Saturday, 23 February 2013

Units of work with overarching narratives

The council had decided it.  The beautiful village needed a bypass, and quickly.  Deaths on the main road had been occurring all too often, and it was time to act.  Three potential routes were established, and the villagers quickly decided on the route best for them, their families and their businesses.  Just as the contest between the routes  was getting fierce, the local vicar was killed in a hit and run incident.  There were rumours of murder…

So goes the storyline of a KS3 transactional writing/speaking unit of work that I have taught for several years.  Units of work that focus on the writing of news articles, letters, speeches and the like can be incredibly boring to teach and to learn from.  Endless lessons of writing different, meaningless letters to imaginary people can really wear down the motivation of even the happiest students, and are anathema to those who find school to be an annoyance.  I just couldn’t bear to put my students through this hell, so a few years back I trawled my imagination and dredged my memory for some way of making a unit of this type fun.  Year 8 English lessons from my own past swam into focus: a village, that every student is a ‘resident’ of, with careers, social anxieties, relationships, friendships and deep seated rivalries.  This was a unit of work I remembered well, delivered by my teacher of the time, Mr Fox.  And it was certainly memorable.  I barely remember any peers (apart from close friends) from my school days, but I certainly remember us all in the drama studio, acting our parts with gusto, arguing and back-biting about the pros and cons of Bypass Route A.  Happy days indeed, so it made eminent sense to steal this unit, give it some more flourishes and develop it for a full transactional writing unit.

The Village - drawn on MS Paint (I'm a masochist).
The reasons this unit work so well are two-fold.  One, it embeds character development into the scheme, giving the students open-ended opportunity to flesh out their villager, giving them traits, back-stories, motives and relationships.  This leads to very rich and detailed Speaking and Listening activities, and gives them an opportunity to add a very strong voice to their writing.  Two, it has an over-arching narrative: a story, that gives all of the written and spoken tasks a distinct purpose and flavour.  Yes, it is a fiction, and I imagine some would argue that transactional writing in a world of fiction is meaningless.  I would take issue with this, as the fictional world is grounded in reality and deals with real issues, but still: there is ample room to create narrative units entirely based in reality.

So, the story of the village and its problems provides a backdrop to a range of written and spoken tasks.  Travel guides or Wikipedia entries can be written for the village itself (writing to inform/describe for different audiences); character biographies can be drafted (writing to entertain and develop character); newspaper reports and editorials can be written, with a focus on the difference between certain newspaper types/audiences; even obituaries and epitaphs, for the poor dead vicar, can be written – it sounds macabre but the students enjoy trying this formal and prescriptive style for a change.  Spoken tasks can include speeches from characters about their opposition to council plans; drama activities based around protests and village hall meetings; full on debates, even.  There’s plenty of scope for elongating or shortening the unit as you see fit.  I found myself adding a sub-plot about finding old manuscripts in the ancient cottage - this involved the class decoding and creating a cohesive storyline from a differentiated range of renaissance-18th Century text excerpts.  This acted as a pleasant taster for the next term's unit of work - Twelfth Night.

The students love it, of course.  It’s very engaging, but obviously this isn’t the be-all and end-all.  They learn an awful lot, too.  With their defenses down, they absorb the skills and knowledge quickly, as it all makes more sense, with their writing linked to a central narrative.  It all means something, and adds to the overall story.  They can follow their tasks through, recognising that writing a sub-par news report on the Vicar’s death would show a lack of respect, and would not be print-worthy.  They make their editorials truly powerful and persuasive, as they really want a certain by-pass route to be successful.  Thus, their learning and practice of technical aspects, such as punctuation, leap in quality.  It’s astonishing how ‘real’ the whole thing can become, to the point where the students end up leading the narrative, taking it to strange new places.  For example, we ended up doing some creative writing based on animals being displaced from their homes.  A pupil had chanced upon an old episode of Animals of Farthing Wood and wanted to use it.  And it worked brilliantly, with excerpts from Wind in the Willows analysed, and the whole theory and technique of anthropomorphism explored.

Creating story-driven schemes is time-consuming, but very rewarding.  I aim to storify all of my KS3 units in this way - I'm currently sorting out a First World War unit where the progress of the war is tracked by poetry and the biographies of Sassoon and Owen - and I believe that this will create English lessons that will be remembered for a long time.  There are limits, of course.  It would be unfeasible to create a narrative line in some units, I'm sure - but be imaginative.  Media units or transactional writing units can always be given a narrative (I have a Yr 9 writing unit built around the story of a decaying amusement park), and poetry units should be given some kind of central focus or tenet.  Novel and play units have their own narrative, of course, and I feel any persuasive module, either spoken or written, should have a story or major project at its heart.  

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing teaching idea. I have taught english as a foreign language in the past and this would be a wonderful exercise for nearly all levels learners.