Come the Revolution 

The other day, I had a great chat about exam planning for fiction and non-fiction tasks with Tod Brennan. Tod’s blog can be found here. The conversation was part of Tod’s sequence of podcasts with English teachers, Approaching The Whiteboard. If you get the chance to record with Tod, then you should take it. I thought, given that I’ve never used FaceTime and I’ve refused to ever be in a selfie, that I’d live to have many regrets. Turns out, I only have one and it wasn’t not doing my hair. 

Most of our conversation focused on the kind of pragmatic decisions we might make about teaching year 11 when they have six months left til their exams. Prior to the recording, though, Tod had sent me a list of questions he was likely to ask and, slotted in amongst them was a question which would have opened up a longer view in terms of writing, “Which three tips will you take from ‘The Writing Revolution?’”

Unfortunately, we didn’t cover the question in the conversation. Fortunately, that means I have a ready made blog to share instead. 

First published in 18th century Paris, the book was unpopular due to its size.

As with Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov, who provides the forward to The Writing Revolution, it would be easy for some to dismiss Judith Hockman and Natalie Wexler’s book as being a collection of “stuff I do already.” The power of both books actually comes though, I think, in the codification of sets of reusable routines and systems. In fact, as a result of this, the first two parts of my answer to Tod’s question are less tips and more principles. 

Tip one:

Knowledge leads to better writing and writing about knowledge leads to greater retention.

This first tip runs the risk of both stating the obvious and being de rigueur in current teaching so I want to pose a question which I think highlights why the tip is important. 

Have you ever watched or participated in a lesson where students have had to practice aspects of grammar by writing sentences devoid of any meaningful content – perhaps about one or more randomly named fictional characters who haven’t appeared anywhere else in the student’s education? If not, imagine this as I’ve seen it a fair few times. My daughter has even had homework exercises which are similar:

A group of students open a set of text books to page 57. Task 3 instructs the students to complete the following five sentences:

  1. Although Sam liked crisps,
  2. Rajiv played hopscotch whilst
  3. When Sarah’s bus broke down,
  4. Since Tim went on holiday, 
  5. Oana went outside though

There is a two step process here. Firstly, the students are practicing devising clauses and linking main and subordinate clauses. The second step is devising a fictional situation. This may be what the teacher desires. However, what’s probable in this kind of exercise is either that the process of coming up with the narrative behind the sentence takes over from the practical use of clauses or the content of the sentence becomes ridiculously mundane. 

The structure of the exercises in Hockman and Wexler’s book reminds us that knowledge of how to structure a sentence, paragraph or whole text goes hand in hand with knowledge of the content of the writing. In every exercise they propose, they make links between the craft of writing and the content of the curriculum. Not only does this mean the writing students craft is more interesting, but also when they craft these texts students are also reviewing and recalling the content. 

Tip two

Sequencing and pacing are vital

One of the great strengths of The Writing Revolution is its careful sequencing from relatively basic sentences, through paragraphs and into full texts. There is a simplicity in this but with simplicity comes power. 

Tip three

It’s okay to reuse similar structures again and again and again – the best writers do. 

Each of the writing exercises in the book, because they’re rooted in the curriculum content, is designed to be repeated. This means that students, over time will develop their ability to make use of and recraft the structures. Further, as the content students are manipulating becomes more complex, so the texts become more complex. I’m mindful of sharing these online as I think you should get the whole book. However, this blog from the Teach Like a Champion site highlights the strengths of one of the ideas. 

A very Englishy revolution:

Most English revolutionaries have been more like Frank Spencer than Citizen Smith.

There is a view that the English have  remained impervious to a number of revolutionary periods through history. It strikes me that this book attempts to instigate the kind of revolution that English teachers could easily sign up to. 

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