Mr Birling: A Potentially Sympathetic Character?

This was THE week for me. I returned from the holidays to meet the perfect storm of 2 class sets of homework essays completed over the half-term break, 2 class sets of assessments, one in-class essay, and an internal coursework deadline. I’ve calculated that this comes to a grand total of 328 sides of A4 which students have produced over the course of this week for my perusal. Even though I do whole class feedback (here is a great explanation of this process), I’m still only a fraction of the way through what must amount to reading and commenting on a novel.

Whilst it would be disingenuous for me to say that I have enjoyed every single minute of my reading so far, it has certainly given me a fresh appreciation of my students’ diligence and passion for the subject. In the writing of an essay, they are able to synthesise their knowledge, find their own critical voice, and develop their own line of argument. Yet, as my students handed their work to me this week, I also felt their vulnerability. Most of them passed their books over with caveats and apologies, saying that it wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be, they hadn’t managed to make the essay flow well, or that they had struggled to find the right words to articulate their ideas.

And so, as my Year 10 students wrote their in-class essay on Mr Birling this afternoon, I decided to write one too – I often do this, partly in solidarity, and partly because I am rather selfishly motivated by a desire to do something I enjoy. Today, it certainly started well enough.

But it was period 5 on a Friday afternoon and I quickly found myself mired in frustration as I couldn’t find the words I wanted, or construct my sentences as smoothly as usual. Suddenly, I had a renewed understanding of the challenges students face as they write:

  • Finding synonyms for words (I use “insecurities” too many times)
  • Wanting to quote perfectly from the text and having to paraphrase instead
  • Knowing that I had repeated the same sentence opener several times (“This shows…”)
  • Realising that I had forgotten to include an idea earlier in the essay and not having time to go back
  • Realising that I had started a sentence without knowing where it was going, and the result being rather vacuous
  • Realising that I was running out of time and had only written 3 of my planned 5 paragraphs – I was going to have to sacrifice one of my ideas and which one was better?
  • My handwriting deteriorating

And so in the final two minutes I rushed my conclusion (which should ideally be one of the most carefully crafted sections of the work):

My class definitely appreciated seeing me sweat through the process of writing, and next week I am going to turn the tables and ask them to “mark” my work using the whole class feedback sheet. I am also going to talk to them about what it was that made me able to write an essay at the end of a long week: lots of previous and regular practice at writing; regular knowledge retrieval (in my case, in planning lessons and creating resources); and being able to self-assess as I went so that I could select the most useful ideas to include as I was running out of time.

A copy of the essay is below if you would like to download it to use in your lessons.

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