Author Archives: Raymond Soltysek

About Raymond Soltysek

Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Strathclyde. Writer.

Persuasive Writing and a whole lot more…

This post can also be read at Raymond Soltysek’s blog,  http://raymondsoltysek.wordpress.com/

I had a good morning the other day doing in-service with English teachers from South Ayrshire on Persuasive Writing at Nat 4, 5 and Higher. It was organised by my friend Sally Law, PT English at Marr College, who has used some of the resources I wrote for Education Scotland last year and which can be found at  http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/resources/nq/e/englishpersuasivewriting/introduction.asp

Much like my Creative Writing materials published two or three years ago, the basic premise is that pupils need to engage regularly with reading that is designed to persuade them, and then regularly undertake writing tasks that allow them the opportunity to persuade others in a variety of contexts. English teachers always – always – tell pupils they should be reading a quality newspaper regularly. That’s good advice which very few pupils take up, and I suspect it’s because (a) they have no incentive to and (b) don’t know what to do with it when they do. Just reading an article doesn’t seem to have any explicit relevance to them; so, it’s important we do something with it that makes sense to them.

In the materials, there are sheets to support regular blogging and tweeting, two social networking contexts pupils will be well acquainted with. It’s very easy to set up a class blog or Twitter account, even given the ICT restrictions common in schools, but these can also easily be done with a pen and paper “Blog Wall” or “Tweet Space”.

So the groups started off with two articles I downloaded on topical issues. In half an hour, they read them, briefly thought about tone and editorial position, identified their own reaction and then constructed a 140 character tweet in response to what they’d read. I think this sort of quick reading and evaluating holistically is something pupils rarely do: for many of them, reading a non-fiction article is only ever about an agonising search for rhetorical questions or identifying good link phrases to answer some questions on it that are, at the end of the day, pretty random. The teachers seem to get stuck into it, and I manage to get three tweets out of six groups (you lot in the other groups, I’m still waiting! Remember – @raymondsoltyek). All in all, it’s an exercise that works really well, and many of them say they’ll be using the activity with their classes.

We then take a look at Numeracy in English. The Using Numbers to Persuade resource looks at what, to me, is key when considering how we integrate Numeracy into the English curriculum: that is, the interaction between numbers and words, and how we use language to express numbers for different purposes. Basically, it’s based on the premise that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Pupils trawl the internet for stats to support their arguments, never really questioning how those stats are presented to them or what the agenda behind that presentation might be. Do they consider the difference between a statement that says that “barely half agree with X” and “a clear majority agree with X”, when the figure in both cases might be 51%? Can they interpret the difference in tone wrought by phrases such as “as much as a third”, “hardly a third”, “fully 30%” or “only 3 in ten”? I think this is where some really productive work can be done.

So the final task of the first session is to write press releases from different pressure groups on statistics issued to them. This, of course, allows us to investigate the whole notion of press releases and pressure groups, what they do and how they try to persuade us. Using the same statistics, they must argue that immigration controls should be eased or tightened up, they must argue prison sentences should be more lenient or more harsh, they must argue that clean air legislation isn’t doing enough or is moving too fast. It’s a difficult exercise that they find really challenging, but it can easily be adapted for less able groups. And the beauty of it is that, in a time of 24 hour news, it’s a real world exercise; a friend of mine from Glasgow Writers’ Group writes freelance, and she regularly has to come up with an article on something she knows nothing about in a matter of hours.

After a break, the groups look at three further resources, examining their use in providing formative feedback to exemplar essays in three areas: global structure, sectional structure and close structure. The resources on global structure are, I feel, the best in the package. Taking the lead from group discussion skills teaching, it looks at the Proposing – Refuting cycle as a means of structuring argument.

I think we sometimes pay too much attention to giving pupils rules and roles in group discussion, as if stipulating that everyone must take a turn or that Craig is the Chairperson and Jamie the Reporter somehow ensures that the pupils will then know how to discuss. Of course they absolutely don’t. What is necessary is that they acquire a metacognition of the behaviours exhibited in a discussion: that is, they are able to differentiate between those interventions where they propose an idea, where they question an idea, where they refute an idea. When they understand these behaviours, we can then help them build up a repertoire of language that enables them to engage in these behaviours; they know what to say when they build on a point, and how that differs from the language they would use to refute that point.

naomikline

Naomi Klein

An analysis of a fantastic Naomi Klein article, “Looting with the lights on”, exemplifies the cycle used in writing. For those of you who don’t know Klein’s work, her breakthrough book, “No Logo”, is perfect to get young people furious about the way they are manipulated by the market and how their self-image is defined by advertising and branding. It’s brilliant. And if you want to read an excoriating analysis of capitalism’s use of war and disaster to extend its tentacles into every human being’s way of life, read “The Shock Doctrine”.

But of course, writing need not follow the cycle slavishly. The key here is that we build a sense of coherence in the pupils’ writing. I remember, to my shame, relying on a “make three points for, one point against” structure to teach persuasive writing. All that does is produce bitty, disconnected writing that is superficial and trite. Here, pupils are encouraged to think about the structural flow of an essay. Having made a point, what do they want to do next? Support it with further explanation? Build on it by introducing other ideas, facts or statistics? Question it by posing some problem scenario? Or refute it by making a convincing case for its inapplicability in certain situations? And if they refute the point, what then are they going to re-propose in its place? What happens is they begin to think about the progression of ideas throughout their writing, ensuring that there is cognitive linkage rather than just a surface level technical linkage. I think it’s extraordinarily powerful.

Having provided rich, formative feedback on the exemplar essays through the prism of the particular skills they examined, teachers then shared their feedback with each other. A couple observed that their feedback was very different but agreed this was a good thing. Rather than holistic – and probably sometimes quite anodyne – comments at the end of essays that amount to little more than ‘improve your structure’, the teachers found they were giving detailed and specific guidance: “This section might be improved by using an anecdote to illustrate your point”. It seemed to be a success.

Sally has offered to coordinate some feedback on the materials as the year progresses; that will be really interesting, and give me a real flavour of any tangible improvements that arise as a result of using these materials as they are meant to be used. In the meantime, if you’d like me to do a similar session for your school or authority, by all means e-mail me at raymond.soltysek@strath.ac.uk . Interestingly, a Geography teacher, Kenny (who was a former Educational Studies student of mine and who admits to kicking my shins at 5-a-side football) also comes along, and says he found a lot of it very relevant for the upper stages of Social Subjects. I’d love to investigate that, so by all means if you think persuasive techniques would help you deliver certain aspects of your SS courses, get in touch. Interdisciplinarity in action!

Playing with Poetry in the Primary Classroom

A beautiful image from Gerry Cambridge's "Nothing But Heather"

This post can also be read at Raymond Soltysek’s blog,   http://raymondsoltysek.wordpress.com/, and at his website, soltysek.com

Last Friday, I spent the day working with groups of PGDE Primary students on poetry in the classroom;  I had a lot of fun, and discussing creative writing pedagogy with Primary teachers was really enlightening for me.

I start from the premise that we kind of get poetry wrong in schools.  Pupils’ experiences of it tends to be either for construction (“let’s all write an acrostic poem together”) or deconstruction (“let’s all highlight all the similes in the poem”), or a combination of both that, for example, uses deconstruction to elicit construction (“let’s all analyse the genre markers of the haiku, and then write one ourselves”).   And while all of these types of activity are valuable and indeed essential to understanding poetry, it is, for me, quite a limited and sterile experience: poetry is something we do something with, something that generates work. Students – even English graduates looking to be English teachers – come with a great deal of anxiety about poetry, and that is, they say, down to their experiences of poetry at school.

And yet, why do we read poetry?  Well, for enjoyment, of course.  And I don’t think there’s enough of that, so we started each session with the students browsing through some poetry anthologies and magazines to find something they liked to read to the rest of their group.  Then put it aside, because the worst thing we could do is to analyse it to death for the next three hours.

Having warmed up our poetry reading, we then warmed up our poetry writing with a quick poetry word wheel  exercise, a simple resource of three concentric discs containing an adjective,  a noun and a verb that provides a three word stimulus for a short poem.  With “scientist”, “kind” and “eats”, I came up with

“Working late, the scientist
Fills his lab with sparks,
eats Chinese food from a takeaway carton.
Kind of tangy.”

For some unaccountable reason, I’m quite proud of that.  However, some of the students’ responses were lovely:  Heather, using “big”, “girl and “swims”, wrote

“The girl swims slowly
Big arcing movements of her arms
Pulling her towards a warmer kind of peace.”

Catriona, using “empty”, “animal” and “hopes” thought of:

“The dawn stretches empty over rooftops
Below an animal limps across the road
A dog? A cat? A fox?
The sullen hopes of a city life are waking”

Poetry is stripped out of the curriculum, studied almost as a separate entity.  I’m a great believer that the poetic sensibility should be embedded and integrated much more into the day to day work of the classroom, and that a poem is as much a way of recording knowledge as a report or a close reading test or a storyboard.  To illustrate this, we spent some time looking at poems from Gerry Cambridge’s gorgeous poetry / photography / natural history collection “Nothing But Heather”.  Cambridge’s poetry is gorgeous, but what is so striking about “Nothing But Heather” is the informative quality of the text.  I remember looking at one of my favourites, “Chrysomelid Beetle Pollinating a Wild Orchid”, with a Fifth Year pupil, and she said she learned more about plant fertilisation from that poem than she learned in 5 weeks in Higher Biology.   All the students particularly liked “Shore Crab”, which they could easily see themselves using with their classes:  you can hear a musical version of it here, with Cambridge proving his Rennaisance Man credentials by playing a mean moothie.

So poetry, much more than simply being a form, also informs.  We looked at typical Primary school topics, and brainstormed a wordbank.  For example, with Vikings, we came up with:

Long ships       Sails             Shields                 Mead               Sagas

Hats with horns            Horned helmets              Swords             battle-axes      Pigtails

Ginger beards             Storm              Fjords              Fiery funerals

Gruel               Seas                             France – Normandy

A technique I’ve used often with older poetry writers is close redrafting:  you can read more about it in “Wind Them Up and Let Them Go: The Primacy of Stimulus in the Classroom”, an article I did for Writing in Education magazine a few years back.  You can download a copy from the University of Strathclyde by clicking the link.

Basically, when we assess prose, we tend to mark it holistically, taking in an extended piece of writing and assessing it with broad brushstrokes such as “vary your sentence structure” or “avoid repetition”.  It’s my feeling that this kind of assessment is inappropriate for poetry, since here the aim is to condense, distil.  As a result, we need to do away with prepositions, conjunctions, articles, all the chaff that makes a piece of prose flow, because those are not the words that signify meaning to the poet.

So, we get the pupils to write three simple sentences from their word bank – something like

Viking long ships sailed through stormy seas from their homes in the fjords to invade Scotland.  They arrived on beaches in the north and battled the locals with their swords and axes.  They told stories they called sagas about these events.

Now, looking at this as prose, we’d probably never comment on the fact that the phrase “in their” is repeated, or that the word “they” is used three times, because we feel they are somehow  “essential”.  The poetic way, though,  is to get rid of all those little words in red  to strip us to the words that really mean something, the words that communicate the core idea.  With a little beating and shaping, we can begin to mould something that looks like poetry:

“Viking long ships
Through stormy seas
From fjord homes
Invading Scotland
Swords and axes
For locals
On beaches
Sagas to be told.”

I’ve worked with teenage boys who love this way of building poetry, bit by bit, three sentence prose chunks developed into verses.  Working with groups in a Primary classroom, you could have your very own Viking saga in less than  half an hour.

So the poem becomes not a poem on its own, something seemingly independent of the rest of the curriculum, but becomes a quick, relatively easy way of providing another source of evidence of pupils’ understanding of a topic.  In addition, unlike the passivity of a close reading, it demonstrates individuals’ ability to make choices about the language  which means most to them from a  topic, and their ability to manipulate that language to express something that is genuinely an individual response.  Light bulbs seemed to be going on in the groups, thankfully.  Now, the poetic way of handling language simply became another literacy skill in the arsenal.

And what poetry also does is combine the objective with the subjective.  We looked at simple items that might be found on a  nature walk – a dead autumn leaf, a pebble, a scrap of wool caught on a barbed wire fence – and brainstormed it with a simple “Objective  / Subjective” column.  After sharing and developing, the task was to write a short poem that contained at least  two informative details and two emotional details.  With a picture of a bird’s skull, I came up with:

“A fragile piece
Of weather bleached calcium
It’s tiny brain cavity
Empty sockets
And beak
All that is left
Of what it once was
A feathered, flighted beauty,
Built for tearing flesh.”

Again, many of the students outdid me.  Matthew wrote about a broken egg-shell:

“On the ground
broken, discarded
A small cracked egg
lies on its own
once a house
to a new walk of life.
Or is it now dead?
A defenceless lunch for creatures passing by.”

What Matthew was very clear about was that he had no idea when he came in that he would have been able to produce that in five minutes – and that is, I think, an extremely powerful message to keep giving children: five minutes ago, you had nothing.  This poem didn’t exist.  Now look at what you’ve done.  That message has been hugely motivating for my pupils over the years.  And it also encourages an increased quantity of writing: every student went out the door having done a lot, they had been busy, busy, busy.  In classrooms, pupils will drag their feet for weeks over a big set piece essay; with five or ten minute poetry exercises slotted in here and there into their everyday activities, they actually produce a great deal

A final stimulus exercise using Farrow and Ball’s ludicrous paint colour range – Dead Salmon?  Elephant’s Breath? – and some discussion about the possibilities of using the poetic form much more regularly in classrooms as a means of allowing children to respond to the topics they study wound up the sessions.  I think they all got the message; that rather than “doing poems” as a box tick for the curriculum, divorced from the reality of the rest of their learning, poetry can be an everyday way to respond to experience.  And in doing so, I reckon, that can only help develop a love of poetry that can last a long, long time.

A tiny canon: Scottish literature in the classroom

This post can also be read at Raymond Soltysek’s blog,  http://raymondsoltysek.wordpress.com/

The other day, one of my PGDE students came up to me and pulled a couple of sheets of paper from her bag. “Raymond,” she said, “I wanted to show you this. We studied this story at Higher when I was at school.”

It was a copy of a story of mine, “Teuchter Dancing when the Lights Go Out”. I know that some teachers use “The Practicality of Magnolia”, but I was surprised by her teacher’s choice because the story contains more than a few swear words and a brief but explicit sex scene. How brave of him, I thought, and how original.

Education Scotland have published their Scottish set texts list for Higher and National 5 qualifications, and she got me thinking. There has been a vociferous campaign to make the study of Scottish literature compulsory in schools; there is a powerful lobby that says that Scottish schoolchildren should know about Scottish writers. And, in essence, I agree. However, sections of that lobby have also successfully pushed an agenda that prescribes who those Scottish writers schoolchildren study should be, presumably on the grounds that if there is no prescription, there will be no compliance. At that point, we part company.

The list itself is, I feel, a disappointment. It is not that I object to any particular text or writer; it is just that it is a tired rehash of the same old same old that seems to take more account of what texts English departments might have in their store cupboards than what actually might be relevant to pupils today who are studying in the context of the breadth of Curriculum for Excellence. I am particularly depressed by the drama list. Bold Girls may be written by a Scottish writer, but it is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles; hugely contemporary, n’est pas? Always a fairly insubstantial text, it gained currency by being the only option accessible to pupils who might struggle at Higher. Sailmaker by Alan Spence is set in the Glasgow fifty years ago and centres on a boy’s relationship with a father who works in the long gone shipyards; I used it with Standard Grade General classes in the 1980s. Tally’s Blood – a play I admit I don’t know – was written in the 1990s; The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was written in the 1970s; Men Should Weep in the 1940s; and The Slab Boys, set in a 1950s carpet factory in a town that hasn’t seen carpet manufacturing for decades, was written in the late 1970s, and is another that has miles of groaning shelves dedicated to it.

Now I am not criticising these plays – they all have merit – but in a golden age of Scottish Theatre, why is there not one play that has been written in the 21st century? Why have those who have constructed this list ignored David Greig, David Harrower or Gregory Burke? Why are school students studying the Irish troubles when Black Watch might actually connect with what they see on television every day? Where are the really big issues about Scottish history, nationalism and identity that could have been explored through the utterly magnificent Duninsane? It is as if the National Theatre of Scotland never happened, as if it has no relevance to “Scottish literature”.

However, the other genres are little better, I feel. Of all the prose texts, only two were written in the 21st century. And while Anne Donovan, Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig are fine short story writers, there are many, many others who are ignored. Where is Suhayl Saadi or Linda Cracknell? Where are Scottish adoptees like Bernard MacLaverty or Leila Abouela, both Scottish enough to have won a host of Scotland’s major literary awards? Where is the opportunity to pick up occasional brilliances like Beatrice Colin’s “Tangerines” or Michel Faber’s “Fish” – or, dare I say it, “The Practicality of Magnolia”. By prescribing these authors, the range and cultural diversity of Scottish writing is sidelined: there will be no other brave, original choices made, because “the list” will dominate. I cannot understand why Education Scotland didn’t simply trawl through the exam papers of students who write on a wide range of Scottish stories every year and publish a list of a hundred or so that seem to work. It’s tempting to think, looking at the list, that one of the major driving factors was saving money – what do schools already have on the shelf so we don’t have to listen to them asking for funding for new books – but that is hardly relevant for short stories, many of which are freely available online or cheaply available through the photocopier.

As for the novels, I love The Trick is to Keep Breathing, although it is again 23 years old, and James Robertson is a brilliant writer. Sunset Song is for some a classic, for others (like me) a wearisome trudge; again, where is the opportunity to look at the history of rural Scotland through a range of fantastic alternatives, such as Gunn’s The Silver Darlings or Alex Benzies’ The Year’s Midnight? I have yet to hear any teacher I know say a good word about the choice of Kidnapped for the list, including fans of R.L. Stevenson. The Cone Gatherers is a safe choice yet again: I can’t say much against it given that I helped create resources for it ten years ago that are still regularly used in schools, so I may get some in-service work out of it – but would I have been too unhappy to see a novel set 70 years ago ditched for the very best of A.L. Kennedy? I really don’t think so. Scottish literature we want our schoolchildren to read – and A.L. Kennedy isn’t on the list.

As for the poets, thankfully 5 out of the 8 are still alive. Once more, though, where is the imagination? I use a W.N. Herbert poem, Temporal Ode, with Higher pupils because I don’t think any other teacher in Scotland uses it, and because it’s brilliant. So once more, where is the encouragement to introduce Scottish kids to a smorgasbord of Graham Fulton, Jim Carruth, Liz Niven, Gerrie Loose, Gerry Cambridge, Roddy Gorman, Robert Jamieson, Alan Riach, Donny O’Rourke, David Kinloch, Kathleen Jamie, Stuart A. Paterson, Roddy Lumsden, Gerrie Fellows, Bill Herbert, Dilys Rose, Brian McCabe or John Burnside. Come on, John Burnside, for heaven’s sake!

It’s not really a question of who is on and who is not on the list, though; it’s a question of how having a list at all will direct the focus of teachers onto a narrower and narrower range of what pupils will come to see as “Scottish”. We saw it last time texts were prescribed for the Revised Higher, which left us chained to Bold Girls and the poetry of Norman MacCaig. In those days, pupils had to study a set author. For MacCaig, the list consisted of about 13 poems. Assessment consisted of either a context question – a whole poem or extract on which about 16 marks’ worth of questions were based, with the remaining 9 marks assigned to a general question asking about the author’s work as a whole – or an essay, which had to take account of at least two and usually more poems from the list.

When set texts were dropped, though, most schools found themselves with copies of the poems and units of study (many published by my old colleagues at Jordanhill), and so they continued studying MacCaig’s poetry. However, they no longer spent time studying 13 poems; instead, they trimmed that to three, or two, or even only one, and in the mid-2000s, the majority of schoolchildren sitting Higher answered a question using only “Assisi”, “Brooklyn Cop” or “Visiting Hour”. It got so bad, the Examiners had to change the nature of the paper to make it difficult to answer using the poems.

But teachers missed the whole point. In the set text days, studying one poem was never enough to get more than 15 or 16 marks out of 25, since in both forms, the examination paper demanded knowledge of more than one poem. But because it had been prescribed, because it had been given the exam board’s blessing, “Assisi” in particular became the default poem of choice for many teachers in the mistaken knowledge that such blessing meant it was adequately rigorous to get the full range of marks; I spoke to an examiner once who said that many of his colleagues called it “That fucking dwarf poem”. It was that seal of approval that damned a generation of Scottish teenagers to studying what is a short, lightweight poem – and I knew of some schools which studied only that poem – when they could and should have been swimming in a sea of the work of many varied, demanding, fulfilling Scottish poets. And history will repeat itself.

The thing is that the Scottish curriculum has always demanded the study of Scottish literature; it is in every guideline and arrangements document you can find. The issue, then, is oversight in schools, and that is quite easily remedied. Yes, pupils at National 5 and Higher should answer a question on a Scottish text; but why not any Scottish text, or, at least, one from a very, very long list of suggested Scottish texts. Then, teachers can talk about Scottish literature and can read widely around it: they can have professional discussions about the appropriateness of Scottish texts for the curriculum in their schools. And then, a department head can oversee the study of those Scottish texts in the classrooms of their teachers. The knock on effect that would have on interest in Scottish literature – and by implication, on publishing – could be enormous.

Ah, but would they do it? Well, if students have to fill out a box on the front of their exam paper that says “The Scottish text I have used in my examination paper is ……………… “ you can damned well be sure that teachers will train them to fill it out right. They already make sure candidates don’t answer on two texts from the same genre, and train them to within an inch of their lives on all sorts of aspects of the exam, some of them quite bizarre (“My teacher says I’ll fail my essay if I don’t have a conclusion”, many pupils tell me); so why on earth couldn’t they make it crystal clear to pupils that they must make sure they answer a question on text A, B or C because those are the Scottish texts they studied this year?

I’m afraid. I’m afraid that in a sincere attempt to ensure that teachers do study Scottish literature, Scottish literature has in fact been done a great disservice. No teacher will ever do “Teuchter Dancing when the Lights Go Out” again, and although that sounds as if I’m bemoaning my own fate, what disturbs me more is that it will be the fate of the majority of Scottish writers, many of them much more accomplished than me, because they have not made that arbitrary list of the chosen few.

The Full List

National 5 Higher
Drama:Bold Girls by Rona Munro 

Sailmaker by Alan Spence

Tally’s Blood by Ann Marie di Mambro

Drama:The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil by John McGrath 

Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Steward

The Slab Boys by John Byrne

Prose:Short stories (a selection of) by Iain Crichton Smith 

Hieroglyphics and Other Stories by Anne Donovan

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Prose:Short stories (a selection of) by Iain Crichton Smith 

Short stories (a selection of) by George Mackay Brown

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

Poetry:Carol Ann Duffy, Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig, Jackie Kay Poetry:Carol Ann Duffy, Robert Burns, Don Paterson, Liz Lochhead, Sorley MacLean (in English)

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