Year 10 are about to sit their very first controlled assessment titled, “How is Curley’s wife presented in Of Mice and Men?” We have read the book, learned how to write essays, practised writing, improved writing and gathered knowledge on themes, context and language use; they know enough to write the essay today and achieve around a C (roughly band 3). This group are predicted Cs as ‘aspirational targets’ and, considering I have to race through another boat load of assessments and get them ready for their first crack of the exam, I should just let them get on with it right? Wrong!
These pupils should have as good a chance as any other class to reach for A*s and my teaching needs to ensure that chance is made available without losing them in work that seems too difficult to even attempt. Their individual circumstances, whatever they may be, have left them in a set that is considered low and following a course that is considered easier; the expectations for them (according to the statistics) are minimal. They don’t naturally get excited by English; they don’t show an overwhelming desire to learn, making it my job to ignite that fire when I teach them. If I rush them through the assessment now, that’s never going to happen. Time to spice things up with a few anti Govian gimmicks me thinks…
The following lesson was created to allow pupils to explore Curley’s wife by asking their own questions about her purpose. Pupils have to engage with Curley’s wife as a creation of Steinbeck when they write their controlled assessments and so this lesson allows them to do that for themselves, making unique interpretations about her purpose. As well as that, they need to recognise what analysis is and what makes a response sophisticated rather than just confident.
Because, to get a band 5, pupils will need to:
|5||Write impressive and sophisticated interpretations of how she is presented at different stages of the novel, giving different interpretations.||Show sophisticated engagement with Steinbeck’s ideas and attitudes. You can interpret what he hopes to achieve through the presentation of Curley’s wife throughout the novel in a unique and sophisticated way, using imaginative supporting detail and exploring different effects.||Give a sophisticated analysis of how Steinbeck uses language to present Curley’s wife, with unique interpretations of why certain words, phrases and techniques are used to present her and how she develops throughout the novel.||Make sophisticated and mature comments on the significance of Curley’s wife and the context of the novel, considering how different readers could react.||1514
To have a sophisticated, mature and unique point of view of their own, they need to be taught how to analyse this character for themselves.
Having Fun and Deeper Learning Through Questions
Outside of the classroom they are presented with the question, “What makes a good question?” Classes have been with me for four weeks now and so, by the time I arrive (we have two bells five minutes apart; I arrive just before the second one so that they have a chance to clarify and prepare), they are talking about the question that I have left for them. I heard a few of them saying, “It has to have a question mark.” and “Rhetorical questions are good.” Fair enough but we need to go far deeper.
When they enter the classroom, they see two questions up on the board, “What would happen if robots took over the earth?” and “What colour is your blazer.” with “Answer these questions and work out their differences.” written underneath. When we came back together to share ideas, nobody wanted to answer the second question but everyone had a different idea for the first. In fact, it started quite a debate. We discussed why this was the case and the class recognised that open questions were great to investigate new ideas and closed questions had their place but they couldn’t allow you to explore in detail.
Pupils were given A1 paper with nothing but an image of Curley’s wife in the centre. They were asked to question Curley’s wife by writing down any question which came to mind, no matter how silly they thought it may be. As pupils began writing their questions, I listened out for misconceptions and was pleased to hear them discussing the kinds of questions that they were coming up with. One pupil offered the question, “What is she wearing? “ their partner replied with, “That’s a closed question, why don’t we write about why she is wearing red and then it’s more open.” Pupils were maturely creating questions that could help them to analyse the writer’s choices. I highlighted such links as they arose to ensure that they understood how what we were doing linked to their impending controlled assessment.
Search for Meaning
To share our questions (and to have a bit of fun) we played higher or lower with my newly acquired giant playing cards. I held up the front card and chose a pupil at random to go first. They were to guess if the next card would be higher or lower. If they got it right, they became the question master and got to ask anyone in the class (including me) to answer a question of their choice. If they got the next card prediction wrong, I chose another class member to question them. Having me answer the questions allowed me to model responses and demonstrate what a good quality response should sound like.
As well as being a bit of fun, using the cards meant that pupils didn’t feel picked on; it was a fair game and so they had no argument about getting involved with the discussion. As pupils provided responses, other hands eagerly went up, wanting to add to the discussion once the response was complete. Pupils were asking open questions of their own (Why did she have to die? How could her death have been avoided? Why does she always get described as having her lips parted?), linked to the controlled assessment question. Just like the robot question at the start of the lesson, each pupil had a very different take on the answer and were responding with sophisticated interpretations of the writer’s intentions. The different points of view being offered meant that pupils were analysing each other’s ideas. Again these links were highlighted so that pupils recognised what analysis sounds like and why ideas were becoming sophisticated rather than just confident (Band 4).
To ensure that pupils covered the requirements of the assessment task, I followed the game by asking them to add to their questions by now questioning Curley’s wife in relation to specific quotations of their choice and the language within the quotation (Why did Steinbeck choose to use the simile “flopping like a fish” when she first died?); the themes of the text (Why was she involved in a racist scene?) and the context (What was expected of her as a woman in 1930?). Each time, stopping and playing higher or lower to allow pupils to question each other and gather different responses.
Finally, pupils went to their exercise books and began answering their own questions. They sat silently, scribbling away, recording ideas that they had gathered during this lesson. When the bell went, they were still scribbling away. They had gathered more information than they could record in a single lesson and so we need to return to this point when we meet again next week.
The responses in pupils’ books were not at an A* level yet but they at least have potential. For whatever reason in the past, this group have not developed good quality written skills…YET. This is still under development and will take practise, improvement and more practise. I am currently convincing them of the merit in learning to spell, use correct punctuation, structure responses and use “posh words;” they will get there. At the end of the lesson, they were answering questions in no particular order, writing multistructural lists rather than arranging them carefully as developed, sophisticated ideas. However, their answers now had potential and their responses were their own unique, mature interpretations. They wanted to answer the questions as the questions were their own.
Taking time to teach pupils the importance of questions, modelling answers, exploring interpretations and linking this to the ongoing development of their written technique will help them to begin climbing the ladder towards success. Having a bit of fun on the way, alongside highlighting the outcomes of what they were producing (analysis, unique interpretation etc) got pupils on board. The important thing to note is that no matter what has happened to turn them off learning in the past, it is now my job to turn them on to the fact that they can achieve in the future.