A brain (and SEND) friendly approach to GCSE anthology teaching – Strategy 1

I’ve already written here about why I will be using ‘Memory Magic’ (Booth, 1999) strategies to teach GCSE anthology poetry from September. I’ll have two Y10 classes, one which comprises low attaining and SEND learners. Even if Michael Gove were to pay them, they wouldn’t learn anything about poetry appreciation from listening to a lecture, however ‘compelling’. So in the next few posts, I’m going to be thinking about how I might exploit each of Booth’s six ‘tricks’ to develop comprehension and aid memory. This post focuses on the first, ‘Focus,’ and I look at it in relation to Agard’s ‘Half Caste’.

What to tell my students about ‘Focus’

I watched a film last week – but didn’t. My mind had actually wandered off and I was just staring at the screen. You need to understand that it’s actually not easy to pay attention because there are always two types of major distraction. The first is sensory – sounds, movements and so on. I recently took the clock out of my office because I found the ticking too distracting when I was trying to focus. There’s always some noise in a classroom, so that doesn’t help us.

The other major distraction comes from within – it’s our emotions. You will all, I’m sure, have had the experience of arriving at a lesson feeling either really happy or sad about something. Strong feelings are extremely distracting because they occupy our thoughts and stop us paying attention. We can’t then learn anything because paying attention is the first, essential step in learning. Missing out at this stage, perhaps because you’re in a terrible mood, stops you dead in your learning tracks.

As you’ll have noticed, most teenagers are more emotional than most adults, so focusing can be tricky. However, successful teenagers are able to do it – because they practice taking charge of their attention. We all have the capacity to do this because we have a neural network in our brains responsible for something called ‘executive attention’. This network allows us to choose which of the stuff that is competing for our attention to focus on. Executive attention is like a control tower and people who do well in school, and in life, have powerful control towers. Even during times of emotional upheaval, they are able to focus. It’s a skill they have practiced and strengthened over time.

So, I want you to think about the effort involved in paying attention as we study this anthology. I want you to work at it, to build reliable control towers inside your brains. However, I am also going to help you as much as I can by using strategies which help the brain pay attention. I know that talking to you for a full hour isn’t going to work – it wouldn’t work for me either – so we’re going to explore ‘Half Caste’ today in a much more active way than that. It’s very important that you are all fully involved at every stage, so pay attention!

Exploring ‘Half Caste’ through ‘focus’ activities

All of the activities suggested below, which aren’t intended to constitute a lesson plan, enable students to develop executive attention whilst at the same time learning about the SPIT of ‘Half Caste’. That is, it’s Structure, Point of View, Imagery and Themes. (See this YouTube playlist for detailed SPIT notes on all of the poems in Edexcel’s Conflict cluster) The focusing strategies could easily be applied to other poems; ‘Half Caste’ has been chosen simply for illustrative purposes.

Structure

Read the poem (or play the recording of Agard performing the poem, below) and ask students to clap whenever they hear the word ‘yuself’. Introduce the term ‘refrain’ and explain how this marks a shift in the poem, a bit like a stanza break. Read the poem again and ask students to clap with the word ‘explain’ – to do this, they’ll have to pay close attention in order to anticipate the refrain. Discuss the impact of the repetition – the fiercely challenging tone it creates.  Read again, asking students to clap when they here the word ‘caste’. Pull out the significance of this repetition.

Point of View

Students read the poem in pairs but only A can see it. A reads a ‘sentence’ (there’s no punctuation, so a preliminary activity could be to split the poem up into units of sense) and B repeats, but in standard English. They swap, B having to listen closely in order to reframe accurately. Afterwards, discuss the importance of Agard’s creole to the poem’s meaning. Another option would be to ask students to highlight the non-standard English vocabulary and sentence structure – our brains are drawn to colour.

Imagery

Get students to play a pairs game with the following images on cards: a man standing on one leg, a Picasso painting, Tchaikovsky, black and white piano keys, a shadow, a cloud, the moon, an ear, an eye, a dream, the mind. Ask them to track through the poem and then sequence the images in the order that they appear. Play Kim’s game using these images. Throughout, discuss their significance, focusing on connotative meaning.

Theme

This useful article on how to boost students’ attention suggests that we should harness the strategies employed by advertisers and these are captured in the acronym CRAVE. We’re advised to arouse curiosity through teasers that get students interested in a lesson; look for ways to make the lesson relevant to their lives; ask questions to engage them in inquiry; use a variety of activities to promote engagement; evoke emotions since, for the same reason that emotions distract, they can also be used to powerfully focus attention.

Instinctively, we tend to relate literature to our students’ lives  – to discuss its relevance to them. In this case, a discussion about the racial diversity that exists within the classroom would provide a useful starting point. Is anyone here purely English? Emotions could be evoked through a reflection on the harm that can be caused by language and labeling. Why does the performance poet we’re looking at today stand on just one leg to perform his poem? There’s a potential teaser.

It’s relatively easy to think of ideas like these – not least because writers do set out to gain the attention of readers. We have then, as teachers of English literature, some extraordinarily powerful allies.

Next Steps

So there are some thoughts about how to apply Booth’s ‘focus’ strategy to poetry appreciation. I’ll be looking next at her second memory trick, which is verbal ‘rehearsing’ – this time applying it to a different anthology poem. Mini-testing will enable me to monitor these strategies as I trial them, but of course my real goal is for students to monitor their own learning. They should have learned this lesson not just about ‘Half Caste’ but also something about executive attention as the first stage in learning; I hope that I will have contributed to their growth mindsets in emphasizing the fact that we can develop this capacity within ourselves, through practice.

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