Teaching writing is one of the greatest joys and challenges of the English domain. Along the way, you encounter, acquire and discard many approaches and strategies – but there are always some that stick. Unlike the teaching of reading, for which I entered the teaching profession very well prepared, with established and evidence-supported strategies and processes within easy grasp, I developed my approaches to teaching writing on the job, in a cumulative fashion.

An approach that has been so widely adopted that it appears to have become regarded as universal wisdom for assisting students’ development of formal writing is the use of writing frames such as PEE (make a Point, provide Evidence (often in the form of a quotation), Explain the relevance of this evidence to the question at hand). As a means of inculcating the students in the key elements of an effective essay paragraph, this scaffolding works. It provides clear direction and almost fool-proof structure to any analysis required in an essay. It’s not elegant, it’s a formula, a simplification.

Like any scaffolding, it’s designed as a temporary measure – intended to support the students’ writing just as long as they need before they are able to stand on their own foundations. It’s not constructed for elegance, but for momentary function.

However, much like that scaffolding on the awesome Battersea Power Station that has over so many years become as iconic as the architecture that it supports, too many times the scaffolding is left up for far too long. So long, in fact, that it becomes part of the structure.

It’s ugly, it soon rusts, deteriorates and quite often it collapses, taking the building down with it.

Before I get completely lost in my metaphor, here is an example. It’s both a warning and a solution.

This student, in Year 8, was in the throes of a study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. We were examining metaphor, and he had been given this presentation to demonstrate the function of an extended metaphor, how to identify it, and how to structure a response using the PEE formula:

This was his first response:

This is the paragraph said by Romeo just before he dies:

ROMEO:
From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here’s to my love

Some notes:

In the beginning line Romeo is personifying his eyes and telling them to look at the world while they can.He is also saying he is phatiqued and so is his skin from the world.

He is continuing to personify his body and telling his arms that this hug with Juliet will be there last, then he begins to say about his lips, which for me, his language looks like he thinks they are his best quality.

Romeo says to his lips that this kiss with Juliet will be there last and to remember it, he says the great doors of breath, because breath is right, will close with a kiss which is the right thing to do, ( and i think it has something to do with death and preforming the last rights/rites at a funeral).

Next he says his last thing he does is see the “engrossing death” which he is making out to be a bargain that he doesn’t want, a fruitless bargain you could say. Then in the next line he beckons for death to come and describes what he does as bitter. Then in my opinion he leads onto that God made death and is feeling disdain for god.

He says god is desperate and that god is the pilot who actually steers him to the harbor which is his destiny, which is death. He says now run into the danger and the heartbreak of the rocks and the wild sea that pounds against them.

Romeo compares life to the sea and uses the metaphor i am sea sick which translates into i am sick of life and i want it to stop. He then says he is doing this for his love.

The main metaphor’s are at the end when he is referring to the sea and the pilot.

This was the PEE paragraph that he reduced his evaluation to:

Shakespeare is known for his fabulous plays but his writing had a lot deeper meaning than what is blatantly reveals. He uses many metaphors like

Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!

What this means is that Romeo says god is the man steering him to his destiny of death, this he refers to as ” The dashing rocks ” and he says he is sea sick, he means that he is sick of life. I hope this proves my point that Shakespeare wasn’t just a great action writer, he also put a lot of thought into writing his marvelous plays.

Clearly the quality of this thinking and the scope of his observations were almost entirely obliterated by the simplicity of the PEE scaffolding. I had thought that by providing the more able students with more sophisticated metaphors to tackle, I was differentiating the work by task – and thus challenging each individual appropriately.

Differentiation through feedback

If this isn’t an argument in favour of the power of feedback and close teacher engagement with student work, I don’t think one exists

The enormous risk here, without access to his online journal and his engagement in my ‘write your working’ approach to these questions, is that I’d never have seen the quality of his thinking and responded only to the completed essay task. The risk is that the student would have thought the paragraph to be the ultimate end (remember, his paragraph echoes the one provided in the example given to him) – and without my mediation, he may not have become aware of the extraordinary quality of his own thinking.

I’m acutely aware that I’m not saying anything new here. This is one of a hundred thousand examples of a moment where a student exceeds his brief – and their teacher catches the moment, and capitalises on it. My comment on his work went thus:

You’ve made some insightful observations about this passage. Your discussion before the paragraph is of a much higher quality than the paragraph itself. I suspect what has happened here is that, the task was too narrow to allow you to show your true appreciation of the text.

To that end, I’m going to ignore the final paragraph and comment on your personal analysis.

Firstly, everything that is there is great – it has a ring of ‘authenticity’ to it, as if you really were thinking it through as you were reading it. You have clearly grasped the intention of Shakespeare at this point in the play. I’m very pleased you took the time to state where this passage comes in the play as this is important to its meaning.

To develop this further you may want to look at the following approaches:

  1. Tell us more, in your own words, about what Romeo is actually saying here
  2. Explain the significance of that in the wider context of the play and also how both Shakespeare’s audience and you might respond to it
  3. Consider more of the language features than the one I directed you to look at (metaphor) and then link them all to the over-all meaning of the passage (which is essentially about Romeo’s loss of faith, and despair, which leads to his taking his life – as you have correctly observed he is addressing God throughout this soliloquy)
  4. Make sure you know the meaning of the words you’re unsure of – this will help you significantly in your interpretation. For example, while you did work it out for yourself, knowing that the word “bark” is another word for ship would have made things even easier and clearer in your explanation.
  5. Don’t hesitate to refer to earlier parts of the play to expand your ideas further – for example, the earlier passage where Romeo says “He that hath steerage of my course, direct my sail”. This final passage in many ways is a conclusion to that original metaphor where he offers himself to God’s influence.

I hope these suggestions help – in particular in your preparation for the final essay which may incorporate some of the ideas you’ve communicated above.

Let me know if you need any further help,

Mr Waugh

And, as a way of underlining my point, you can read the student’s latest draft. He and I have decided to set a very ambitious target for his up-coming essay. We’ve decided to keep working on it until he reaches that goal.

More and more I’m finding myself having to move away from the frames and forms in teaching in order to glean higher performance from already high performance students. It appears to me that, perhaps much like a “good” school, an effective formula will allow you to reach the standard, but exceeding the standard demands a significant shift in the approach to teaching. It demands highly-focussed, individual input into students’ work. It demands a collaborative, student-centred, co-constrcuted approach to learning that puts the student in the centre of the process. It also demands that teachers have a very refined skill in giving feedback and invoking students’ ambition to improve – otherwise we may very well be tangling our students in the scaffolding.