they like. I don't subscribe to the notion that all good stories must have, for example, an attention-grabbing opening, a turning point, a twist at the end and an extended metaphor. Incorporating these into writing doesn't automatically mean a story works, and you will read wonderful writing follows none of these rules. Pupils should be aware of what they are, of course, and why and where they might choose to use them, but it shouldn't be prescriptive.
That said, there are two rules of writing that I encourage them to follow. These rules are: "show, don't tell" and "all adverbs must die". Not the most original rules, perhaps, but if kids can master them their writing becomes much more powerful.
For "show, don't tell", I display a selection of sentences that tell the reader something and ask the pupils to rewrite them in a way that shows the same information. For example, "the man was angry" could become, "the man clenched his fists and hissed beneath his breath". It's about unpacking the emotions and finding ways to let the reader see the story for themselves.
When teaching "all adverbs must die", I concentrate on the importance of giving the power to the verb. "I ran quickly" becomes "I sprinted". "I shouted loudly" becomes "I screamed". Once pupils realise the potential in this, they quickly kill adverbs and load the power of the action onto the verb.
Not the most original method I'll wager, but this is tried and tested. Pupils divide a page in their jotter and give each quarter the headings likes, dislikes, motivations and flaws. These need to be explained and discussed; I use Homer Simpson and Edward Cullen as models. What makes these complex and rich characters? What makes them get out of bed every morning? What stops them from achieving their ultimate goals in life? How would they react in various situations?
Once pupils have thought about these characters, I ask them to complete the page in their jotter with as many pieces of detail as they can for their own character. They swap with a partner and, using another person's character notes, write a monologue beginning with the line, "I lay away, unable to sleep, and all because…" What is this new character excited about, or scared of? What have they done or what will they have to do? This exercise is always busy, exciting and produces promising and complex pieces of writing.
3. Video clips
There's something a bit weird about the idea of being a writer; it's a vague, wishy-washy concept for students. They don't yet understand the hours of admin, self-promotion, editing, graft, grief and rejection that writers go through. Many pupls seem to think writers have great lives, are fabulously wealthy and sit around all day making up stories, all of which go on to be published without much bother at all. So I always like to find video clips of writers talking about writing, sharing the pain they've gone through, their thought processes and daily routines. If you can find video clips of a writer whose work you're using as a model or studying in class, then this can really help pupils to engage with their work.
YouTube is full of interviews with writers, recordings of book festival appearances and spoken-word performances. Being a Scottish teacher working in Scotland, I use of a suite of videos filmed and hosted by Education Scotland, which features a number of writers discussing their inspirations and motivations, how to create characters, how to write in genre and how to redraft. The videos are all around five minutes long which makes them excellent starter activities; you can find them here.
4. Narrative distance
This can be modelled in class by the teacher projecting their work onto the whiteboard. Most pupils assume that once they've chosen a narrative perspective and tense, their narrative voice will take care of itself. But with a little coaching and training, maybe we can hone their skills and abilities that much more.
Narrative distance is the proximity of a reader's experience to the character's thoughts. How close will we get? A close-up narrative would allow us to share the character's complete thought process, hear their heartbeat, feel their discomfort. A mid-distance narrative would give us key insights into pertinent thoughts the character has, but not bother us with every detail; we would see the character going into a coffee shop and have to surmise their mood and personality by observing how they react and interact. This is more of a film director's vantage point. And for a long-distance narrative, we only see the character from a distance – in the midst of other people, operating in a vast and complex society. We would come to understand them from the way they move through the world and the opinions that other characters have of them. It's a bird's eye view.
There is a lot in here, and mastering these narrative distances would take considerable effort and time. But if pupils could get to grips with them and become comfortable in zooming in and out on a story, then they will have developed some intricate and powerful writing abilities.
5. Story prompts
The oldest trick in the book, perhaps, but still a good one. Writing Prompts is an excellent website full of creative writing resources to use in class. I get pupils to choose one at random, and as they write, I write. It's important to set attainable goals for this – agree that by the end of five minutes everyone will have written 50 words, say, including the teacher.
Plug away at this and I always check the class for any strugglers at the end of regular intervals; if someone is stumped, I'll ask them what the problem is, what they tried to start writing at the beginning, what their last sentence is, and give them a couple of options for where to go next. By writing together it's possible to get a whole class writing happily, and at some stage they'll be content and confident enough with their stories to want to be let free to write without being asked for regular progress reports.
Alan Gillespie teaches English at an independent school in Glasgow. He writes stories and tweets at @afjgillespie
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Finally, technology is embedded into the structure of all we do. It’s part of how we research, how we capture information, and how we display our learning. It’s never an accessory tacked on at the end.
In my English classroom, this looks a lot different than in my biology and chemistry classrooms (which you can read about here). My English curriculum is largely skills-based, which provides a fair amount of flexibility. Many people ask me how I have the opportunities to do what I do in my classroom. My answer? It’s all in how you look at the curriculum.
MEETING CURRICULUM AND TEACHING GOALS
My curriculum states that I need to develop skills in 5 areas: reading, writing, viewing and representing, listening and speaking. The curriculum also suggests themes. Our grade 11 theme is childhood, but nowhere does it state whose childhood. So this year we read Patricia McCormick’s novel Sold, which chronicles the childhood, or more specifically the loss of childhood, in a young girl who is trafficked. A powerful story. This was the springboard into our unit on modern slavery and creating a social media campaign.
Whenever we begin a new inquiry unit, research is always involved. We start by sitting in a circle to talk through what we want, and need, to know about slavery in the contemporary world. From there the research begins. The first thing my students do is open a Google doc, access their Diigo or Delicious account, and sign into Symbaloo, a site that houses all of their favorite tools. We spend approximately one week on our initial research. Any more than this and students tend to become overwhelmed.
After researching, we come back together to discuss what needs to happen next. What is the best way to present our learning? What will be the most powerful? What do we want others to learn from us? Throughout this process, my students do most of the talking and leading. I tend to sit and listen, and at critical moments, draw out the nuances or similarities of what is being said. And when things aren’t working, sometimes I need to suggest a new direction.
This semester, we’ve chosen to create a social media campaign to raise awareness around modern slavery. This is the project-based part. It’s not enough for my students to learn about slavery, they need to do something with it, specifically “real world” projects that matter.
One of the most important things we can do is teach our students how to use social media wisely, and how social media can be used for social good. My students started by creating a Flickr feed, Facebook page, a YouTube account, a Tumblr blog, and a Twitter account.
They decided that visual representations of their knowledge would be the most powerful. So some of my students created photographs depicting images that they felt best represented modern trafficking. These photos were then edited in Picnik, and posted to our blog.
Teaching this way also allows me to teach real writing to my students. Before we started to create videos, my students looked at numerous YouTube videos about slavery. They focused on those they found powerful, and conversely, those that weren’t very effective. We analyzed the differences between the two. My students talked animatedly about how the powerful videos touched your emotions.
I grabbed a piece of paper and drew a triangle. On each tip I wrote one of three words: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. When you write for an audience, you can appeal to knowledge, emotion, or ethics — the Aristotelian triad. A few years ago I tried to teach this idea to a grade 12 class when we were studying essay writing. They didn’t get it. But in the context we were using, after comparing social media content, it made perfect sense to my grade 11 students. So we designed our videos with the triad in mind.
My students decided to create Common Craft-styled videos to educate viewers about slavery. These videos took hours. First, students needed to distill all of their “fact” knowledge into a compelling story. Then they needed to write the script, create paper characters, and finally begin to practice moving their papers on the whiteboard. My students soon discovered there is only a very small area to use on the whiteboard while filming these videos, otherwise you move out of view of the camera. In the end, it took hours to coordinate movement with script, film & then edit our videos. The remarkable thing is that these videos fulfilled many objectives across all 5 strands.
Here’s one example:
As part of this project, my students have also Skyped into classrooms to teach what they have learned, so that other students can begin this enormously important discussion in their own communities. This is the connected part. My students believe that what they have learned is valuable, for themselves and for others too. They also believe they have a role to play in teaching others.
My student are also creating a Museum Box, a project inspired by the work of Thomas Clarkson, who spent most of his adult life trying to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Clarkson carried a box to support his argument. The Museum Box site allows you to build an argument or description of an event, person or historical period by placing items in a virtual box. Students can display anything from a text file to a movie. My students will be using this platform to argue their thesis, rather than writing a traditional essay.
For our second novel, we’re reading The Secret Life of Bees. For this unit, my students are engaged in wiki work. In pairs, my students are responsible for identifying the major themes in each chapter, and how they are developed. The first week I model this skill, and throughout the novel I coach my students as necessary. They’re also responsible for posting and responding to the discussion questions for each chapter.
My students have started designing our curriculum units. Seriously. While transitioning to our current unit, we discussed the possibilities as a class. Both Dr. Seuss & Christmas literature were mentioned as possible study topics. But one student wasn’t sold on either.
“Could we do something entirely different? Something that you haven’t done before?”
“Sure. What are you thinking?”
She thought and then said, “What about a movie unit? Could we study movies of different genres and then analyze them for themes and other different features? Is that possible?”
I explained that, with the English curriculum, we have more flexibility than with chemistry or biology. In those subjects, I’m specifically told what content I need to teach. In English, the concern is mostly around teaching skills, although the curriculum does stipulate how many novels, short stories, poems, etc. we need to include.
I further explained the five “strands” that we use in English and that there are multiple skill objectives for each strand.
“So yes, it’s possible to do something with movies.”
I asked them to talk a little bit more about what it might look like. My students brainstormed various possibilities. Maybe dividing into groups to show clips from various genres. Each group would be responsible to facilitate the discussion around the analysis. Maybe creating a digital space to post movie critiques, and other connected classrooms could join us. And, of course, there would be writing involved too.
After hearing a number of ideas, and seeing a plan beginning to formulate, one of my students looked at me and said, “Can you help us create a unit plan for this?”
Wow. Never in a million years did I think my students would ever say those words. Another student remarked, “Yeah, I only know how to teach swimming lessons.”
I looked at him and said, “Well, it’s not that much different.” When he gets in the pool he doesn’t just splash around for 30 minutes. He knows exactly what he’s going in there to accomplish. Not only that, he knows what it looks like when someone has mastered the skill and when someone isn’t even close. He agreed. Curriculum & teaching is pretty much that. We need to know what our outcomes are, the content we’re using to get there, and what we’re using to show our learning.
My students are always a bit surprised to see what curriculum actually looks like. They pulled out the objectives we are meeting with this unit. They chose six genres that they will look at with films as diverse as The Princess Bride, A Time to Kill, and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. In groups they will analyze six elements in each film: themes, writing, character development, film techniques, setting and plot development.
Once students have watched the film, they will meet with their group to discuss their findings. A group summary of their findings will be posted to the wiki. Students will also write a short analysis rating the film, including their basis for doing so. Ratings will be published to the wiki.
The next day, there will be an in-class discussion of the movie. Each group will contribute their observations. From the list of movies chosen, students will need to write a longer critique, much like an essay.
Students are excited about this unit because they designed it around something of interest to them. I’m excited about this unit because film is the medium of the future, and our students need to be astute at critically evaluating it.
MY TEACHING, THEN AND NOW
Before the technology/constructivist shift in my classsroom, I would have taught all of this quite traditionally. We’d read books, answer questions, and then address those questions in class. I’d lecture a lot, with supplemental grammar lessons here and there, and I’d include some type of artistic project to achieve viewing and representing objectives. The whole design would have been extremely teacher centered. And at the end of it all, I’d hope they learned something about writing and thinking.
Instead, inquiry and technology are a natural part of our English classes. It’s what my students have come to expect and have started to design themselves. Instead, of saying, “hand in your assignments,” I say, “publish your assignments and send me the link.” They think about connecting and sharing their learning in the larger world.
That’s the 21st century difference.