Converse Teachers’ Handbook
About the authors of this handbook .................................................................. 2
Rationale for e-learning ........................................................................................ 4
Sources and paths to learning ............................................................................ 6
Classroom Management ................................................................................... 10
Teaching Strategies............................................................................................. 12
Individual Student Mentoring and individual use ........................................... 14
Assessment ........................................................................................................... 17
Metacognition ..................................................................................................... 19
World War 1 Texts: a complete course ............................................................ 20
Key concepts ................................................................................................ 20
Converse and the WW1 course ................................................................. 21
Converse essays .................................................................................................. 23
True Crime Dramas ...................................................................................... 25
Practical Criticism ........................................................................................ 25
Shakespeare’s Education ........................................................................... 28
Legal Realism in Drama .............................................................................. 30
Taming of the Shrew .................................................................................... 31
Shakespeare ........................................................................................................ 32
Practical Criticism ................................................................................................ 35
NB GCE AS/A2 qualifications are herein referred to as A Level
qualifications for ease of understanding.
About the authors of this handbook
Parkside Community College
Parkside Community College is a Leading Edge school serving the city
centre of Cambridge. It was designated as the first specialist Media Arts
college in the UK in 1997, offering students the opportunity to develop
their own media literacy and to use media technologies to aid their
learning across the curriculum. The college works with Higher Education
and cultural institutions on a regional and national level to further best
practice research in secondary education.
The English, Media and Drama departments at Parkside are nationally
recognised as leading developments in the teaching of literature through
film, visual literacy, and classroom technologies. The department is
consistently high achieving, acts on a consultancy basis for local
authorities, and is designated as a centre of best practice in English for
the Eastern region by the Specialist Schools Trust.
Several teachers have been involved in the development of teaching
strategies and resources for the department’s World War 1 texts course,
and the subsequent electronic resources for CARET/Converse. These
teachers include: Emma Bull, Sue Burgess, Darren Coxon, Craig Morrison,
Claire Neeson, Kate Reed and Jordan Vibert. Christine Hawkes, Nicole
Tremblay and James Durran, have been primarily responsible for the
creation and continuing development of this course.
Visit Parkside Community College at http://www.parkside.cambs.sch.uk
About the authors of the teachers’ guide
Craig Morrison is Head of English and Drama at Parkside Community
College, Cambridge. He read English and Theatre Studies at Warwick
before training to teach at Homerton College, Cambridge. He is a
member of the Drama Committee, and Eastern Region Coordinator, of
the National Association for the Teaching of English and has been an
examiner of A Level Theatre Studies. He is also affiliated to the Specialist
Schools Trust’s Vision 2020 group, and holds the position of Associate Tutor
for the Trust’s regional CPD programme.
Nicole Tremblay is a teacher of English, Media, and Drama at Parkside
Community College, Cambridge. She has two Bachelor of Arts degrees
from the University of New Hampshire, USA, in English, and Theatre and
Dance. She trained to be an English and Theatre teacher during post
graduate studies in New Hampshire.
Rationale for e-learning
With varying degrees of optimism and pessimism we have all begun to
form an opinion on what the internet will do for (or to) us: many fear this
new technology, others embrace it. As teachers it is our role to get
children thinking about the purpose of the internet, and not just its
functions, such as ‘how it works’, ‘what it can do for me’, and so on.
Engendering an ethos of cooperation is what we do best in schools, and
our approach to e-learning must be no different. Whereas some may think
the idea of sitting at a computer to be a solitary thing, we must promote
the fact that e-learning can bring one closer to people, ideas and texts
that one never thought accessible before. The internet must be actively
promoted as a tool of social inclusion: in the comfort of anonymity and
the equality of time in this new environment, children can start to interact
in many ways, lots of them social, and, in the case of Converse,
intellectual. Also, barriers of cost are rare. In essence the web is a new
thing: a democratic medium.
However, this statement needs some qualification. Those with access to
better technology, or those who understood it first will often seek to be
exclusive about the internet, often through the use of opaque language.
Also, marketing will rear its head, with children being potentially the most
lucrative audience of all. But things must not get out of all proportion:
there is so much scare-mongering about the internet, with it often being
personified as some sort of hideous monster (with myriad viruses and
worms to match). As teachers we must be clear about the dangers of the
medium, and teach students about responsible use, rather than
frightening them off. Students must develop their own media literacy for
the present time, and for adulthood.
Teachers also have many choices to make: just as any teacher works
hard to create and maintain a pleasant and comfortable working
environment in the classroom, the virtual classroom is no different. There is
choice, and Converse is a very attractive one indeed. As a public-sector
project funded by government and created through partnerships
between universities and schools, Converse acts as a model of how the
internet can be tailored to suit the needs of our students, and how we as
teachers can get the best out of the medium by working together.
Converse provides safety and a lack of distraction. As a virtual
environment it is akin to a good classroom: material is chosen which is
appropriate for a wide student age-range, yet students are given
freedom to explore much of it in their own ways. Also, Converse provides
a commercial-free environment, with links only to sites that will enrich the
learning experience. By exposing students to challenging content in the
right context, we hope to simultaneously enthuse and teach them about
the value of both the literary material, and the electronic mode in which it
Sources and paths to learning
In an effort to make the most of the potentially democratic medium of the
internet, Converse aims to use its sharing power to give students access to
rare and previously exclusive texts. Part of the aim of the Converse project
is to raise aspirations amongst youngsters, and to make them aware that
exciting texts are available to all. In the first round of resources World War
1 poetry and Shakespeare have been chosen as the main topics. Both
areas lie centrally within conceived notions of ‘great literature’, and have
generated vast amounts of critical material. The aim of the project,
though, is certainly not to solidify the idea of ‘greatness’ or the canon, or
to further deify Shakespeare, for example. Rather, we hope to bring
students closer to the texts, and hope to let them judge them on their own
Converse aims to create something new in providing a space in which
historical and contemporary texts can work in a continuum with a range
of criticism. For example, giving students access to Wilfred Owen’s drafts,
or a recreation of what the Globe would have been like on performance
day allows students to get a fresher sense of the work. It allows them to
approach it without fear, as they are rough, working, ‘real’ examples –
they are not leather-bound ones. At the heart of our thinking has also
been the sense that when students have been able to get to grips with
how a text has been written, or how a performance has been staged,
they can then interact with others’ criticism of it from a steadier position.
Criticism can be seen as something that helps to elucidate or challenge
the initial readings they have had the chance to arrive at. It is vital that
the process happens in this order: students’ ideas must begin the
conversation about any text, or we risk closing down their thinking.
Having sources on screen allows students to deal with texts in new ways.
The basic format of the Windows operating system enables students to
view sources side by side in two windows. Introducing more sources,
perhaps individual lines from a poem in separate windows, would allow
students to rearrange them on the screen in ways that create meaning for
them; for a simple example, they can arrange them in order of how much
they like them, and then discuss why this is.
Having a minimised Word document whilst working with Converse is a
simple but effective tool for any student: maximising this will allow students
to quickly make notes on something they have discovered before
returning to the page. We should use the multi-tasking power of the PC:
students should be able to switch from reading something to writing
something of their own instantaneously. Indeed, a real dynamism of
learning can occur when the distinctions between reading and writing
activities are broken down. In researching extant texts the most involved
way to learn is through creation of a new text: for example, when reading
through a scene of a play on screen, pairs can insert stage directions
between speech in a different colour. Although a simple technique, they
are learning a great deal about the text; they are not just writing. They are
visualising the play in performance in their mind; they are thinking about
how certain words should be spoken by actors, and therefore what their
meanings are; they are considering how mood changes with the progress
of the action, and how this can be reflected. Setting limits to the number
of stage directions allowed would provide increased student focus and
One question regularly asked is why we should use computers for such
writing activities, when they can easily be done using pen and paper.
There are several reasons, to begin with:
1. Word processing packages allow students to transform texts. It is
limiting to ask students to simply redraft texts, as many will simply
copy up ‘in neat’, paying attention to only surface details. The
ability to cut and paste text, to rearrange, and to insert images and
video clips allows students to create something individual, and
more dynamic than their existing work.
2. Scale. Functions such as Find and Replace in Microsoft Word allow
students to search huge texts for details almost instantaneously.
Also, adding dynamic links to other sources on the internet within
writing allows the text to become something open-ended and
alive, as the reader is directed to sites with changing content.
3. Sharing. Work can be easily shared between students and teachers.
Using software packages common to most PCs in a creative way will
allow students to be more in control of their English work. Whilst we slow
things down by handing out and asking students to fill in worksheets, or
ask them to write out almost identical versions of previous work, we
could be giving them the means in which to make the key decisions
about texts quickly, using technology.
Converse is an excellent way of making students’ aware of how
technology can make learning about literature fun, and in a way that
is beneficial to their learning. Many of the resources allow them to
interact with texts, to create a dialogue using comment boxes, and to
create new texts on screen as they progress. As one’s students progress
through a particular set of Converse resources, it is important for
teachers to create their own IT based tasks. Although all of the
functionality will not be present, and more than one program may
need to be open, it is vital that the Converse resources are not the only
exposure students get to IT in the English classroom.
Converse enables students to learn much more independently than
many traditional teaching methods allow. Learning becomes
individual and at an appropriate pace, due to the nature of the form.
Unlike a linear text, with a defined beginning, middle and end, the
website is a form which must be navigated. There are various levels of
choice within the Converse activities, dependent largely upon the
outcome of the activities. The propaganda poster activity presents
many compositional choices, in order for a poster to be created by the
end, whereas the Globe theatre pages are much more investigative
and open-ended. The provisional nature of the reading experience
enables incredibly effective differentiation to occur. For example,
interest leads a student to click on a character at The Globe, and
some contextual information is given about this section of the
audience, for example, the groundlings. Further arrows lead students to
pages containing further detail on these ideas, or they can return to
the main thread of the ‘tour’. This enables students to do two things: to
gain a broad knowledge, whilst honing their knowledge in areas of
specific interest or lack of understanding.
In many cases, ideas on the pages get more complex as the student
progresses along a thread, leading to critical essays, or other websites
in cases. The benefit of this is that there are no limits on students:
whereas a teacher might refrain from giving certain materials to
students in class, believing them to be incapable of understanding, the
student can here make the choice for themselves. The dynamic
medium of the internet means that we do not have to put artificial
ceilings on students, however, if they find themselves in difficulty it is
easy enough to rectify, as a few clicks will bring them back to where
they were previously.
As with any lesson, if the Converse site is to be used with a class, it is
vital that the teacher sets the resources within the context of an overall
scheme of work, and within the context of learning outcomes, as with
the World War 1 course to be found on this site. Some resources aim to
offer knowledge, whereas others help students to create their own
texts. The question for the teacher must be how the students own this
knowledge rather than just receiving it. How does the knowledge
gathered become part of a wider conversation, or problem, or piece
of writing? Or, in the case of student texts, how do we evaluate them,
or how do we transform them?
Whilst IT, and certainly the internet, is no longer a novelty, it is certainly
not the common denominator in most classrooms. Providing concrete
learning outcomes at all stages is key though, as students do still
associate this technology with fun. However, we must be careful not to
try to oppose the power of games, as exploration and puzzles are
ideally suited to the medium of the internet, promote thinking skills, and
really motivate students. We should engage students in a conversation
about the boundaries between entertainment and learning; when do
video games help us to learn, and when do learning games become
This section aims to outline some key tips for using Converse within a
classroom. Necessarily, they also apply to most work within IT rooms.
These have been split into two sections, ‘Rules’ and ‘Teaching
strategies’, although the two are clearly interdependent.
1. One of the best methods of ensuring control in the classroom is to
ask students to turn off their monitors when you need to speak to
them as a group – this cuts out distraction, even if it is because they
can’t wait to carry on working. Also, if they have swivel chairs ask
them to turn and face you.
2. When asking for quiet ask students to raise their hands when they
see that yours is raised. When they raise their hands they must be
silent. This is a gradual but respectful way to achieve quiet in a noisy
environment where raising the voice is often of no use.
3. If students have finished their work they should help others. It may
also be useful to have a bank of evaluative exercises to hand, a
private reading box associated to the current topic, or an option to
research further websites for addition to the links section of the
4. Seat students carefully. Have a seating plan for a computer suite
that you use regularly, if possible. Most computer suites will
necessitate that pairs share a computer, and it is a valuable
practice to buddy up students. Label pairs A and B and at key
moments in the lesson, ask either As or Bs to move one seat to the
left or right for the next activity, thus ensuring a good mix of working
partnerships. Once there is a good level of trust with the class,
partnerships can be swapped by asking students to switch to
someone they haven’t worked with in the last few weeks for
example. It is important to make sure that working in computer
rooms, especially for long duration or in hot weather, needs to be
kept active through teacher intervention. Something as simple as
asking pairs to swap control of the keyboard is very effective.
5. When approaching new technology for the first time, consult your
technical team or IT teacher. Talk through your requirements, and
whether they are on-hand in case of problems. Most vitally, ask
about the settings on the machines: if applications work differently
from machine to machine it can be very difficult to teach to the
whole class. If you have odd numbers of students, or one or two
students too many for the number of machines, choose a
student/students who can act as technicians for the lessons, or who
can act as ‘envoys’, finding out how far people have got with the
activities. Choosing the right job for the right student can ensure
that the whole lesson goes smoothly, and in many cases, that a
disruptive student can have a real focus.
6. It is usually best to have a ban on printing until a certain point in the
lesson, or until you have seen the student’s work. Perhaps consider a
limit on the number of pages printed. It is vital to get students used
to putting their name and details onto a header or footer before
they start their work (when appropriate for the document). This
makes it so much easier to identify to whom work belongs when it is
7. The greatest problem faced in computer suites is the upsurge in
questions from students. Technical competence varies greatly, and
we can often get overwhelmed by questions about computing
rather than the actual English work. Establish a rule whereby
students must ask up to three others for a solution to a problem
before asking the teacher. Obviously, if work could be potentially
lost they should ask the teacher immediately.
8. Regular reminders to back up work are very useful indeed.
1. If at all possible use an interactive whiteboard or a data projector
to project an image of your screen. With a navigated environment
such as Converse wonderful learning opportunities arise when
teachers or students can model how choices are made. For
example, a teacher can begin to choose some words to insert into
the cloze version of Dulce et Decorum Est, explaining their choices
as they work. Giving this role over to a student halfway through the
process is very empowering: it shows that they are trusted with the
task, and sets high expectations. Also, when a teacher models how
to work through a Converse activity they demonstrate how much
time and how much concentration is required or expected, as
some students will be tempted to flick through pages at speed
without giving tasks due attention.
2. It is possible to ‘simulcast’ any screen to a network of computers –
this could be either the teacher’s or a student’s screen. Ask your
school’s technical or IT staff to investigate this option as an
alternative to modelling through data projection.
3. If possible use laptop computers rather than desktop models. The
reason for this is that talk and cooperation is improved, grouping is
more pliable and natural, and the benefits of the English classroom
can be utilised.
4. Use either Notepad or Word as a ‘rough book’ or ‘scratchpad’
whilst working with Converse resources. Use targeted (or DARTS)
activities to focus student thinking, especially when dealing with
complex or larger texts. For example, when reading some of the
critical essays in a sixth form lesson, ask students to find the five
sentences they feel are most succinct in making a point, or the five
that they understand the least, or that they agree with the most –
the possibilities are endless. Once found, copy and paste these into
a Word document. These can be either discussed or printed out
and distributed for other students to analyse for homework.
5. Another use of a ‘scratchpad’ is to route a journey through a
Converse activity, particularly one with lots of threads, such as the
Globe activity. Students list the choices they made, for example,
‘Explored upper gallery’. Although such a list of ‘choices’ would be
useful in analysing how a class deals with the medium of the
internet and the options it presents, it would be more useful for
students to follow up their ‘choices’ by noting the top three things
they learnt from each section.
6. A wide range of interventions should be used to cope with the
dynamic nature of the activities. Each student or pair could be at
different stages in the process, but one can not afford to lose the
sense that the class is working as a whole in an effort to learn about
the topic. Posing a problem, changing the rules of working, or
asking a student to show what they have found/done so far to the
class are excellent ways of re-establishing whole class learning.
7. Keep the focus on learning at all times, and in particular upon what
the group have learnt as a whole. Using a whiteboard, display
board or flipchart get students out of their seats to write up further
questions they have about the material investigated, or what they
have learnt so far. Teacher or students can then attempt to link
together points into groups to find connections in their
learning/future study. Keeping this board (or ‘working wall’) for the
duration of the scheme of work is an ideal way for students to
recognise how their learning progresses over time, as they add new
ideas, or cross off questions that have been answered through their
[Further tips on how to manage students within an IT classroom, and a
range of other classroom management strategies, will follow shortly.]
Individual Student Mentoring and individual use
As previously mentioned, Converse is ideal for independent use by
students. This might take the form of students accessing Converse at
home as part of their class work. On the other hand, Converse can also
be used to accelerate the learning of those who express an interest or
show a talent for literary study beyond that of the majority of their
group. Teachers need to formulate plans for such students, and
necessarily these will be unique. Below are some things to bear in mind
when planning to extend a student’s literary study on an individual
mentoring basis, in which process Converse can play a valuable part:
1. Clear aims need to be established when initially talking to students
about extending their learning. These need not be numerical or
statistical aims; in fact, it would be far preferable if they were not.
Targets to do with broadening reading, engaging with theory or
writing about texts will benefit and hopefully enthuse students much
more than summative targets.
2. What does the mentor want to see coming out of the student’s
independent work, including Converse? This could take a variety of
a) Students can develop a portfolio of work that they do in
response to their reading and independent activity. Mixed
media work, including video diaries, artwork responses to text
and so on would make this portfolio something that drives the
student forward, rather than it seeming like more work to
them. Passing work for the portfolio to various colleagues
(sometimes from other disciplines) for their oral and written
comments will extend the student’s thinking: a bank of critical
voices is much better than one. In the future, portfolios of
work could be at the heart of UK and European education
reform at post-16, so embedding this practice early would be
b) Using a journal to write responses to Converse activities,
record findings, plan work and write creatively is a tried and
tested way of extending student’s learning. On one hand, it is
consistently re-iterating the importance of ‘the book’ to the
student. Also, it allows students to make literary thinking less of
a limited activity: jotting thoughts down whilst travelling or
whilst reading at home brings English out of the classroom
and into everyday life. A journal is also valuable in that the
mentor (or others), can write their responses into it, providing
formative feedback that can be reflected upon at any time.
c) The above idea of the journal could also be updated using
technology. If a student enjoys using Converse and the
internet as a tool, the journal could be based on a webpage
created and updated by the student. Giving passwords to
other students in the class could allow a group to have a
shared space on which to share thoughts.
d) Leading on from the idea of shared journals is that of reading
groups. These can be conducted between mentor and
student, or between groups of students. Using the power of
the internet, and particularly private internet chatrooms (set
up by the mentor), groups of students from across a city or
further afield can share ideas on texts which they have read.
The growing number of texts available free on-line would help
this to develop.
e) Annotation of texts is a very individual thing, but something
that should be encouraged by the mentor. If it is difficult to
find time to work together during the school day the mentor
or student could suggest some poems or a short novel to read
together. One copy is used: the student reads a poem or
chapter, and writes their opinions and/or questions in the
margin, before passing it on to the mentor. They in turn
comment back, answering some questions, posing others
and so on. Beyond the benefits of time saving, this idea
means that lots of extended thinking can be done by the
student in their own time.
3. All of the above ideas pose the question of ‘who is the mentor’?
The obvious suggestion would be the student’s English teacher.
However, at times it would be better to alter this arrangement.
Young students benefit greatly from reading with older students
during pastoral periods, and this is often recognised for voluntary
work awards. As already mentioned, other English teachers, other
teachers, school librarians, parents, or members of local reading
groups could provide the variety of ideas and feedback that the
future English undergraduate needs. As a teacher of sixth form
students it is also valuable to keep in contact with those who go to
university to study English; many of them (and especially those
intending to move into teaching) make excellent mentors for
younger students, even if it is just for a week’s worth of focussed
individual or small group work during their vacations.
4. All independent work must be thought through with relation to
what goes on in class. In many cases it is better to have a separate
independent project, or at least something that is only thematically
related, as dealing with radically different projects in class can
make whole group teaching problematic. However, this can be
overcome if mentored students take on more responsibility for
planning their own tasks, particularly essay questions: this greater
sense of responsibility for learning is invaluable in Higher Education.
It is also exceptionally helpful if Learning Support Assistants or
Teaching Assistants spend some time each lesson/week working
with mentored students, checking on their progress.
E-learning challenges how we assess English work. Firstly, the bulkiness of
English work can be addressed: heaps of file paper in folders need not be
the norm. The current system of coursework folders, whatever the age of
the student, is unwieldy. Each folder takes up lots of space, and as it
grows becomes less likely to make an appearance in a lesson, where it
can be reflected upon. Creating an electronic portfolio of work could not
be more different: pieces of work can be accessed quickly, by the
teacher, parent, or student. Checking on progress can become a regular
thing that students can do as a homework exercise, reviewing their
portfolio from home.
An electronic ‘cover sheet’ (perhaps a ‘read only’ Excel spreadsheet),
can house the bank of teacher’s comments and summative grades for
each piece, whilst also providing dynamic links to each piece of work.
These pieces can contain word processed essays; DTP pieces;
handwritten work that has been scanned in by the student; and dynamic
documents containing still and moving image, audio files and web links.
Such a portfolio of work would truly reflect today’s culture, and
acknowledge the variety of what we teach. Work resulting from Converse
activities, saved as webpages, would fit in seamlessly with this model.
A paperless portfolio also makes the teacher’s life much easier: no more
piles of books, and access to the work at any time from any internet
An electronic portfolio makes English a more varied prospect. Whereas
collaborative writing is the norm in the classroom, and indeed the
workplace, when it comes to assessment we shy away from this. There is
good reason for this in that we gain a sense of individual achievement,
however, we risk losing the benefits of successful group working, where all
concerned are empowered by the positive formative assessment they will
Sharing helps both teachers and learners. Students can benefit hugely
from seeing exemplar work available at the click of a button. They also
benefit from working together, mainly in having to justify their thinking and
their writing choices. The teacher benefits from having less workload, and
from the fact that the students (especially if in mixed ability groupings) are
teaching each other.
There are many ways in which assignments can be done by groups,
including email chains that are then forwarded to the teacher; electronic
texts annotated on screen by a group in class; and Converse activities.
The idea of an ‘e-portfolio’ may seem a distant one to many. However, if
a school has a network, a ‘shared’ area accessible by all (but with
different privileges for teachers and students) can be easily set up. This will
allow student work to be stored and shared. Access from elsewhere, using
internet technology, would then be the next step. Keeping assessed work
on a network can also feed into a school’s wider assessment data/system,
whilst transfer arrangements from school to college and college to
university could be revolutionised as student work is sent electronically
A common thread in this introduction to Converse has been that of
Technology, and Converse in particular, poses new questions for our
students as to how they think and learn. It also questions how we are
adapting to work with new media, how this changes the language we
use, and how we behave differently when using these media in and
outside of the educational establishments to which we belong. Lessons
which do not begin to bring some of these questions into play will be the
poorer for it.
World War 1 Texts: a complete course
Parkside Community College has been running its Year 9 course on World
War 1 Texts for some years now. At the heart of the course has been the
need to make it as ‘real’ as possible. Readings of poems from the time are
put into context through the use of video documentaries, presentations of
photographs from war sites, and, most importantly, readings of
propaganda posters from the era.
However, there is a necessary tension between the real and the imagined
throughout the whole course. We want to ask our students why the war
poets needed to articulate their feelings through the imagination, and
why poetry in particular? In dealing with their own reactions to tales from
the war students write their own poetry, seeking to understand for
themselves how creativity or the fictive makes sense of reality so well.
Similarly, students will also seek to understand why the writers of
propaganda posters chose to create often fantastical, symbolic or grossly
stereotypical images and captions. Why choose to be so imaginative
when creating a text that could just say ‘join up’?
We want students to understand the times in which these texts were
made, but also how they have transcended time and remained relevant
through the quality of their composition. Also, we want to impress upon
our students that the media is not a new thing, and neither is its power. As
students understand how such a mixture of media can exist within one era
they improve their understanding of both the time, and of each discipline
The course teaches students the concepts of visual grammar: how images
are constructed and manipulated for effect. As a Media Arts College we
think that it is vital for our students to understand how image and moving
image are constructed and manipulated in a society where so many
messages and enjoyments are provided by visual and audio-visual media.
We want our students to feel enfranchised and to be able to think freely
about all texts. Ironically, this is just the sort of education the youngsters in
the 1910s could have benefited from when bombarded with messages
from the propagandists of the First World War.
Much can be read into the posters studied through image analysis, much
as would be done in Art lessons. Initial things to be analysed as a class or
in small groups might include COLOUR, SYMBOLS, CHARACTER. So, for
example, why is the sky red? What is the significance of a lion? Why is the
soldier’s look triumphant? All of these questions lead easily from a stylistic
analysis into a real consideration of the motives of the poster and its effect
on a reader.
Visual grammar though, as would be expected, is about arrangement in
the main. Things have been placed for effect, especially in images such
as the propaganda poster where the invisible author is calculating,
seeking a desired outcome. At Parkside one of our main methods of
teaching students visual grammar is by using overhead transparencies of
the posters; when they are turned over and are inverted, the meaning of
the poster clearly changes. A figure on the left had more salience when in
that position, however, they seem less powerful on the right. This activity is
replicated when posters are ‘flipped’ in the Propaganda activities of
We have reading patterns that are conditioned over time. We generally
read from left to right and from top to bottom. Levels of importance and
notions of past and future are all tied in with this. Encouraging students to
become aware of their own reading patterns will lead to excellent
The text of the propaganda posters work with the images perfectly: they
anchor each other. Furthermore, in thinking about the images in terms of
written sentences as well we can define what is happening in the image,
using the technical language of visual grammar. Luckily, much of the
technical language is interchangeable, such as ‘vector’ and ‘verb’, both
representing the process of action in image and text respectively.
Creating ‘visual sentences’ asks students to analyse the images and then
to refine their thinking: it is a suitably structured method of discussing texts
which are so deliberate in their composition.
[Further discussion of visual grammar will follow shortly.]
Converse and the WW1 course
We feel that Converse will fit well into our existing course for several
reasons. On one hand the analysis of the posters (especially the inversion
using projection), can be quite teacher-led, whereas the new technology
allows students to do this for themselves. Also, the creation of posters is
enriched by the background detail that students can access, elucidating
their thinking on symbols in particular.
In terms of poetry work the inclusion of multiple drafts from Owen’s
notebooks allows students to access the poetry as a writer as well as a
reader. They can think through both minor and major choices made by
the poet, and think about such choices when embarking upon their own
writing. A wide range of Converse activities focus the student upon a
word or line of poetry very successfully, always leading to a fuller
appreciation of the whole.
[Further material will be made available here shortly.]
There is a diverse and lively selection of essays available with Converse. It
is within these essays especially that we can see how applicable and
useful Converse can be for Sixth Form students. They give students an
introduction to how literary study is approached at a higher level, drawing
links between text and context, author and reader. The theory of practical
criticism is discussed, preparing students for techniques used at Higher
Education institutions such as Cambridge University.
It can be very difficult to get discussion going in the classroom once
students begin to mature; many feel self-conscious or that their views
aren’t the ‘right’ ones. Structuring the discussion is the clearest way of
overcoming this; providing engaging starting points such as images or
objects, or having the expectation that everyone will contribute at least
one point, levels out the process. Essays can also be tremendously useful
in initiating conversation. Firstly, we see that students often feel more
comfortable expressing their own opinions about a text when doing it in
counterpoint to that of a published author. It is so much easier to criticise
the anonymous essayist than the student sat opposite.
Secondly, the essay is indispensable when trying to teach students to
justify their points. Either the essay can be used as a model of how another
writer has justified their position, or the student can seek to use the
opinions in the essay to justify their own ideas in discussion.
Essays should be about provoking rather than closing down opinion. No
matter how illustrious the writer, the notion of a correct critical
interpretation will be damaging to the student’s sense of academic
autonomy, so a healthy scepticism should be encouraged. A Level
specifications require students to increasingly bring contextual ideas into
play (for example AQA spec A, ‘Texts in Context’ and ‘Texts in Time’). In
these cases it is especially important that students begin to think about
historiography, and how essays about times and places, people and
culture can be as loaded with conjecture as literary criticism.
At all times plagiarism should be warned against. Student work that
quotes well from other sources should be praised in class, and seen as one
step towards a successful essay of their own. Style should be discussed
also, especially if students are following the joint A Level in English
Language and Literature. Comparing and contrasting others’ essays,
alongside their own, should lead to a fuller appreciation of how individual
scholarly styles and voices are created.
Secondary sources should be part of literary study from an early age. If this
is the case students are much more comfortable with essays and
referencing when they study GCSEs and/or A Levels in English or the
Reviewing a selection of essays from Converse, several opportunities for
learning become apparent. Although the essay may be a formal genre
this does not mean that they should be housed in formality. Photocopies
of essays should be highlighted, annotated, cut up and reordered by
students. They need to get their hands on them, and with all due respect,
show them none.
This is a very useful activity indeed, focussing on a skill needed by all
students from the age of at least 14. The activity seems very apt for the
early stages of a GCSE or A Level course. At A Level in particular one
needs to establish whether students are right for the Literature course, so
an induction period of one or two weeks is ideal – the ability to really
engage with text is vital, and quoting is absolutely key. Title the period ‘A
re-introduction to text’, and engage students with a wide variety of texts
from across time, asking for them to draw thematic links, leading towards
a piece of test conditions writing. Prior to the writing task, a thorough look
at the Quotations activity will sharpen the students’ ability to reference
correctly, and back up their ideas.
True Crime Dramas
Subha Mukherji’s essay immediately strikes one as an excellent starting
point from which to discuss engaging style with students. All too often
students fail to engage the reader with formulaic openings to essays that
shy away from the drama of a text or event, and fail to introduce
opinions. A close analysis of Mukherji’s methods of description will
challenge students’ ideas of what is appropriate for an essay, and will
lead them towards more daring and lively writing.
The focus on Drama and moral power within this essay makes it an ideal
starting point or counterpoint to any study of Shakespeare at GCSE or A
Level. In particular it would work well in relation to a study of Marlowe’s
Doctor Faustus (AQA A module 3). This essay really asks questions about
the role of audience. Students should be asked what they feel the role of
audience is, whether it has shifted, and how they appreciate drama as an
enacted event rather than as text.
Colin Burrow’s essay on Practical Criticism could well fuel some interesting
classroom debate at the beginning of an A Level unit on poetry. First of all,
split the class into two, and put them in different rooms. One group should
be given a selection of poetry, with titles and author’s names cut off. Ask
them to come up with a presentation for the other group on the ‘merits of
these poems’. Give the other group the same selection of poetry, but with
the titles and author’s names clear, together with a selection of
secondary sources in praise of the work, but particularly the poets. Ask this
group to come up with a presentation for the other group on ‘the merits
of these poems’.
The two presentations should yield rather different responses. One should
focus very clearly on the texts, and how they have been constructed. The
other will no doubt contain lots of detail about how Shakespeare or
Wordsworth (or whomever has been chosen).
Several questions should arise to begin the debate, such as:
- Which presentation held the interest more?
- Which presentation used the analytical skills of the students to
- What did you enjoy about preparing your presentation?
- What is enjoyable or fascinating about the lives of authors?
- Why should we be interested in their lives?
- Are texts anything without their authors?
- Does an author’s reputation sometimes apologise for what
would otherwise be seen as bad texts?
- What do we mean by ‘merits of a poem’?
- How do questions influence our study of texts?
Another way to begin this debate would be to give students a list of
controversial statements, which they can argue for or against. In many
situations this is less threatening than the list of questions described above,
but will invariably lead to the same level of discussion.
Following the debate students should read Colin Burrow’s essay. One
question that could be asked would be whether the literary practice of
the time, and the texts produced demanded a critical treatment such as
Practical Criticism. Do modernist texts need to be treated differently from
Elizabethan ones: those studying novels such as Murdoch’s The Bell or
Forster’s Howards End for the Edexcel A Level should be asked such
The introduction of synoptic units makes an appreciation of Practical
Criticism of real importance for all A Level students. This excerpt from the
Edexcel A Level specification:
‘Section A: Unprepared Prose or Poetry
Students will be given a choice of one question on a passage of unprepared prose and one question on an unprepared
poem and will be required to answer one question. Students are asked to explore the meaning and to comment on
the way in which the material is presented, showing appreciation of literary form and content.’
The AQA A equivalent synoptic assignment is a demanding one, yet one
which Converse could play a large part in, as students could prepare
using both the resources on World War 1 Poetry and those on Practical
‘A2 Module 6
Reading for Meaning
The theme for the reading of this unit in 2005 and 2006 is War in Literature, with specific reference to literature
written about and during The First World War.
Candidates will need to read some relevant pre-twentieth century literature, but should concentrate on the
representation of World War One in Literature.
In order to meet the requirements for synoptic assessment, this module will contain unseen prose, poetry, drama
and non-fiction, as well as pre-twentieth and twentieth century literature.’
Although students are given the contextual umbrella of War, the texts
remain unseen and the skills espoused by Practical Criticism will be of
The new A Level English specifications all require students to write about
Shakespeare (or in cases his contemporaries) in relation to his times. For
example, Edexcel’s ‘Shakespeare in Context’ and AQA A’s
‘Shakespeare’, ‘Texts in Context’, and ‘Texts in Time’. OCR’s ‘Drama:
Shakespeare’ states that ‘candidates are expected to show awareness,
where appropriate, of the relation of their chosen play to Shakespeare’s
other work and to the theatre of his day’.
Colin Burrow’s essay on Shakespeare’s probable education will enhance
student understanding of his era, providing excellent contextual
knowledge for student’s to use in units such as those described above.
What immediately makes itself apparent is how useful this essay is in
introducing students to the idea, and forms, of rhetoric, and the
importance of mythology in Shakespeare’s plays. Preparing some
soliloquies alongside some more bawdy scenes, such as that of the Porter
in Macbeth, and showing these in class would quickly illustrate the fact
that Shakespeare was writing for many audiences. An investigation into
the mythology of evil at the time, with close readings of the witches and
Lady Macbeth, and an investigation into the troubles of kingship at the
time would further students’ understanding of the play, and also of how
we receive it differently over time.
A closer look at the text after such activities would yield interesting insights
into the differing nature of verse and prose, and the variety of mood
within Shakespeare’s work. It would be at this point that the essay would
be best introduced. It also would lead very well into a tour of Converse’s
Interactive Globe theatre, where students can access contextual
information on the theatre of the time.
Why drama? Colin Burrow explains how Shakespeare would have written
many speeches and accounts during his schooling – students must be
asked why this man would seek expression in drama, rather than in text to
How it was written
Colin Burrow very helpfully offers an account of how his essay on
Elizabethan education was written. After reading this essay students would
be gainfully employed by reading further essays on Shakespeare’s times,
and attempting to work out the structure of them, splitting them up into
sections, firstly numbering them and then trying to name them. Advanced
students could also attempt to alter the structure of an essay in order to
give it a different bias or emphasis. Such activities, especially the ordering
of points, require high order thinking skills and demand that students
consciously engage with the process of good essay planning.
Legal Realism in Drama
The amazing story contained within Subha Mukherji’s essay demands to
be re-enacted by students, whether they be studying English Literature or
Theatre Studies. Re-enacting a short scene, perhaps the mock marriage
ceremony would lead to some very interesting questions. Give students
complete freedom as to how they present the scene, and then discuss
the choices that they made: what did they presume as modern-day
theatre goers/dramatists? What did they do that wouldn’t have
happened in the Elizabethan times? Drawing out the differences between
their staging techniques and those of the Elizabethans would provide a
good first grounding of theatrical knowledge.
Mukherji’s essay prompts students to think about important similarities
between what audiences enjoyed then, and what they enjoy now. In
particular, students need to understand comedy and the different forms in
which it comes. Reading through Mukherji’s essay, students should think
about what different forms of comedy could be employed, such as
physical humour, pathos etc. Provide students with the technical
language they need to describe comic effects, and importantly, to
distinguish the differences between these. The most difficult forms of
comedy to explain to students are usually irony and satire. Providing
photocopies of a few choice pages from a satirical magazine such as
Private Eye usually illustrate how these forms of comedy operate.
The key question asked by this essay is what is the theatre for? The
marriage of drama and justice in this case should hopefully impress upon
students what a vibrant and immediate place the theatre was at the
time. Students should discuss why the theatre is an ideal environment for
discourse, and why drama is the ideal form. Also, our changing ideas on
what entertainment is should be addressed.
Taming of the Shrew
Marco Ghelardi’s lecture seems an ideal introduction to Unit 6 of the
Edexcel A Level in Drama and Theatre Studies. Section B of this unit
requires students to research the performance history of a play by
Shakespeare or one of his contemporaries. This lecture clearly gives
students researching this, or any play of the period, a clear view of how
pliable a form drama is: the idea of the text as a shifting, changing entity
over time should be encouraged. The essay is equally useful to any A
Level literature student studying Shakespeare in context.
Reading this essay at home prior to class would also be an ideal
forerunner to a discussion or essay on any Shakespearian sub-plot.
Focussing the students on the action of the whole play, and how the
different threads contrast or complement each other, the essay
encourages them to think objectively about the different thrusts of the
drama, whilst always rooting it in the experience of actual rehearsal and
performance. Such links between the appreciation of structure and form,
and the appreciation of live action are to be strived for in student work.
Setting students a target of doing this in just a few practice paragraphs
would be an excellent activity prior to setting a longer assignment. For
example, ask the class to write about how the action at the beginning of
a scene is arresting, whilst explaining how the language aids this.
The Reading Sources activity is an excellent introduction to any study of
Shakespeare in context. This is largely due to the fact that the class can
start their study grounded in actual opinion from the time, rather than
popular supposition. Also, the investigative nature of the activity means
that students must really engage with this text at length. At the end of this
activity students are in no doubt about the lively, controversial nature of
the theatre and its opposition.
Once the class have investigated the text, look at it as a whole group,
using projection. Ask students to highlight the author’s reasons for disliking
theatre, and ask them to expand upon why these views were held.
A useful activity to follow this up with is to create an alternative
document, expressing the delights to be found at the theatre. This could
then be adapted into a speech to be used by a hawker at a theatre.
Choose the best speech written by a student and perhaps use this in a
role play, with the teacher in role as the hawker.
Give students role cards telling them who they will be: merchants,
students, ladies, pickpockets and so on. Put students into pairs. One will
close their eyes, whilst the other takes them on an imaginary ‘guided tour’
of the Globe. Leading their partner by the arm they tell them what is
happening in the theatre prior to performance, describing characters,
actions and surroundings. The other partner should ask questions that
deepen or clarify the explanation. Students should really engage with the
idea of the atmosphere, and will draw upon lots of small bits of contextual
knowledge they already have, such as the Globe having a thatched roof
Once the pairs have had a few minutes to tour, swap around. At the end,
gather together, and share experiences of what was found on the tour.
Note down on the board and write down what they think the theatre was
like, but also who was there, and how it made them feel. Once the
brainstorm is complete circle things that the students got right, just from
their own contextual knowledge. Then, come up with a list of questions
that they would like answering about the Globe. At this stage pairs can
seek to answer these questions by using the Converse Interactive Globe
tour. Any questions that are not answered can be researched elsewhere
on the internet or in the library. An alternative way of exploring the
atmosphere of The Globe would be to show and analyse the opening of
Olivier’s film of Henry V, although the active nature of the drama activities
If using role cards for the initial tour several other opportunities arise. Firstly,
create freeze frames of the crowd as the play is about to start. Take a
digital photo and analyse it, looking at all of the different attitudes and
expectations to the event they have managed to capture. Also,
individuals or pairs can research further into what life was like for people in
their character’s occupation. Collated into a class folder, this will provide
an excellent bank of contextual material.
The role cards can also lead into further role play. Ask the students to
imagine that they are gathered in the market square at lunchtime
because they have seen a sign advertising a ‘new life’. They should get
into role, chatting to each other. Enter in role as the Captain of a ship
needing extra sailors for the King’s ship. Raise the voice, then lower it to
gain attention, and tell of the excitement of the voyage. Ask for questions
from the potential ‘sailors’. Once the role play has run its course, discuss
with students how their attention was captured at the beginning. Make
clear that this is just what actors within the Elizabethan theatre would have
to do: get the attention of a rabble.
This activity leads very well into the rehearsal and performance of the first
scene of The Tempest. Make sure that each group works with minimal
props and scenery, as the Elizabethans would have had. Work out in
groups (with teacher support), how the effect of a storm can be created
without lavish technology. Investigate movement/dance; heightened
voice; and sound effects using instruments and voice.
Discuss the issue of height in the theatre, with tiers signifying importance.
Experiment with this in the Tempest pieces. How does placing Ariel high up
above the sailors alter her status for instance?
It is certainly useful to investigate the use of symbolic properties within a
class’ initial enactments of Shakespeare, at whatever age. For instance,
ask students to place a crown in different places during an enactment of
Act 1 Scene 2 of Hamlet. Discuss how the balance of power, as
communicated to the audience, differs if the crown is placed in front of
the King, Gertrude and Hamlet, rather than on the King’s head. Such
experimentation with symbolic properties leads very well into investigating
theme or symbol within a text. Ask students to look for all references to
royalty within that scene for example, and come up with a statement
about how this theme is presented. Doing the same with a dagger in Act
1 Scene 7 of Macbeth would be equally effective. How could the dagger
be passed between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to symbolise their
struggle? Leading on from this, what does the dagger itself symbolise, with
particular reference to Act 2 Scene 1.
Such activities lead well to quick pieces of analytical writing that pay
attention both to dramatic action and the depth of the text. Ideally, any
study of dramatic text should switch seamlessly from acting to writing to
Returning to the range of people found within the Elizabethan theatre,
once A Level students had taken their Converse tour of the Globe, it
would be ideal to investigate how text would work within the
environment. Give students pieces of text featuring lots of asides to act
out. The rest of the class should act as the audience. Discuss the reasons
for asides. Discuss how they are played effectively, and how they involve
Repeat this process with some soliloquies, perhaps some of Hamlet or Lear
(the teacher may need to act these out if students are shy). When
discussing life and death most actors will look up to heaven; they will also
avoid direct eye contact with the audience. Question why this is the case.
In looking up the actor not only acknowledges heaven but also plays
more to the generally more educated people in the galleries. Also, unlike
asides, the actor will most often avoid acting on the very apron of the
stage: the further back the actor, the more they play to the whole
theatre, including the top tiers.
This all this leads to the idea of meta-theatre. The idea of a theatre which
consistently acknowledges and plays upon the fact that it is actually
theatre and not reality will be an alien concept to many students.
Questions need to be asked about what this adds to the event, and
specifically to the role of the audience. How does it alter the
entertainment of the play? What does it mean for the notion of the play
as a fixed entity, especially when some of the texts we have come in
Reading Peter Brook’s ‘Evoking Shakespeare’ or his chapter ‘Rough
Theatre’ from ‘The Empty Space’ would be ideal ways of engaging
students with the theoretical and practical repercussions of meta-theatre.
The resources available on Converse for introducing the idea of Practical
Criticism make ideal preparation for the synoptic units of the new A Levels
in English Literature (these are usually numbered as Unit 6).
The exploration of the Wyatt resource, ‘They flee from me’ could be used
very well indeed as a whole class. Either the whole class could view the
poem appearing via projection, or on individual screens. At the end of
the poem students should begin to write their initial response to it. The
importance of this is that the teacher is not asking any leading questions
about the text; rather, the student is free to make their own mind up.
Students should then continue through this resource, noting which
elements of analysis they did not address. At the same time they should
also be adding notes to their own essay about areas they had not picked
up on. Once all have finished discuss as a class what they did not know
about, and seek to address these areas in future lessons; metre and rhyme
scheme may be likely gaps in knowledge. Also, students should compare
their essays to the sample essay contained in the activity: in what ways do
the two differ, in terms of style, structure or emphasis?
The Texts in Time activities are very useful in preparing students for
synoptic or unseen examinations, as they can begin to test their
confidence in associating some of their contextual knowledge to unseen
texts. A useful introduction to this activity would be to give pairs the titles
of the poems on paper and ask them to discuss their expectations of the
dates of the poems from just looking at these. This will focus students onto
word choice, something that will be very useful when they begin to
analyse the whole poems. Also, after students have completed the
activity it would be advantageous to display the poems side by side and
discuss the use of punctuation, how and why punctuation has changed,
and what it does add to each poem. A further development might be to
contrast the original punctuation of the Dickinson poem (as given in the
activity) with the punctuation as given in many editions, which replaces
Dickinson’s dashes with more conventional punctuation.
Index to Electronic Resources Mentioned Here
World War 1 Literature:
A Quick Guide to Quotations:
Colin Burrow, ‘Practical Criticism’:
Subha Mukerji, ‘True Crime Dramas’:
Colin Burrow, ‘Shakespeare’s Schooling’:
Subha Mukerji, ‘Legal Realism in Drama’:
Marco Ghelardi, ‘Taming the ‘Taming’’:
Practical Criticism: Wyatt, ‘They flee from me’:
Texts in Time: