A benchmark of brilliance

white_fang

When our students arrive with us in Y7 – or Y8 if you teach in my town – they embark upon a series of tests known as ‘baseline assessments’. Invariably in English, this is some kind of writing task with little or no preparation. More often than not, students flunk it – nerves, lack of practice, uncertainty about expectations probably all play a part.

Take this example paragraph from a baseline written by one of my weaker Y8s in September:

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Scorched indelibly between his eyebrows, the sharp sizzle of a level 4′ brand is all but audible. And so serial underachievement begins…

A couple of months ago this rather simple idea came to me. Why don’t we ask students, fresh in the honeymoon glow of a move to secondary school, to do something remarkable when they arrive? Why don’t we get them to look ahead, rather than look back? Why don’t we get them to create a ‘benchmark of brilliance’?

In fact, they can do this at any time, not just at the start of the year. The idea is that in every subject they will undertake a task, complete a procedure, interrogate an idea or create a product that takes them far beyond the shackles of what they think they are capable of. The rationale is, from the outset, to create confidence and to engender pride and belief.

Better late than never and inspired by Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, I decided that my Y8 students would set their benchmarks at the start of 2014. Two questions seemed pertinent before I began:

    How will I plan a scheme that helps me to bleed the absolute best out of my students?

    How will I get them to invest in the task so that they really do care about the final product?

And so I planned the following scheme:

1.    First off, we read the first three chapters of White Fang by Jack London. These provide a self-contained short-story involving two men, six huskies, a pack of emancipated, blood-thirsty wolves and a mysterious ‘she-wolf’. It’s gripping stuff, yet the main reason for reading it was as a ‘mentor text’, an idea I have gleaned from Mark Miller’s blog – here. I wanted my students to be inspired by Londons tone, style, sentence structures, themes and storyline in their own writing.

2.    Once read, we deconstructed a paragraph, looking at how London had used verbs and adjectives to personify nature, but more importantly how he had created wonderful sentences. We looked at Londons, built some together and they had a go themselves, using the principles of the sentence escalator I have written about before. Here’s how I modelled how London might have built up one of his sentences:

Screenshot 2014-02-05 21.57.24

3.    However, great sentences alone are not enough. Fluency comes from how these sentences are linked. I selected a range of sentence starters from across the three chapters. These, along with examples of how London used these stems and five generic sentence types, formed the scaffolding (see below). To create more challenge, I set a simple rule: no sentence must start with the same word.

Screenshot 2014-02-05 21.56.11

4.    Before we started writing I showed them Ron Bergers Austin’s Butterfly video see here. We discussed how it would influence our approach. I insisted that I would give them time to write and gave them a simple three paragraph structure: describe the landscape; describe a sled with huskies; describe a night-time camp fire. I explained that the final draft would provide a benchmark piece to be stuck on their folders a measure of a level of quality to continually aim for and, one day, to surpass.

5.    From time to time as they were writing, I photographed work and we critiqued it together. I would have liked more peer-critique, but I felt time was running out.

6.    When the first draft was complete, I gave formative feedback. See picture:

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7.    They edited this before slowly and carefully writing up the final draft.

Heres the benchmark piece from the ‘level 4’ student I mentioned at the start of the post:

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Modest, yes, but with so much more sentence control than the original baseline (even if the description of snow is a little unconventional!).  Some of the class’ work is exceptional, the best I’ve seen from Y8s. I have included a number of examples at the end of the post. Almost all worked slowly, diligently and, in many cases, with the care and attention of artists.

This task has taught me an awful lot, more than I can write about here. One important point, though, is that at no stage did I mention levels. This was not a deliberate strategy; it just turned out that way. The only success criteria I gave them were, in effect, task instructions:

      1.    Start every sentence with a new word.

2.    Aim to write lovingly and carefully constructed sentences.

3.    Take your time and aim for your very best.

Of course, the next challenge is how I get my students to replicate the quality you will see below with less scaffold. Without White Fang, without the sentence stems and without the time to write slowly and redraft, I am sure the results would have been very different. There is also a question to be raised about creativity to what extent did this task limit freedom of thought and expression? Each students work was individually crafted, but the ultimate if slightly unrealistic aim of this English teacher is to help my students find their own writing voices.

Anyhow, thats a question for another day. The demise of levels has left us with a great opportunity to focus on genuine quality. How we manoeuvre in the wake of levels so as to avoid the hulking shadow of the accountability leviathan will be absolutely crucial. Baselines have their uses, but I can’t help wondering whether genuine success lies in how we, and our students, imagine and design the future.

Here are some other example paragraphs from my Y8s. Please take the time to have a read.

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Check out the editing on this one!

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18 thoughts on “A benchmark of brilliance

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  3. Great idea! As well as providing useful exemplars for writing, London, as I’m sure you’re well aware, is an excellent source of exciting stories for pupils of this age. When you’ve squeezed White Fang dry, you might try London’s story ‘To Build A Fire’. I used it year after year when I was teaching in London and it never failed to hold a class of (usually) Year 8 boys rapt!
    London’s life was also fairly colourful. There is an apocryphal story about how London, always hard up for cash (spent on John Barleycorn, most probably) used to row himself across the bay in San Francisco and visit his publishers in the hope of extracting money. On one of these occasions, his first stop led him to the office of one publisher who claimed not to have the required readies. London, desperate for something, is alleged to have picked up the cashier by his ankles and shaken him until enough money had spilled onto the floor. Deciding this was an effective way of extracting remuneration from tight-fisted publishers, he went to the next office to try the same tactic – and got thrown down the stairs!

    • Thanks for commenting. I’ll look up ‘To Build a Fire’ – I love London’s work as it is both challenging and engaging. I might try the money extraction technique on the Year 10s I am always chasing for homework!

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