Confused? This is what my students see when I ask them to think outside the box…
As I write this, I am sitting in a classroom with no windows. The air-con is broken. The kids are melting, their brains hurt, and I am trying to get them to engage with this question: “Is love just a lie?” (in relation to Romeo and Juliet) As you would expect, I am facing some pretty stiff opposition – they are not in the mood to tax themselves with abstract, multi-faceted questions. I think the weather will win today and we might do some colouring in instead.
On a normal day though, these abstract tasks are still difficult to approach with students. A couple of my own students have had this to say about my lessons:
“Miss, sometimes, I listen to you talk, and it’s just like a….a….I don’t know what it is…that’s the problem.” – Leonie, Y12
“When you ask me questions, all I see is a bunch of weird little guys in hats running around…messed up.” Ezra – Y11
My obviously erratic and perplexing teaching style aside, I think that Ezra’s ‘weird little guys’ are a metaphor for the sea of ideas and possibilities which abstract questions create for our students. They need a way to filter through these possibilities, and to engage with higher order tasks and concepts without getting lost at sea. There is a risk in any such resource or strategy, in providing too much scaffolding or guidance – this is not an essay structure – it is a key to unlock an idea and to begin to look at its various layers.
This approach has worked for me when doing the following types of task:
- Critical Viewpoints
- Key Questions
- Political Statements
- Controversial Opinions
- Debate Topics
My students all have a copy of this card:
I’ve trialled this with A Level Literature students, Y11 and Y9, though in its current state it is perhaps best suited to high ability learners.
The ‘Statement Card’ takes students through 5 stages to support their initial approach to an abstract statement, viewpoint or question… The exemplar statement is: “Literature is just a pale shadow of real life, and is therefore unable to tell us anything new.”
Define the key terms in the statement. What do they mean? What else could they mean? How are you defining them?
e.g. How do you define “literature”? Is it just the classic works of the canon, or does this include EVERYTHING which is written? What do we mean by “new”? “New” to WHO?! Does literature actually have to offer “new” things?
Does placing the statement in different contexts change the nature of the statement? What is the natural context? What are other possible contexts?
Context 1: reading for pleasure – do you have to learn something new if it’s just for fun? Or does literature just have to be entertaining?
Context 2: academic study – does a text need to have some deeper meaning or message to make it worth studying? Do we rely on literature to give us an original insight into human life?
What is the range of the impact of this statement? Think HUMAN to GLOBAL. Does it have impact on different levels?
Human impact – do we rely on literature to tell us things about ourselves?
Society – can literature have an impact on a larger group? Does literature echo the realities of groups/movements/events, or highlight patterns in human behaviour?
What are the extreme applications of the statement? Does it become ridiculous at the extremes? Do the extremes illuminate key issues?
Do we simply discard something because we can see nothing “new”? Who can really judge the level to which something is new or relevant? Can we really dismiss ALL art?!
Is there a solution to the problem/question? How could you CHANGE the statement to make it better?
Literature shouldn’t have to tell us something new, and it certainly doesn’t have to be an exact mirror image of real life. A better statement could be: “Literature should reflect, distorts, magnify and illuminate elements of the human existence.”
This is not an exhaustive list of approaches to these types of task, but it’s a start.
Here’s an example of one Y9 student’s work – the statement in question was “Dr Frankenstien is pure evil. Discuss.”
(RANGE) “The statement is only about one person, yet it does have a global range of impact. This is because it makes us think about what it means to be evil. Some may also wonder what it means to be human. The reason for this is because Dr. Frankenstein creates a ‘monster’ from all ‘human’ parts, and perhaps it is evil to corrupt the natural state of humanity.”
If you would like an editable Word Doc version, drop me an email – happy to share! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you use this and it works, or make an alternative version, I would love to hear about it!