Teaching Transactional Writing Using the Syrian Refugee Crisis

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When the new 9-1 GCSEs arrived, teachers of English all over the country were outraged for a number a reasons. There was the fact that now long standing book stocks needed to be replaced during major funding cuts to schools, but a much bigger issue was the removal of texts from anywhere other than this little island (and its dominant cultural voice). Gone was the anthology of Poems from Other Cultures; the plight of people in Pakistan, the songs of the slaves and the Half-Caste were shut out. The lessons of tolerance and empathy espoused by Lee and Steinbeck, while they had been a great literary ally in not only teaching language, structure and form, but also how to be a more decent human being, were also shunned.

It seemed to me that my GCSE lessons would become a cage from which I would be forced to teach texts and ideas that only spoke to the history and experience of one ethnic and national group. Until I found a loophole.

The new GCSE language qualification requires students to develop a range of creative writing skills, transactional writing skills, and transactional reading, comparison and evaluative skills. Apart from 19th Century Fiction which has a predominant Victorian lean, the other skill sets provide teachers with an excellent opportunity to educate their students with historic and contemporary international issues.

One such example I used recently was a unit to teach Transactional Writing for the Edexcel English Language Paper 2. It was a conversation with a colleague named Lillian, who brought up the idea that the students at our academy seemed to present a notable level of ignorance about the Syrian Civil War and the ensuing Refugee Crisis. We discussed how a transactional writing unit could be a potential issue to rectify this. She was sad that she felt she didn’t have time to create such a unit, but I loved the idea so much I vowed to create it.

APTOPIX Mideast Syria

The premise was simple: the students would take on the role of becoming a teenager in Damascus. They would follow the journey of this young person writing to cousins in England, watching reports of protests on the news, then fleeing to the north of Syria and then to the Turkish border. They would inhabit journalists taking about conditions in the refugee camps and writing reviews for the films ‘Cries from Syria’ or ‘A Syrian Love Story’. The unit eventually saw their original character arrive in England, to then experience racism in the classroom and challenge it with a speech. Finally, they had the chance to create and deliver a survey to other students in their school across different year groups and put their findings into a report.

I have taught this unit to two different Year 10 groups at this point, and it has been shared with the department and delivered by colleagues. The goals of the unit (to ensure students understood the form, structural and language features of a wide range of transactional writing genres) was pretty easily met. I would argue that the students wrote some of their best work during this unit. However, the unexpected outcomes were far more interesting.

It’s a beautiful and tragic thing to send a group of 24 Year 10 students out to survey their peers with questions they have created like:

How well do you think you understand the Syrian Refugee Crisis?

Do you know which countries refugees from Syria are currently living in?

Would you like to know more about the Syrian Refugee Crisis?

Then, seeing those same young people come back defeated and angry when they have gone into classrooms and had 12 year olds say things like, “They’re all just terrorists!” and, “I don’t care where they go as long as they don’t come here.” One of my students came back and was genuinely upset, having challenged the ignorance he had seen and heard. Despite support from the classroom teacher and the reprimanding of one student who had made an ignorant remark, my student had said, “How could he be so cruel? These people are dying. We have to help; how can we ignore what’s happening?”

No one wants to watch their students see just how ugly the world can be, but this unit allowed me to empower my students to act on a global issue, educating and challenging ignorance and hatred in their own community. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of our profession? To lead away from ignorance? I felt truly blessed in this age of austerity and insular thinking to show the young people I teach that they can work within these constraints and yet still rise above it.

If you would like to teach this unit, you can find my resources below. Please be aware that they have been downloaded from Google Drive, so please forgive all formatting issues and if any of the video links are no longer active.

NOTE: The films ‘Cries from Syria’ and ‘A Syrian Love Story’ are both available on Netflix which is why they were chosen. Any film on the conflict that you think is valid could be used. Be aware that ‘Cries from Syria’ features some truly harrowing scenes and it was a very mature group that I watched it with, and they were warned of what things they would be shown and had permission to look aware if they felt overwhelmed. 

Lesson 1: Introduction to the Syrian Civil War

The Syria I Knew

L1_ Introduction and Context

Lesson 2: Informal Letters

L2_ Informal Letters

Lesson 3: Formal Letters

L3_ Formal Letters

Lesson 4: Articles

L4_ Articles

Lesson 5: Reviews

L5_ Reviews

Lesson 6: Persuasive Devices

L6_ Persuasive Devices

Lesson 7: Speeches

L7_ Speech

Lesson 8: Leaflets

L8_ Leaflets

Care International

Lesson 9: Reports

L9_ Reports

Please feel free to share your comments and thoughts below. 

Sci-Fi Convention: World Book Day 2017

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Image credit: Belle Deesse

To give a bit of context, I work at a truly wonderful, secondary school called Wilmington Academy, a non-selective school in North-West Kent, and part of the Leigh Academies Trust. The school had gone into ‘Special Measures’ in 2009, but with hard work and perseverance, the school was able to rise from the ashes in 2012, when we were rated as a ‘Good’ school during our Ofsted Inspection that year. The majority of our students are male, as there are more schools for girls in the area than boys. We also have a higher number of students with SEN needs than the national average , while also seeing anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 of each year group behind in their chronologically reading ages. Our students struggle with literacy, numeracy, the use of thinking skills, and developing a self-sufficient work ethic. But like most things worth accomplishing, it is not impossible.

For the last four years, Wilmington Academy has produced a World Book Day Festival to celebrate all things literacy. After last year’s successful Tri-Wizard Tournament and 2014’s Hunger Games Festival, it was a challenge to think of what could possibly compete; however, the trick was to not choose a book series, but focus on which kind of genre could engage the highest number of our students.

Enter Science-Fiction – one of the most beloved genres in the known universe. With the recent releases of the new ‘Star Wars’ films and the ensuing release of new canonical literature, the reboot of ‘Star Trek’, and the continued popularity of ‘Doctor Who’ on our screens, there was little reason not to make this our central theme. But the nature of these two week events has been to promote competition, creative thinking, craftsmanship, problem solving, and collaboration. How were we going to do that?

An Inter-Galactic Congress of course. Our school is divided into three distinct colleges with 14 tutor groups (form groups) in each. They receive 30 minutes each day to work on SMSC related tasks, so they are the perfect vehicle for this kind of project and the main source of delivery for our World Book Day Festivals.

The premise was simple: each college would become their own galaxy, and be invited to an Inter-Galactic Congress by the High Chancellor of the Inter-Galactic Senate (our Headteacher). The purpose is to share technology, write galactic law, resolve inter-species conflict, and have a bit of fun in the process. There would be 20 challenges: 10 group challenges that would allow students to work collaboratively and 10 individual challenges that would give individual students the chance to shine. The challenges included creating a planet, an apex species, short films, designing spacecraft, and taking part in a Senate hearing on a newly discovered planet on our borders. Full details of the challenges can be found here:

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The convention then had to be promoted across the academy and in assemblies to really get a buzz going. For this I enlisted the help of a great website called  ‘Star Wars Intro Creator’ to create an original ‘Star Wars’ Intro crawl for our event:

And to keep the convention in the students’ minds we also created posters involving their favourite Science-Fiction universes:

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We also made a resource for students to use to brainstorm, research, and draft their competition entries.

sci-fi-convention-planning-booklet

One of the other key factors that makes these events so successful is that we use them as opportunities for extra-curricular experiences. Each year we have invited in a published author or artist. For the last two years we have had the amazing Sara Grant and  Marcus Alexander run creative writing workshops with our students. This year we chose the amazing William Gallagher, one of the playwrights for the iconic ‘Doctor Who’ series and a published author to do scriptwriting with our students on World Book Day.

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The convention will run from Monday 20th February to Friday 3rd March. Regular updates will be made to this blog post to include student work, special events, and community involvement in the convention.

Have an amazing World Book Day 2017!