Improving Critical Essays

My senior class (a mixture of Int 2 and Higher pupils) will be sitting their exams in a couple of weeks time.  We are spending the few weeks between Easter and D-day revising the class texts, practising close reading techniques and improving essay writing skills.  The latter of these is the trickiest, I feel.  Though the pupils understand the importance of sticking to the task, of structure and of using quotations, their analysis can be a little thin sometimes. 

With this in mind I have set about using AiFL techniques in order to heighten the pupils awareness of what is required of them and where their own work needs to be improved.  I’ve found the following mixture of modelling and self assessment to be very successful. 

After reviewing the meaning, types and importance of analysis the pupils are set an essay question to complete at home.  On the due date I hand out a strong Model Essay.  Pupils colour code where the essay’s author has used quotations and where they have focused on analysis.  The class then do the same with their own essay and compare the results.  The majority of pupils found that they ought to increase the amount of analysis in their essays.  Some also realised they should be including more quotations.  Using this information pupils set themselves targets for the next essay.

I have tended to do the second essay in timed conditions and set a very similar task to the initial question.  The results have been very pleasing indeed.  🙂



Risotto: it’s gooey and buttery and cheesy and gorgeous.  What’s not to love? 

The best basic recipe I have tried is Jamie Oliver’s version of risotto blanco.  I’m not being poncy here – it really has to be made with homemade stock if it’s going to taste great.  Inspired by my favourite Italian restaurant’s house pizza, I usually serve it with a bowl full of shredded Parma ham and a bowl full of rocket on the table.  Munchers can sprinkle as little or dump as much as they like on top of their risotto.  The colours look gorgeous on the white rice too.

Recently came across a risotto recipe made with taleggio cheese.  It’s similar to a Nigel Slater recipe but the heat from the tabasco (couldn’t find the chipotle sauce the blogger recommended) gave it the edge.  Improving on a Slater recipe… Didn’t know it could be done.

Teaching Shakespeare

Early this year I decided to take a group of children down to Stratford to see Shakespeare’s birthplace and catch a RSC performance (preferably MacBeth).  Today I had to admit defeat and abandon the idea.  The dates tickets were available for the theatre, we couldn’t get accommodation; the dates we could book accomodation, we couldn’t hire a coach; the dates we could hire a coach, we couldn’t get tickets and so on.  A very frustrating exercise and I hadn’t even thought about Risk Assessment forms (it’s amazing the amount of ways children could harm themselves on a coach).  It’s a real pity the plans have fallen through as the pupils were very excited about it all. 

The idea stemmed from their enthusiasm for Shakespeare.  Teenagers raving about the Bard.  Doesn’t sound quite right, does it?  But we’re two plays down and they want more!  We began by studying Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet as a media text, exploring how  Luhrmann overcame the barriers to modern audiences and created a successful modernisation of the play. By the end of the unit the class had explored Luhrmann’s use of genre, mise-en-scene (still not sure how to use that in a sentence though!), cultural codes and more.  The Gas Station Scene, in particular, provided lots of material.  It was all very exciting!

And now we are studying MacBeth – my personal favourite.  When we finished reading the play I asked the kids to form groups of any size and do anything they wanted with any scene, act or speech from the play.  The only stipulation was that the finished product had to be presented to the class.  The results include a five minute updated version of the entire play (MacBeth as champion boxer), some photographic stills of key scenes, a set design and a translation of a major speech into teen talk (a la Vicky Pollard).  Superb.

Stratford’s not going to happen this year.  As a consolation I have organised a trip closer to home for next month: Cawdor Castle.  The MacBeth links are tenuous but they are there! 

A wee thank you to the Highland Year of Culture for the help with funding.  🙂

Rant and Rover

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Originally uploaded by wjharrison77.

Was going to have a wee rant about the proposed raising of the school leaving age when I came across this tirade. What more can I say?

I then came across this posting on dogs and decided to post the above picture of my brother’s puppy in response. Again: what more can I say?

That’s it for tonight. It’s been a long week.

The Joy of Marking

I marked the S3 writing exam yesterday night.  71 papers.  It was a bit of a long night but I really quite enjoyed it.  Some of the essays were so intensely personal I felt honoured to be reading them.  Quite a few pupils wrote excitedly about the floods and gales that we experience up here last October.  One of these stories had me crying with laughter. 

The author, J, is a sporty yet bookish boy who is known for having more brains than common sense.  The afternoon of the storms J was, as he is often to be found, curled up in the local library with a book.  The winds were increasing dramatically outside and it was raining heavily.  When the lights in the library were switched off J didn’t question why, he simply moved closer to the window to read by the dimming sunlight and then, later, the street light.  Only upon finishing his novel did J get up to leave.

At this point he discovered that a) the librarians had gone home, and b) he was locked in the library.  Pressing his face against the window J spent the next hour shouting to the few people passing by.  It was dark, the winds were high and the rain was pelting off the ground: no-one heard.  The hillarious part is that at one point the phone rang in the library.  J decided against answering the telephone or using it to call for help as he didn’t have permission from the librarian.


 The story ends happily.  J managed to attract someone’s attention and was freed from his literary prison psycologically unscarred by the event. 

Love it.  🙂


The session today wasn’t on SMART marking as I thought.  It was on feedback.  Related, at least.  The pre-reading (handout from The Learning Set – Stepping Forward with Feedback – Learning Unlimited 2004) stated that much feedback is “too little, too late, too vague and too impersonal.” I am very, very aware of what my weakness is in this area.  I give plenty of feedback and pride myself on making it personal and specifically related to set targets and prior work.  Within class I do my best to give a individual pupils feedback on how they are handling current work.  The problem area is my written feedback on pupils’ work as it is sometimes handed back too late.   

When is “too late”?  The actual time period can vary dramatically.  “Too late” in my books is when the pupils have forgotten what they were supposed to have got out of the task.  By letting too much time pass between work being handed in, marked and handed back I’m running the risk of undoing a lot of hard work (both the pupils’ and mine).  I am not suggesting that teachers’ comments are the solely responsible for pupil progression.  Far from it!  They are powerful, however, and if I am not utilising them properly my pupils are losing out.   

The two main obstacles are time and energy.  Could better planning help overcome these?  I do tend to experience marking gluts a lot.  During these times a black haze of panic sometimes settles over me rendering me mentally paralysed.  More time passes, more marking builds up, haze turns into sea harr.  Starting now I am going to attempt to stagger marking. 

Actual, it will have to start next week as three classes are handing in essays this week!  Oh well…

Roasted Peppers

Roasted peppers are one of my favourite foods. Here’s how I prepare them:

Roasted Peppers
(Side for 2, with leftovers)

5 heavy, deep red peppers
1 small clove of garlic, crushed
Juice of one lemon
15 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 tblspn fresh chopped parsley

  • Roast peppers over flame or under hot grill until blackened on all sides. Place in plastic bag for 15 minutes then remove skin and seeds.
  • Tear or slice peppers into thick strips and place in shallow dish. Add crushed garlic and mix gently with fingers.
  • Squeeze lemon juice over peppers.
  • Pour olive oil onto peppers.
  • Sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Really good with parma ham and crispbread!

If I Look Scared…


Originally uploaded by wjharrison77.

I was going to post a cute picture of my brother’s new dog this evening. Then my neighbour rang the doorbell. He was back from diving on the west coast and had some fresh scallops for me. The crab in the picture was he and his partner’s dinner. When I asked for a photo of the monster I had noooooooo intention of holding it. I mean look how big its claws are! Felt like a big girl’s blouse refusing to do so though. So there I am frozen in fear, smiling inanely, holding the biggest crab I have ever seen.

Crabs have faces. I didn’t know that.

The scallops were delicious.

Back to school this week. Feel like the crab experience has prepared me for it! Easing into the new term with an inservice day tomorrow. The morning session is on SMART marking. Am I right in thinking SMART is an acronym for Short Measureable Achievable Realistic Targets? It can’t be “short”, surely. Well, I’ll be reminded tomorrow.

As an English teacher I am never short of marking. I incorporate lots of self and peer assessment into my lessons but it never seems to lessen the amount of evenings I spend with a pile of essays in front of me. Hopefully tomorrow will help.

Chicken Noodle Soup

findlay 012
Originally uploaded by wjharrison77.

We went for a drive to Fort Augustus via Foyers yesterday. I have only ever driven on the Drumnadrochit side of Loch Ness before. No more. Far prefer the quieter road on the south/east side of the loch. Stopped off at Foyers to see the falls. So pretty you could film a Timotei advert there.  Managed to resist the temptation of home baking in Fort Augustus. Succumbed to a different kind of temptation in an tiny art gallery on the way home though. Bought a painting from a lovely woman called Ria McIntosh (I think) and her husband. Highly recommend a visit to their gallery on the B862, near Gorthleck.

Another recipe… David was recently complaining that you just can’t get decent chicken noodle soup any more. As children we both remember being fed a light clear soup with short noodles that sank to the bottom of our bowls. Was it from a packet? I don’t remember. It doesn’t seem to exist anymore though. The ready-made alternative on offer in the shops today has an odd gelatinous texture which screams MSG! MSG! MSG! Not pleasant. Can’t say I’m hugely bothered by the disappearance of the soup, but he is.

So last night I tried making chicken noodle soup for him. Though it didn’t resemble the soothing, salty broth of his childhood it was a resounding success. A ten out of ten, in fact! Hooray!

The stock and the soup are adapted from Kylie Kwong’s recipes. Though making stock may seem like a lot of hassle it does make 4 litres and it freezes exceptionally well. Worth it, I think.

Chicken Noodle Soup

For the Chinese Chicken Stock

1 whole chicken, cut into 8 parts
12 garlic cloves, squashed with the side of a knife
10 slices of fresh ginger, 5mm thick
1 leek, sliced
1 red onion, chopped roughly
4 spring onions, trimmed & cut in half
4 litres of water

• Throw everything in a pot and bring to the boil.
• Reduce the heat and skim off any scum.
• Simmer for 2 hours.
• Strain & discard vegetables. Shred chicken and keep for use in noodle soup (see below) or sandwiches.
• Chill strained liquid. Remove solidified fat from the surface.
• Freeze in batches of 500ml for 1 person 1 litre for 2 persons.

Chicken Noodle Soup
(2 large bowls – a meal in itself)

1 litre Chinese chicken stock
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon ginger, very finely sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
2 portions of dried egg noodles
A head of spring greens, rolled and finely sliced (a big bunch of spinach or Asian greens would be fine too)
½ red pepper, finely sliced
200g cooked shredded chicken
3 spring onions, chopped
1 red chili pepper, finely chopped

• Bring stock to the boil. Add ginger, sugar, soy sauce & oyster sauce.
• Add egg noodles and cook for two minutes. Stirring to separate.
• Add sliced greens, red pepper & chicken. Cook for 2 minutes.
• Ladle soup into bowls.
• Sprinkle with chili and spring onion.

Serve with sesame oil and soy sauce on the table.