Teaching Transactional Writing: Taking Chances in the Classroom?

How does one teach transactional writing effectively?

Teach the knowledge. Check. Teach the techniques. Check. Teach them again. Formatively assess constantly. Ensure students have at least a shallow knowledge of how to create effective pieces of writing, depending on purpose, audience and format.

But then what? How does one get students to effectively put everything together? How does one engage the student so they produce more effective work (say, from level 3 to a high level 4 or even a 5!)?

Over the past years, I’ve tried myriad techniques: teaching Aristotle’s Rhetoric–ethos, pathos and logos–teaching through speech and debate, setting up debates both in and outside of the classroom, you name it and I’ve tried it (to varying degrees of success). However, since coming to the UK and trying my hand at British Education, I admit I’ve taken fewer chances; it’s like I’ve become confused, muddled, turned-around in my teaching. I have found it hard to maneuver the methods advocated through the use of sentence starters, writing frames, “write-this-in-paragraph-one-and-this-in-paragraph-two” teaching. This is not to say there isn’t a need for this, as I’ve seen less confident students write something down, whereas they might not have put pen to paper. I humbly acknowledge the research conducted on the importance of scaffolding, as well as the fact that my confusion accounts for the reasoning some schools use to employ fresh NQTs rather than teachers with muddled pedagogies.

However, the questions I’ve started asking this year, with the new curriculum staring us in the face from the back of our classrooms, and with the general (and specific) anxieties pervading our schools like the BO that sometimes wafts around in my room, as we wonder how in the world we will meet our quotas with 100% exam summative assessment. I’ve started asking why Gove made the change. In his mind, why was British education failing its students? (And let’s be honest: almost half of all secondary students finish school without securing a C in English and Maths. Something’s off). 

And whilst I certainly don’t have any concrete answers, my questions have led me to some interesting places: ED Hirsh’s “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them,” Daisy Christodoulou’s “Making Good Progress,” Dan Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like School,” Didau’s blogs and books, and an exploration of The Michaela Way, as advocated by Tiger Teachers and Katharine Birbalsingh’s energetic and almost relentless tweets. I’ve looked at teaching knowledge and given glances to the Vision Statements of schools in the UK that teach Knowledge over Skills.

This research is persuasive.

Armed with the knowledge I’m gleaning (about knowledge–how apt!) I’ve started taking more risks in the classroom again. Will my students learn more if I try something Willingdon has proposed? How correct is Christodoulou when she says students need constant repetition to learn? When Didau says we must be explicit for both the low and high attainers, what does this look like? The  questions are endless, and I’m grateful for what I’m learning, but I can’t help feeling a slight regret: before coming to the UK, I routinely took chances in my classroom. With an almost constant fervor, I explored new and interesting ways to teach my students content in such a way that they wouldn’t forget it, that they might even enjoy it. I had freedom to teach what I saw fit, for better or worse (and sadly, for many classrooms with less enthusiastic teachers, this does mean worse. I’m not slating the British system in its entirety by any means!). Admittedly, I didn’t have some of the researched Q and As like I do now, but before coming here, I ran a Speech and Debate club, took trips, took students outside, created scavenger hunts, crafted performances, worked with other departments to combine knowledge, ran spelling bees, competitions, presentations, publications, tried to make the learning “real” any way I could so students would engage.

I’d forgotten some of that these past years, instead strapping myself to the sentence starter and saying to students: ‘here, start with this’ and hoping it would give me life in my classroom. Culture shock gave way to a lowered self confidence, and though my results have been ok, I haven’t hit my personal targets. I want more for my students, but how to engage them?!

In large part, I feel betrayed by my efforts. Am I a better teacher now, or a worse teacher, a–gulp!–boring teacher who doesn’t get it (I swore I’d never become irrelevant)?! Have I regressed?

That is a question I’ll keep asking, but for now, I come back to my point: how will I teach transactional writing on Friday?

I have two year 11 classes: one I’ve had since September and one I’ve just been given three weeks ago. The classes are in much different places knowledge-wise. Because I’ve been using some of the strategies I’ve learned to teach Gove’s new knowledge curriculum, my original class is well ahead of my new one: they have a better knowledge base from which to work (not brilliant yet, but better). As such, I’ve decided to take a chance by teaching transactional writing differently with each group. The new group still needs the knowledge base and won’t, I do not thing, benefit from my experiment because they don’t enough. My other group? Just maybe…

On Thursday evening, I wondered how I’d teach this so students would remember. I wanted students to write intentionally: that every sentence on the page be for a purpose, that they craft their writing rather than write a mushy mash that earns few marks (for creativity and assessment). The prepared lesson plan sat before me, full of sentence starters, loquacious PP slides, and helpful hints that weren’t helping me that evening. My students would stare at this like they stare at so many lessons, through the slides I’ve carefully created, past the slides with the sentence starters, sleeping through the skill stop slides though many try to pay attention, though I keep them accountable! Then the dreaded LLD would begin–which always begins when I haven’t managed to get through to them–I’d get frustrated with them, and the battle would commence. I’m not ready to bash the PP as I see the benefits, the organisation, the potential. But I’m struggling against the bonds the PP has created, the crutches they encourage.

I decided to teach Slam Poetry to one group, and use my PP for the other. 

Slam Poetry isn’t quite like regular poetry: part of its beauty is its performance. The sound and rhythm make up the texture of these pieces.

But it is still poetry–meaning it is created through the performance AND the content. Focus on a central image and explore that image through description and commentary. Each sentence, like a poem, is steeped in technique: alliteration, repetition, imagery, rhythm.

I asked myself: ideally, wouldn’t a speech be steeped in much the same?

On Friday, I told students they were writing a speech today; I asked students to choose a topic, an issue that was important to them and to explain their point of view. We brainstormed together and each student picked something they had some experience with (no ethos if you speak from a place with no expertise. Keep it relevant to you). 

Some chose exam pressure, some healthy eating, some chose gender inequality (international woman’s day this week after all), some chose parental expectations, social media issues, etc. keep it relevant, keep it focused, keep it to a topic you would feel comfortable sharing with your classmates in a speech). 

I then asked them to choose a central metaphor. With what could they compare their topic? This took some discussion, and together we explored the fact that the more simple metaphors will work better to compare and extend. 

Social media is a tree in a desert–creating life but sucking up any and all life around in order to survive. 

Exam pressure is the bench press at the gym-it can make you stronger, but it can also crush you.

Because I intended them to adapt their writing for slam poetry, I told them to consider the methapor, whereas before I simply would have asked them to start writing (with the sentence starter and exemplar, of course).

Already, success. Some of the students’ opening sentences stood out on the pages of their pink books like flowers that might just have the chance to open. I was inspired. More and more students started writing, and the fingers of silence stretched to the corners of my room on Friday morning as they started scribbling words, sentences, and paragraphs on to the page.

They wrote until break and annotated their techniques. No talking. No LLD. They were excited about this! Now, so was I. And I hadn’t even introduced the translation to slam. The metaphor was enough for the moment.

When they returned, I told them they were going to improve on their writing, but they were going to do it through making aspects of their speeches into slam poetry. Some of them perked up their ears. What’s slam poetry, they asked?

I showed them three short clips of slam poets of late who’ve made headlines: a student from Harvard who spoke at his graduation with a slam poem, another student who expressed frustration at the double standards between boys and girls in high school, and a third who was angry at exams.

They gawked. We can’t do that! Some exclaimed. Others sat there silently, and I wondered what ideas were already flowing, and whether they would experiment like I was doing then. Teach slam poetry when my sentence starters were unused? Uneyed, unlooked at for the day? Let’s see if this works, I sighed, feeling guilty for some reason.

Some tips for slam poetry: (link attached)

  • Make it original. The written piece must be original. The story being performed for competition needs to be your own work.
  • Time. Each poet has 3 minutes to perform. While practicing your poem, time yourself to make sure you do not go over the time limit. (Poets lose points for going over 10 or more seconds!)
  • Simple & Relatable. Your poem should be able to reach your audience the first time it’s heard. Read and perform it for family & friends before competing. Ask them what is clear and what is not. Choose themes and subjects that many people can relate to, like relationships, politics, religion, insecurity, family-social issues, etc. Your poem should be clear and convey a message.
  • Rhythmic & Passionate. Your poem should have a rhythm that shows through your passionate performance. A slam poem moves the audience through different moods. How the poem is performed is at least as important as the content if not more! (No pressure.)

And because I don’t like to ask students to do what I won’t try myself, I gave it a go, to mixed reviews:

So here’s me slamming my slam poetry effort on Friday:

My students stare at me like the dimming data they’d become

The data that so much determines my–dare I say–income

It’s become

A battle beat-a battled drum

It’s fiercesome, but doledrum, I want them to become

more

learn more

do more

know more

love more.

So sit here and learn this and learn it well

Slam Poetry is about the smell

of the pencil on your paper

No pencil? Blue or black pen then–yes there’s a reason–to use it so do it

Write about your issue with the ethos of your knowledge and your life and what’s true

Your love is an onion? Ok that might be true, for you.

Keep going.

You lost your love because of your brown paper? How so? Now, though,

The student stares at me and shrugs, shrinking, done for a minute.

What do I say next? Where’d my metaphor go? She asks.

I can’t continue, as I too have lost my mojo, so I sit down and try to take it slow.

Sip my coffee and smell its scent.

Smell my defeat, my exhaustion, my exertion, my extra. Will it pay off?

Finish this for homework! I shout. I want it Monday. I want your effort dripping

off the pages of your mind onto these empy white sheets. 

I want transfer. I want technique. 

I want you to show yourself off, 

or 

at least 

try and fail, 

for no one sees but me. 

Do it!

(Or take a detention. 

It’s a lack of work I must mention. 

Remember that, a working memory knowledge retention…exercise. 

Do it!).

 

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