Using Reading Skills of Analysis and Evaluation to Help Students Plan Effective Creative Writing

When teaching skills of analysis and evaluation, it’s quite useful to encourage students to analyse the effectiveness of their own work using some of the frameworks and structures we use to teach these skills.
In one recent lesson with Year 10, we were looking at crime in Victorian literature ( this was to support them in building on the significance of the Carew murder in Jekyll and Hyde and to gain a deeper insight into why crime such a prevalent theme in so many texts written at the time).


We used the SPITE method ( Setting, Perspectives, Ideas, Themes and Events) to explore the significance of crime across a series of Victorian/ late Victorian texts. The SPITE method is used to support students in answering evaluation questions in Edexcel English Language and English Literature GCSE).


Using the following framework, we looked at an extract from The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Settings

Why this setting? How does the setting add impact for readers? Does the setting change throughout the text?


Perspectives
Why this perspective, for this text? Whose opinion am I getting? Whose voice am I listening to? Does the perspective change? Are there any shifts?


Ideas
What sort of ideas or thoughts are presented (writer’s/perspective)? Do the ideas shift or change?


Themes
What kind of themes are apparent? what is the writer’s overall message?


Events
What actually happens? Why does this happen? Why does this happen now?

The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Extract)

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.
He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.
I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.
I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
‘That fellow’s got to swing.’
Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.
I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

Pupil A’s Response:


Settings
Prison – gives the audience – perhaps middle/upper class people – an insight into the life of a prisoner (for entertainment)?


Perspectives
First person, from a prisoner watching another on his way to be hanged, and this stays constant throughout the poem – quite empathetic towards to the prisoner/ those who commit crimes

Ideas
The fact we should feel pity for prisoner, the idea of justice, the idea of criminality being problematic, the question of whether the death penalty is an appropriate way for justice to be served.

Themes
Death, crime, imprisonment, murder, justice


Events
Somebody leaves the prison who is being watched by the rest of the prisoners who are contemplating his death.

After a more in-depth discussion of the SPITE elements and analysing the text in greater detail, we turned our attention to using the model to assess the effectiveness of the students’ own planning of a narrative. I wanted them to start to think more critically about where they wanted to place their audience and what they were attempting to make their audience think or feel. This way, they would be able to subtly manage their audience’s response.

This was a useful way of getting students to think consciously about the decisions they make in their writing, including consideration of narrative perspective, and the interconnectedness of events that occur during their narrative in order to consider the impact on their readers.

After evaluating her own plan, this pupil wanted to focus on the idea of the plight of young children who turned to stealing in order to survive in Victorian London. She chose to write using first person narrative, using setting effectively to echo the desperation that the two main characters feel.

Here’s the piece of work she produced:

“Are you ready?”

A hushed whisper intercepted my disrupted sleep, a welcome distraction from the cacophony that blared outside. Trembling in their fragile frames, the half-boarded windows shook with the incessant wailing of some neglected baby outside, acting as the harmony to the menacing tenor voices that encased our street in an unpleasant orchestral arrangement. The wind raced outside, meandering through the makeshift ragged cloth “doors” that covered the entrances to the houses, sending an arctic breeze into the otherwise claustrophobic settlements. It was just another late night in central London – nothing new. We were used to this. Hesitantly rolling over to meet the whisperer, I could see that her eyes were as deep as craters, anticipation and anxiety marking a sharp crease in between her eyebrows. My sister had never looked this … well, scared. We were all used to her bold attitude and contagious enthusiasm, but it’s strange what loss could do to a person. I nodded my head in reluctant confirmation as I realised what was about to occur. There was no other option.

First step: get out of the house. What should have been overwhelmingly straightforward – for other people, at least – was completely the opposite for us. Navigating our way through the other ten sleeping bodies that lay motionless on the damp cardboard mattresses, the moonlight dimly illuminated the room , drowning the few visible patches of degrading floorboard in a shallow pool of light. It was hard enough to stand up without making any noise, let alone leaving without waking the newborn baby that lucidly twitched in a state of half consciousness. He should have been tinted with the rosiness of gently burning embers but it was instead left with a thin coating of ash that coated his gaunt cheeks, a troubled expression engraved into his porcelain forehead. A similar look of anguish graced my sister’s face; clearly both of our internal monologues were begging and pleading with us not to leave him. It was too late to change or plan: we had planned our futures from this moment onwards and there was no way out of it. By this point, I had somehow made it past the fraying cloth door as my sister followed closely behind me: it was time to face the inevitable.

Disturbing my body from its trance-like state, the icy breeze snaked through the bustling alleyway causing all passers-by to hug their worn shawls closer around their necks. My sister shivered slightly as her hand-me-down nightgown billowed behind her, exaggerating her emaciated figure in the relentless wind. They could not have made their stares and judgemental smirks any more conspicuous, their critical eyes attempting to find the reason why two children would be in the east end of London – surrounded by drunk people – at this time of night. Some gave glances of sympathy as they continued to stumble aimlessly down the uneven cobble tiles, noticing the row of cloth covered houses that we stood in front of. I grabbed my sister’s arm, pulling her through the meandering throng in the way that I wished our mother could have done for us. They were still watching, surveying, wondering… whether with intentions to protect or endanger… but there was no time to worry now.

“Would Mama really want us to do this?” my sister half-whispered, half-cried as her breathless voice cracked with an intangible mix of emotions.
The question I had been dreading, the undeniable answer scratching at my throat with its claws of malice. She had always kept us away from doing things like this which usually ended with her going without food for days at a time, adamant to always do the right thing. Before we moved here, starvation would never have been an option – even though the Master was never particularly welcoming towards us, he was thankful for how well we kept the house and would always ensure that we could live – rather than survive. When he moved, we had no other option but to come to the city – the factories acted as sirens, alluring the most desperate of people to a seemingly perfect life that, in reality, could not be more disappointing. That’s how we ended up in this position and it was manageable at first when Mama was with us – but now it’s just the two of us and the baby. No way of getting money, no way of sustenance, no nothing. No choice.


“We have to do it, Clara. The baby needs us and we are the only people that can help him,” I pleaded, adopting a tone that was disingenuous enough to evoke a raised eyebrow from my sister.

Still holding her arm, I guided Clara through the slowly dispersing crowds until we reached the markets. Dozens of eerily deserted stalls were sporadically scattered around the tile courtyard, packed with crates of fresh food and fabric and bottles and tins and more than we had ever seen before. We had been waiting for this moment for years, and the sheer extravagance that lay before us was a marker of our progress. Finally we could live again. No one was around, yet the burning sensation of watchful eyes still lingered on my spine, perhaps an indicator of excessive paranoia. Surely we must have been alone.

“You wait here, Clara. I’ll get a crate and as soon as you see me turn around, go! Run home,” I hissed, gently disentangling her arm from mine. I crouched down to her level, the flickering street lights engulfing her face in a pulsing glow, the light dancing across her forehead in a taunting manner. Something had possessed me in that moment – some sort of maternal instinct to make up for the mother she would never have again. In her eyes, I saw Mama – and I could never bear to see something happen to her again. Things could be different if this worked.
“You’re not coming on your own. I’m staying wherever you are.”
“Clara. Listen to me. It’s not safe for you, okay? Count me down from 3 and I will go.”
A look of resignation flashed in the form of a partial frown across her mouth, but I knew she would listen to me. If anything happened to her, I knew that that would be the end of things as we knew it. Too much had been taken from me – from us – already.
“Okay then … 3, 2 – “


I couldn’t do it. A degree of hesitancy consumed me for the slightest of seconds, but it was still enough to miss what happened. Clara had gone hurtling towards the market stall, her infantile legs powering at a gargantuan speed for such a miniscule being. Time was in slow motion as her arms were outstretched, reaching towards the crate, hands grasping the sides, then it stopped. Time stopped. The feeling of being watched was confirmed when the sound of forceful footsteps added a percussion to the melodic wailing of the pub around the corner. I couldn’t stop him, even as he knocked away the crate that could have saved us all from the inevitable. He screamed and howled and pounded and cried, getting closer to my sister until he held her on the ground, a series of indecipherable words reprimanding her through and through.


I was paralysed. Couldn’t move. Nor could she.

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