Teaching Narrative writing at GCSE
27 Apr 2017
“Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.”
Philip Larkin ‘Talking in Bed’.
The new term begins: the Year 10 students eagerly dive into the classroom, well rested and primed for the next five weeks. Their newly bronzed faces speak only of a desire to leap beyond the narrow constraints of their target grades; their hands reach eagerly for their pens…
“What on earth will be our latest English adventure?”, one particularly earnest chap eagerly whispers to his similarly entranced chum. Some gasp with fear, some even shout with anticipation or laugh with exhilaration as the mystery is unveiled like an ornate statue… With an elongated hand gesture, coupled with dramatic sound effects and hushed silence, I reveal with Gandalf style gravitas: “This term, Year 10, you will be tackling writing narratives.”
It has been scientifically proven that delusion is vital in order to finish the week feeling one’s work is meaningful. The above may not have happened quite as described. Quite. Regardless of its reception, Year 10 will be facing the narrachallenge this term: five weeks to hone their ability to become sophisticated writers of the narrative art.
To wet the proverbial narrative appetite I had in fact introduced this on the last day of term and set them a challenge over the holiday to write their first five hundred word narrative. There was clearly an ulterior motive here: I want to see what the quality of their writing is like straight away at the start of the term. Scrutinising this in the first week will inform all my planning for the five weeks – otherwise everything is guess work.
Now, I am by no means an art connoisseur (please take that very, very literally). Yet I do profess to a penchant for Edward Hopper’s paintings. They are, by nature of their design, also wonderful to use as inspiration for writing tasks. As Hopper himself liked to respond to questions about his art: “The whole answer is there on the canvas.” That vivid realism, combined with the suggestiveness and vulnerability of the art means that they are ripe for a narrative introduction (perhaps I have missed my calling as an art critic: artgratitude.co.uk?)
The students were told at the start of the lesson they would see three different stimulus and have to write the opening to a narrative after each one. There was no rules whatsoever for the narrative, this was their opportunity to demonstrate what they could do. Selfishly it was also a means to seek to interest them in the creative license required for good and original narrative writing. After each stimulus we would come up with a series of questions to get their narraminds’ thinking. Then with a timer on the board they would construct their opening. I then nipped around and picked out my favourite to share with the class.
Stimulus one was Hopper’s most famous painting: ‘Nighthawks.’It is a painting that has wonderful potential for a narrative adventure. Why are these characters in ‘Phillies’ in the dead of the night? Who are they? What are their backgrounds? What unites them at this spot? What is the relationship between them? What is life like for our barman? The questions abound:
Stimulus two was the Hopper painting ‘A room in New York.’ I combined this with a reading of Larkin’s ‘Talking in Bed’ (trying to build in as many opportunities to share and discuss poetry with this group as possible) We had an interesting discussion afterwards about the nature of the relationship between the characters; why the distance? Why the vulnerability of the female protagonist? Why the red dress? What has gone wrong in this relationship? Why is he so deeply engrossed in the newspaper?
Stimulus three was another of my favourite creative writing pointers. It is a beautiful seven minute film called ‘Paper Memories’ that explores a man seeking to come to terms with the loss of his wife. While the Hopper paintings are good for helping students to capture moments in detail and the nuances of situations, this is great for formulating a character based narrative:
After composing three different openings the students then had to reflect on the one one they felt had the most potential for an extended narrative. This led to interesting opening dialogue about what a good narrative should constitute, something we will reflect more on throughout this term. Their job over Easter was to plan out and complete the narrative to around five hundred words.
On the first lesson back the students filled out a post it note of the challenges they faced when composing their narrative. I want to build in more of this reflection time this term, in part inspired by reading this in ‘Make it Stick’ by Peter C Brown, Henry L Roediger and Mark A McDaniel:
“Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualising and mentally rehearsing what you might do different next time” pg 27
By doing this short activity they are starting to begin the process of reflecting on what makes good writing. This will be one of main areas to focus on this term: how to develop strategies to assist in growing this group as autonomous writers. We then stuck these on the main board and discussed them. Helpful for them to share thoughts and difficulties, and helpful for me to inform planning for the five weeks. Here is one:
This is when we started to come up with our class Narrafesto: the criteria we will have for writing narratives throughout the next five weeks. This will grow and develop throughout the term as they become more nuanced in their understanding of narrative writing. We then followed this with the Gallery style assessment that I have written about here, inspired by reading Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison’s excellent ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ . The first stage of this is the ‘Pernickety Proof Read’, another element I am determined to focus more on this term. This involves a careful, methodical proof read of the work. J.K Rowling’s scribbled changes always works for a good validation of the art of crafting writing (especially for those meticulous young people who gasp in horror at the thought of crossing out something in their books):
A part of this pernickety proof read is the act of deciding which paragraph is their strongest and which is their weakest and validating why they have been chosen. This process is again helpful in ensuring they understand exactly when their writing is at its best. They then did the gallery assessment and wrote feedback about various areas. We finished this first lesson by sharing some examples of strongest paragraphs: modelling to the group the potential of the writing in the room.
Now to the marking. A five minute read of each response was my focus, to check for writer’s potential and to make a list of areas to focus on for the next five weeks. It was helpful in telling me who has real writing potential (some, pleasingly!) and who will I need to support over the next five weeks. I then wanted to work on some of the targets with them, using their piece of writing from the holidays as a starting point. The first target was working on how to open a narrative effectively. We did an opening mind map about the contrasting ways you could open a narrative. I then bored them into submission by filling them in with progress in the ‘A-Z of literature challenge’ and waxing lyrical about the majesty of Graham Greene for quite some time. Having read ‘Brighton Rock’ and ‘The End of the Affair’ in the holidays I read them the opening lines of both:
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” ‘Brighton Rock’
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” ‘The End of the Affair’
We then debated which was most effective and explored why. This will be a focus for the next five weeks: to share lots of examples of engaging writing and seek to encourage them to deconstruct them. I will also be sharing lots of my own writing with the students and writing with them in class (my personal favourite is this post on a using a true account of a disastrous robbery in the swimming pool changing rooms with students). Students then did an “opening walk” around the room, exploring the various openings of their chums. At the end of the five minutes they had to stand beside the opening they found most engaging and be prepared to explain why this was their chosen opening. This was useful in expanding their dialogue about what makes interesting openings and showing them lots of contrasting examples.
We then went back to their weakest paragraphs. We looked at some examples and went through how to develop them together on the board. Off they then went to develop them further. They then looked back at their first drafts and explained why the newest draft was improved. This process of drafting and redrafting slowly and methodically will be a focus of our work this term.
This initial process with students’ writing has a number of benefits for me as their class teacher: it means like a sponge I am soaking up information to inform my action plan for the term; it results in homework being taken seriously by the students as it is carefully deconstructed in lessons; it ensures that there is impact from the time invested in marking; it means that there is no real planning needed for the lessons themselves – it is all based on the writing. Now I just need to go away and angst about how to best teach them about effective dialogue, creating suspense, creating realistic characters, capturing description in more detail and how to successfully end a narrative. Cue nervous cough.
Thanks for reading. Rather than the above, I like the idea of this Hopper painting for the rest of the bank holiday weekend…