Developing English Language confidence with ‘127 Hours’

18 Jan 2018

“When I look up, the backlit stone falling toward my head consumes the sky.”

‘127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ by Aron Ralston (2004). 

I teach one lesson a week with a Year 9 group of thirteen students. There are twelve boys and one female student. The lesson is called ‘Secure’, with the idea that it boosts the English skills of nominated students who could do with an additional focus on their English skills. There are lots of aspects for me to consider here: the students know they have been put forward to do these sessions; their confidence and even enjoyment in English may not perhaps be as high as it could be; there are a range of basic skills that they need to work on. The main issue is these lessons have the whiff of dreaded intervention about them, with students not giving them the degree of focus they might in their conventional English lessons. Clearly I want them to provide a useful focus on key skills that will help them to be confident moving towards GCSE. I also want them to be interested in the creative possibilities and not crush any enthusiasm they might have for English.

Step into the fold the excellent film and book ‘127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ by Aron Ralston. While nothing very exciting or revolutionary, this short post is on how I used the text with them today and how I plan to use it over the next couple of weeks. This process on reflecting on lessons is one I find very useful about blogging, giving me the time and scope to think about what did I do that worked and how might I change things when I come back to this in the future.

The students entered with some images from the film and the question on the board: What impression do you get of Aron Ralston from the images and opening of the film? Impression questions are currently stumping my Year 10 group, they struggle to appreciate the nuances of character development and how characters are created. We watched this clip and they wrote down some bullet points about the kind of individual they felt he might be.

In came some of our vocabulary for the lesson: impulsive, adventurous, eccentric being among them as they led with some points. They then individually wrote a few sentences using these prompts:

My initial impression of Aron is…

In my view Aron is…

I respond to Aron initially with…

The impression of Aron is generated by…

At this point they were fairly interested about the character and the plot and we then watched clip number two:

Using this clip led into a discussion about how you could write about it to create tension, I am trying to do much more of these become the writer type tasks this term, encouraging them to think and immerse themselves in a writers’ point of view. We then looked at our “GCSE style” question that we would plan out and unpick together: How does the writer make the extract tense and dramatic? Linking into our first discussion, we had generic dialogue about how a writer might make something tense and dramatic, giving them a focus on the board to then employ when they looked through the text. We then read through this extract slowly together:

Extract from ‘127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ by Aron Ralston (2004), an American climber. Ralston goes hiking and climbing in a canyon. While climbing down a narrow canyon, a boulder crushed his right hand against the canyon wall. He had not informed anyone of his hiking plans.

Just below the ledge where I’m standing is a stone the size of a large bus tyre, stuck fast in the channel between the walls, a few feet out from the lip. If I can step onto it, then I’ll have a nine-foot height to descend, less than that of the first overhang. I’ll dangle off the stone, then take a short fall onto the rounded rocks piled on the canyon floor. Stemming across the canyon at the lip of the dropoff, with one foot and one hand on each of the walls, I traverse out to the stone. I press my back against the south wall and lock my left knee, which pushes my foot tight against the north wall. With my right foot, I kick at the boulder to test how stuck it is. It’s jammed tightly enough to hold my weight. I lower myself from the chimneying position and step onto the stone. It supports me but teeters slightly. After confirming that I don’t want to chimney down from the stone’s height, I squat and grip the rear of the lodged boulder, turning to face back up canyon. Sliding my belly over the front edge, I can lower myself and hang from my fully extended arms, akin to climbing down from the roof of a house.

As I dangle, I feel the stone respond to my adjusting grip with a scraping quake as my body’s weight applies enough torque to disturb it from its position.

Instantly, I know this is trouble, and instinctively, I let go of the rotating boulder to land on the round rocks below. When I look up, the backlit stone falling toward my head consumes the sky. Fear shoots my hands over my head. I can’t move backward or I’ll fall over a small ledge. My only hope is to push off the falling rock and get my head out of its way.

The next three seconds play out at a tenth of their normal speed. Time dilates, as if I’m 20 dreaming, and my reactions decelerate. In slow motion: The rock smashes my left hand against the south wall; my eyes register the collision, and I yank my left arm back as the rock ricochets; the boulder then crushes my right hand and ensnares my right arm at the wrist, palm in, thumb up, fingers extended; the rock slides another foot down the wall with my arm in tow, tearing the skin off the lateral side of my forearm. Then silence.

My disbelief paralyses me temporarily as I stare at the sight of my arm vanishing into an implausibly small gap between the fallen boulder and the canyon wall. Within moments, my nervous system’s pain response overcomes the initial shock. Good Christ, my hand. The flaring agony throws me into a panic.

The idea was that we would create a mark scheme on the PowerPoint, with me typing while they identified points. They then copied this into their books and could use this as a checklist to work through questions. This dialogue last a good twenty minutes, but meant that I could really prompt them to think about all the skills they will need to to demonstrate with confidence and speed at GCSE.

Year 9 in particular has to be a year in which students are immersed in talking about their reading and beginning to develop more of an understanding of a writer’s craft. Having written last week about the need for students to consider how a text is structured in more detail, I also wanted them to consider how the text is developed. In the first paragraph I made the quotations bold to focus their thinking on particularly useful evidence, then expected them to come up with the ideas as we went through. We used the detailed and factual opening paragraph to discuss how it is then contrasted later on in the extract with the feeling of panic. It is a great extract that is packed full of things they could talk about, good for a focus on language rather than too much of a fixation on techniques used by the writer. The PowerPoint slide looked like this:

  1. “Large bus tyre” indicates the significance of the rock and its danger.
  2. “dangle” verb highlights how precarious (trying to build vocabulary throughout the discussion) his position is.
  3. “teeters slightly” builds fear as we see that the rock is not secure.
  4. “instantly I know this is trouble” highlights the realisation that he is in real danger.
  5.  “stone falling toward my head consumes the sky” further evidence of the significant size of the rock.
  6. “The rock smashes my left hand”, verb “smashes” demonstrates the powerful impact.
  7. “crushes my right hand,” more verbs to illustrate the pain he suffers from and generate tension.
  8. “Then silence,” short sentence to illustrate shock at his predicament and contrast the violent impact.
  9. “paralyses me temporarily”, conveys feelings of fear
  10. “flaring agony throws me into a panic”, concludes extract with emotions of panic.

I then wrote the opening with them on the board and asked them to write as I did. This collaborative process helped them to focus on key targets: using the writer, building in a range of evidence, looking at word level points. They then set off with a timer on to see how many of the ten points they could cover. There was a competitive edge to this, to see if they could cover a wide range of points without any waffle. The ticked off the quotations they had managed to build into their answer as they wrote, and I circulated with the clear message that I was looking at their literacy skills.

There are things I would do differently about this lesson: it was possibly too scaffolded for them and they should have initially read through the text independently. Reading over their answers there was a sense of some of them merely copying what they had in their checklists, with not much independent engagement with the writer’s methods. What it hopefully did engender, however, was that sense of confidence that they need to develop. They all covered between six and ten quotations in the time available and had a sense of completing a GCSE answer. With these groups, as Dave Grimmett writes excellently on his series of posts on motivation in lower attaining students, engendering a sense of pride is a huge part of the battle:

“Yes, we do have to set challenge, and teach to the top – of course we do, but we also have to be careful not to overload, and have to find regular opportunities, more than ever for lower attaining students, to succeed in the work which is a fundamental contributor to pride.”

Next week we will return to the text and use it is inspiration for a piece of narrative writing called ‘The Catastrophe’. Students will write a retrospective narrative of Ralston’s adventure, ending on the cliff hanger of his arm stuck in the rock. It will cover the morning itself, the cycle that we watched the clip of and the fall. The idea with this is to help overcome the blanks that students have with narrative writing in regards to plot. The students will then write their own ‘The Catastrophe’ narrative based on their own personal experience (just another excuse for me to use my speedo swimming pool catastrophe narrative as a model answer!) Then week three will look at the guide writing style, with the students producing a guide to how to ensure you can keep safe when on adventures. Hours of fun. The other useful benefit is that this kind of resource can be used again and again, and already I have used the extract with a Year 11 revision session I ran this afternoon.

While it may not quite reach the levels of Mr Ralston’s challenge in removing himself from his difficult predicament, I am currently running 210 miles in January to support the excellent North-East charity Pop-up-Gym, which supports people with disabilities. Any support for this very worthy cause would be hugely appreciated:

Thanks for reading. Off for a run (only 85 miles to go…)


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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