Summer term experiments: Year 10, extracts and creative writing.

08 Jun 2018

“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” Oliver Sacks ‘Gratitude.’

The sun is shining, exams are (finally) coming to a close and there are now glimpses of time available to think and be creative in the classroom. My low set Year 10 now need some serious investment of this time, energy and effort. This group of twenty students are generally a delightful enough bunch, but struggle with both reading and writing and need pushing to avoid slipping into laziness and apathy. This half term is a time to recap on topics explored so far this year, and one in which I hope to do lots of reading work with them.

The excellent and comprehensive ‘Thinking Reading’ by James and Dianne Murphy has informed lots of my work with this group this term. The authors highlight the importance of frequent and regular reading in lessons: “As teachers, we often do not appreciate that in order to get a student to mastery, they may need a great deal of practice.” This half term every lesson will have some aspect of reading involved, as I try to build this groups confidence and skill in reading.

I have written before, in this review of Andy Tharby’s brilliant ‘Making Every English Lesson Count’ on my slightly unhealthy Oliver Sacks’ obsession. During half term I read ‘An Anthropologist on Mars,’ a remarkable collection of seven case studies of patients with particularly unusual afflictions. This review New York Times captures some of the power of Sacks writing:

“Dr. Sacks conjures up his subjects’ lives with enormous compassion and insight, writing simultaneously as doctor and metaphysician, scientist and father confessor. In these essays (which originally appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books), he not only gives the reader a succinct historical understanding of various afflictions — autism, temporal lobe epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, etc. — but also communicates the practical, emotional and spiritual consequences of those afflictions on particular individuals.”

I read one particular case study and had that rather wonderful jolt of inspiration: it was calling out for an English lesson. ‘The Case of the Colourblind Painter’ The case of the colourblind printer describes the story of a successful sixty five year artist, who is hit by a car and subsequently loses colour in his vision. Sacks then documents the individual’s struggle to come to terms with his loss of identity as an artist.

Students entered to the question and some images: What would life be like if you were completely colour-blind and the world was in black and white? After some discussion this was then followed by the second question: What would life be like if you were an artist and became colour-blind? They collected a list of words related to both questions in their books, and I added in some of my own that I explained they would use later for a piece of narrative writing: monotony, lifeless, dreary, depressing, gloomy, disheartening, tedium, dreariness, lacklustre.

Then I showed them the Sacks’ book and explained its content. I genuinely feel that in terms of ‘engagement’ in English lessons, there is nothing more powerful than showing students a book you are reading, and explaining that while reading it you thought that they would find it interesting/fascinating/enjoy it. It models both a passion for your subject and a genuine interest in the young people in front of you. Plus to be fair, no one else is likely to listen to me harping on about Oliver Sacks’ qualities as a nuanced writer who says more about the human condition than most novelists. Sorry – off on a Sacks ramble again.

I gave them some background to  Sacks (his middle name was Wolf. Beyond impressive). Then, as a lead in to his career and relationship with his patients, I played them this trailer to the film version of ‘Awakenings’, which would make another excellent stimulus for narrative writing.

My plan is in each lesson this term they have some kind of reading to complete. As James and Dianne Murphy highlight: “Within the structure of the classroom, even short pieces of reading on a daily basis are useful. In addition to increasing the number of practice opportunities for students, it is also useful to signal to them that reading is an essential and unavoidable part of daily life”.

I shared the first page of this extract  from the story them: Extract for painter the letter from Jonathan to Sacks, outlining his condition. This was accompanied with the simple retrieval question: List five things you learn about the painter. The fact we had gone through the introductory aspects to the lesson meant they had much more of a grasp of the issues surrounding the case, and could confidently pick out the key information. The hierarchy of challenge – starting with simple retrieval –  all helps in motivating them and showing them they can cope with the challenging reading material.

This led into the second more difficult question: how does the writer show the feelings of Jonathan? Again to help focus their reading they had to highlight key quotations they would use to answer as they read. They then collated a list of ten quotations in their book, which they had to tick off when they answered the question after we talked about my model opening. All very simple and designed to walk them through the structure of answering the questions;

The writer uses “a time of agitation” to highlight the concern and unease he feels. The use of “desperation” shows how concerned Jonathan is feeling and the horror of his situation.

Then for the fun part. This group really struggle with writing narratives, they find it difficult to build any meaningful characters or structure a narrative response. As reluctant readers this is to be expected. My plan was to use this stimulus to walk them through the different aspects of narrative writing. In this first lesson I only wanted to focus on the opening paragraph, again helping them to feel confident about how to open a narrative with impact. They had this task:

Write the opening of a narrative from Jonathan’s point of view, after the accident. Use one of the following opening lines if you want:
Life will never be the same again…
My life as an artist is over…
When I left my house two weeks ago, I didn’t realise how much my life would change…
Colour: it has been everything to me…
In lesson number two, I wanted to look at the tension and drama question with them, so used this extract How is the extract from from H.G Well’s  short story ‘The Country of the Blind’. They came in to the title and this rather unsettling image, which they had to link back to the Oliver Sacks’ extract and make predictions about the new text:

Then we looked at the opening paragraph, again specifying words and mini phrases that helped to build tension:

“Three hundred miles and more from Chimborazo, one hundred from the snows of Cotopaxi, in the wildest wastes of Ecuador’s Andes, there lies that mysterious mountain valley, cut off from all the world of men, the Country of the Blind…”

After giving them a brief plot overview, we read and discussed this extract, when the protagonist first stumbles across the individuals. How is the extract from. I am also following the guidance in ‘Thinking Reading’ about encouraging students to read aloud on an individual basis, now taking regular opportunities to get students in this group to read to me as I circulate the class. It is hugely revealing about the areas they struggle with, and I think it is helping them to become more confident in their reading. They completed a tension tracker in their books, looking at plot/structural aspects that build tension and writing down key quotations. After briefly comparing the similarities/differences between the two texts we returned to the narrative focus on the colour-blind painter.

I wanted them to have a very structured plan to complete for this narrative, so shared this Narrative Plan with them. The idea is to help them to grow in confidence in completing a five hundred word coherent story. I wrote my own paragraph and went over this with them before they started writing, building in the key vocabulary from our first lesson. I am trying to consciously plan for this more now, as ‘Thinking Reading’ highlights, it takes systematic repeated exposure to words to help students retain them.

Another day begins, another day of monotonous tedium. As I pull back the curtains the black and white endless expanse seems to mock me deliberately. How will I ever find creativity again? My former masterpieces have now been locked away, I can no longer have them near me. They are nothing but a reminder of how dreary life has now become.

The fact that in the course of this week the students have completed some challenging reading and a piece of narrative writing based on the texts, was something we could celebrate at the end of the lesson today. Thanks for reading, arguably the finest Sacks’ quotation to close:

Image result for oliver sacks quotations


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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