Teaching Narrative writing part two: slow and seductive modelling.

24 May 2017

Busy London

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Samuel Johnson

A quick confession that would have Mr Johnson spinning in his grave: I left London. Nearly half a decade was enough for me, a wonderful city but one that can indeed leave you rather “tired”.  As a humble Highlander whose childhood involved rather a lot of greenery, silence and space for football frolics there was one place that filled me with dread: Oxford Street. To be fair, it did regularly get into a heated battle with any form of London public transport for top anti London spot. I ended up running the three miles to work every day and the three miles back to avoid any dalliances with tubes or buses. No sack of marking was too large to haul into bags and stumble home with. We shall return to that gargantuan beast that is Oxford Street shortly…

At the start of the term I wrote about teaching narrative using a range of stimulus with my Year 10 group. Five weeks later and I still feel that narrative writing is very difficult to actively “teach”. Despite some excellent blogs and resources out there (Mark Robert’s posts on teaching students to avoid cliches are excellent) there are so many challenges, especially if your customers are not particularly avid readers (despite endless cajoling!)

This half term was interspersed with a parent’s evening for this group. My opening gambit is always an entertaining variation of: “So, how are you finding things in English at the moment Geraldina?” Normally this elicits an embarrassed grunt, or perhaps a “fine” if the young person is feeling particularly effusive. This time it opened up a whole can of worms (apologies Mark):

“Narrative writing is impossible” x 4

“I find it so difficult to structure writing” x 5

“I have no imagination” x 4

“I can’t think of anything to write about” x 6

“Narrative writing, ahhhhhhhh!” (followed by sprinting out of the room in floods of manic tears) x 0

Ah, clearly a solution is needed. The most repetitive lament was about knowing how to structure ideas and how to sustain a piece of writing over the scope of five hundred words. Now I thought I had done lots of modelling over the four weeks preceding these narratherapy sessions. That was until I read this excellent post from Shaun Allison in which the school’s head of science, Steph Temple, runs a session on the value of modelling.  This part particularly struck me:

Steph then went on to describe two different methods of procedural modelling – modelling to students how to work out empirical formula.   Firstly, the method that a number of inexperienced teachers or teachers who are lacking confidence about the subject matter use, simply putting a prepared worked example up on the board. The problem with this approach is that it misses the narrative behind the steps – and you’re not actually modelling – you are just showing a finished product.

I had shared lots and lots of quality writing with students but I was missing the reasoning behind the steps. I wasn’t deconstructing the writing process in enough detail to give them confidence to apply to their own writing. The issue was that it was all too quick; I was not assisting them in the process of thinking about how to build in our ‘narrafesto’ of key narrative writing features we decided on at the start of the term. They had a go at writing a number of five hundred word pieces with some solid enough results, but nothing that sparkled with any originality.

Time to embrace the slow and seductive modelling process.

Welcome back to Oxford Street. A few years ago, after being dragged around Oxford Street by my wife yet again, I penned this fictitious (some students have cried “masterpiece”) account of a chap having to pay a horrifying visit to Oxford Street on Christmas Eve A-walk-through-Oxford-Street-model-answer (1) to purchase a gift for his partner. This was not going to be yet another “throw a model at them and hope for some osmosis style absorption” of how to write a narrative. Nay – they were going to become the agents of the story. This story would seductively become theirs – alongside walking slowly through my thought process. The first step was to fold the narrative into three distinct sections, so that the students had to pause at the moment the fold occurred- unaware of how the narrative would progress. At the pause they would become agents of the story – continuing the narrative and trying to mirror style and tone. Importantly there challenge was to apply all of the work we had done on narrative writing – becoming a way to celebrate and increase their confidence in narrative writing.

First the students were instructed to draft an engaging opening paragraph. All they were provided with was the opening line, the time period and context about my thoughts and feelings about London and Oxford Street. Students always enjoy a glimpse into a personal world beneath the teacher mask: “You lived somewhere other than Newcastle!”, they cried in mock horror tones. It is helpful also in getting them to think about how they can employ their own experience in the art of narrative writing, often a passport to much better writing:

“Released from the Oxford Circus Station underground I am…”

After this the students had to share in their groups and nominate the most engaging opening. I then read my example. Each time we talked about my example we would annotate it, dissecting the features used and looking at how I am trying to build atmosphere and reader interest (alongside being picky about my writing – always the section they enjoy far too much). This enabled me to talk through what I was seeking to achieve and elaborate on points the class might make:

Oxford Street

The second stage involved the students taking on the narrative direction to attempt to describe characters in detail. Despite spending time with Dickens and a range of others this term, they still haven’t quite grasped how to generate interesting character portraits.  This involved pausing the narrative at a section in which our plucky protagonist finds a space to observe the manic street around him:

“Finally: a gap…”

Their focus was to describe a  character or characters, looking at building a picture of the street around them. This was followed by reflection on my example and sharing of theirs. Spreading this over two lessons meant that I could also give them time to reflect on their own descriptions after reading mine and others – encouraging the art of proof reading and careful editing. We then introduced some dialogue into the narrative. Again this paused on this line:

“It is the diversity that strikes me as I watch the faces pass me: every nation, every colour, every age”

Groups then shared and discussed how effectively the dialogue had been introduced and how it had moved forward the narrative. I shared my example and we moved towards the end of the narrative. We discussed the various ways in which we could close this narrative. They then drafted their own example and compared this to my own. Their examples at this stage were depressingly better than mine: result. We had therefore deconstructed the journey of a five hundred word narrative over two lessons, looking at how to work on tone, pace, dialogue, description, openings and endings.

It was important that the students could then transfer this new confidence into some of their own writing. I gave them a series of similar titles: ‘The Journey’, ‘The Station’ or write a narrative with the opening line: “released from… or Why, why, why did I… to write their own five hundred word versions at home, trying to build in the work we had completed in the two lessons above.

It is easy to over complicate teaching writing, and my attempts  over the past few weeks have managed to leave students with less clarity about how to write narratives effectively. At the end of the two lessons I asked for some feedback and overall the students were positive about having more clarity and knowing when to add different features of narrative writing into their writing. Interestingly, this little slow and seductive narrative experiment was aligned with some of the things I have been reading this week.  ‘Simplicity’ by Edward De Bono highlights the merits in looking for the simple solution, rather than my attempts to overload students with a wide range of examples and time to write without proper understanding:

“There is always the possibility that there is a simpler way to do something. Even if that is not always the case it is worth investing some thinking time and creative effort in trying to find a simpler approach.” pg 20.

The fascinating read ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ by Daniel T Willingham talks about the value of problem solving for young people. It is always a challenge to apply this to English teaching, but the unravelling of a model answer and giving student’s ownership over its direction is one way to enable this: they have to solve the problem of the narrative direction.  By seeing the fruits of their direction of the narrative they could go some way in achieving the following:

“Any teacher knows that there are lots of reasons that a child might or might not enjoy school. From a cognitive perspective, an important factor is whether or not a student consistently experiences the pleasurable rush of solving a problem.” pg 15

Speed induced model answers will not provide a solution to providing clarity for young people about how to write. In many ways it can have the adverse impact: intimidating them into believing the art of the narrative is impossible and reaffirming the narratherapy that my parent’s evening merged into. Slow, seductive and deliberate investment of time in model answers can demystify the writing process for young people – showing them they can indeed write effectively.

Thank you for reading, enjoy your half term. Rather ironically I’m off to London for a few days (public transport will not be involved).

london calling


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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