Writing Less and Thinking More: Lesson 5: Classification and Six Word short stories.
It would seem from pupils’ responses during Let’s Think in English lessons that they have previously been provided with definitions of literary terms e.g. genre, sonnet, etc, but are infrequently provided with an opportunity to apply the definition to a text and see if it fits. Pupils need an opportunity to make meaning from the knowledge previously passed to them. It’s not uncommon at the start of a LTE lesson on classification to ask pupils to define genre yet, despite recently studying a genre, they struggle for a definition and furthermore are unable to provide different types of genres, leaving the class teacher puzzled.
One of the LTE reasoning patterns is Classification, which develops:
“The ability to group or sort ideas or objects purposefully by one characteristic or variable and then being able to regroup them meaningfully using another characteristic or variable. Classifying includes the ability to rank concepts according to a particular criterion and then resolving any conflict when a different criterion is introduced.”
Within Let’s Think in English we ask pupils to classify: character types, genre, text types and grammar. The lesson I explored with the Year 6 class looked at how we might classify a short story.
I commenced the lesson by asking pupils: what are the main features of a short story? Below are examples from four groups’ initial lists:
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D|
|Not much description
Not much detail
A beginning, middle and end
|Paragraphs no chapters
Not too much description
Maybe a problem at the beginning
As in the previous post, the challenge for the LTE teacher is to scan and assimilate the different points raised so feedback can clarify misconceptions and probe the responses that offer greater depth. To assist the pupils, I used “live bridging” in the lesson, linking the classification system they created to the texts they were already studying.
For example, the class developed the idea of short stories requiring “a problem at the beginning” by explaining it had to be introduced early as the writer had to work “quickly”. This led to a further clarification feature as the pupils felt a short story would only have one problem. I asked them to compare this to the “London Eye Mystery”, their class reading book. They felt the London Eye Mystery had one main problem but also a number of minor problems that are resolved as the protagonist proceeds.
Across all the groups, pupils included in their classification of short stories the main features of all stories: characters, setting, plot, problem and themes. They felt short stories would contain the same features, but they would be different from longer texts in significant ways. In terms of characters they felt it would be more likely to focus on 2 characters and have few, if any, minor characters. Similarly, with setting, a short story would have a setting perhaps two. They felt the plot would be similar to a longer text but the time-scale would be shorter. However, the concept of themes proved confusing for many as they frequently referred to plot when trying to identify themes. Again, I returned them to the story they are studying and asked them in groups to briefly clarify the plot of “London Eye Mysteries”. Once they had established this I asked them to consider what the themes might be and this led to suggestions of hope, trust and childhood.
I hope the above example helps clarify the subtle interplay between teacher and pupil in developing skills and knowledge in a LTE lesson. A misunderstanding of our programme is the teacher just facilitates understanding and sees where the pupils get to. An important component of LTE is to allow pupils the opportunity to air their ideas and equally importantly evaluate the ideas shared. There is no need for the teacher to tell Group D short stories are unlikely to have subtitles as the other groups provide effective feedback. The class are involved in ongoing review and alter their classification list based on the feedback. However the teacher needs to appreciate when pupils are struggling with understanding and provide an effective mediation to assist them. We’re reminded of Vygotksy’s words:
“A thought can be compared to a cloud shedding a shower of words”
We can best assess pupils’ understanding and knowledge when we enable them to share a shower of words and then we can consider the best way to assist them.
Next the pupils are given an opportunity to apply their classification list. However the previous activity is still open and ongoing. They are not merely applying their classification list; they are through the act of application reviewing the very list they created. LTE lessons, we believe, are fluid with questions seeping into follow-on questions; the question posed and responded to at the start of the lesson does not end there. It is an enquiry we carry with us until the end of the lesson and beyond.
The first text the pupils were presented with is a story from: “Short! A book of Very Short Stories” by Kevin Crossley:
“Talk About Short
He was alone and in the dark; and when he reached out for the matches, the matches were put in his hand.”
Working in groups pupils attempt to apply their classification list. Their immediate thoughts are it’s not a short story as they express doubts such as “There are no characters”, “It’s too short”, “There’s too little description etc”. Yet some disagree and when feeding back from their groups argue there are characters and in fact we know there must be at least two and one is a man.
As differing points of view are exchanged in the whole class, feedback pupils evaluate not just the ideas shared but also their own thoughts. Whereas at the start of the activity in groups the vast majority felt it wasn’t a short story, by the end of the discussion half the class have changed their mind persuaded by the logic and evidence presented by others.
Pupils were then presented with an even shorter text, a six word short story credited to Ernest Hemingway:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
It’s interesting to observe how the introduction of the new text resets the pupils’ thoughts. Once again almost everyone claimed it is not a short story because of its brevity. However as they are provided with an opportunity in their groups to socially construct their own and a collective understanding they begin to probe and question their immediate assumption and speculate on possible character and setting. They move from expressing thoughts to reasoning.
This time the majority of pupils don’t believe it’s a short story but rather think it would be a poster advertising the shoes. One pupils’ remarks triggers the class to take a new pathway of enquiry by asking would it be different if the six words were in speech marks. The pupils grapple with what the problem of the text might be. For many it is the need to sell the shoes. Some infer the shoe might be the wrong size with one pupil suggesting it may hint at a more tragic problem. As a mediation I share with them that it is alleged to have been created by a famous writer and ask them to review the text once more.
The idea that a story can be told very concisely is well established now although how many words or how much detail is required is an enquiry. The pupils are asked to review further examples of 6 word short stories by famous writers but they must now try to identify: character, setting, problem, plot and themes. Whereas with the initial texts they struggled to identify character when they weren’t clearly stated, now the pupils are confidently inferring around the text and relating their inferences to textual evidence. This leads the pupils to another cycle of reflection upon their classification list. Are we any clearer on the features of a short story? Should we change our list? Are some factors more important than others? They seem to suggest plot is less important in short stories than other features. Could we use this list again in another context?
As the lesson draws to a close I immediately start bridging with them; providing them with an opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge acquired. The pupils are asked to compose six word short stories either as a group or individually. Interesting the majority opt to write their own; they are very keen to do so. As they place their first thoughts on paper, we invite pupils to share their first attempts and ask peers to provide feedback with responses such as “What’s the problem though?”, “We need to know more about who is saying that?”. They are now using the classification list to create and evaluate their own text. I emphasis to them that when hearing an example we should be able to identify the key features and the writer should be able to explain them if called upon.
We end the lesson by inviting pupils to share their examples if they wish. Every pupil is keen to share and we use and review the classification list once more. The class teacher suggests they can return to this in the afternoon to redraft their examples although we emphasise the need to keep their first drafts and to write an accompanying explanation identifying the features. It seems by saying more and writing less the pupils are moving forward in their understanding of the features of stories and in their ability to classify.
Below are examples from the class for you to review: