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Chris Curtis

Chris Curtis is an English teacher and head of department with over a decade’s experience in education. Chris is forever reflecting on which aspects of his teaching work best for his students and, as an avid reader and blogger, is a big believer in sharing practical ways to tackle difficult problems in the classroom.

Chris Curtis has written a fantastic article for Creative Teaching and Learning magazine titled “From Superficiality to Well-Reasoned Arguments: Learning to Explain” you can read the full article here.

Connect with Chris

Publications by Chris Curtis

How to Teach: English

Written by Chris Curtis, How to Teach: English: Novels, non-fiction…

Author Blog

Remote learning – storytelling with four hundred students

March 22 2020

What everyone thought was going to happen, happened.

Like most people, I am reeling from events happening at the moment. The pace and uncertainty is a real challenge for us. We are taking each day as it comes.

The news that schools were closing was both a relief and shock this week. It has left us with a quandary. The majority of our classes, this term, are working on Shakespeare. Year 10 were starting to read ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Year 8 were working on ‘Macbeth.’ Year 9 were finishing off ‘Julius Caesar.’ How do you effectively teach Shakespeare via remote learning? Answers on a postcard for that one.

Thankfully, we have some regular systems in place so I can easily transfer them to online activities. Spellings. Reading logs. Vocabulary testing. Knowledge testing. Easy. What about teaching? Well, I love thinking myself out of a problem. How can I engage with students? How can I teach students remotely and make it productive? How can I support parents at home without making it overly complicated?

Then, I came up with a solution. Interactive storytelling.

Like most, we have a homework platform. Ours is Show My Homework. So, when the news of the shutdown came. I set my first piece of homework for Year 7, 8 and 9.  This is what I sent to students:

With school being closed as of Friday, we are going to set an interactive writing task over the next few weeks. Each year group is going to work on a different interactive story. 

The story is written in parts and for each part we will pick a winner in the year group. The winner's work will be the starting point for the next part of the story. At the end of the process, we will print and publish the completed story. 

The Year 7 story is called  'A strange event'. 

Write the opening sentence to our story entitled 'A strange event'. 

* The sentence has got to hook people and raise a number of questions. 

* It should only be one sentence long - you can cheat and have two sentences, if you really need to.

*Look at the examples provided, but don't steal them. 

*Do you want the story to be told in the first person or the third person? You decide. 

Submit your opening to Show My Homework by the end of Sunday. You will get the next part of the story on Monday. 

The response has been phenomenal from students. These are some examples from Year 7:

Her life would never be the same, as she picked herself up from the rubble that she use to call home.

I was tired, I was cold, I was hungry and a long way from home.

I thought we would be safe... that it would never affect us.

The house was being swallowed by fire.

He looks just like me...

I changed the story title for different year groups.  Year 8’s story was entitled ‘The Surprise’. Here are a few examples:

She knew where they lived.

I thought it was completely normal to see voices as colours.

The operation was just about to start, the knife was nearly all the way in, but little did they know I was awake and could feel everything.

The only time I knew what to do and it was already too late.

What everyone thought was going to happen, happened.

Year 9’s story was entitled ‘The Mistake’. Here are a few examples:

It’s been months since it happened, but the image is still engraved in my mind.

They often say life is full of regrets, yet I had none...

He dropped the shovel and admired his work, as he stood beside the home made grave.

I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea.

The decision I’ve just made I now regret.

The plan now is to whittle the sentences down to one key sentence per year group. I might cheat and include a top ten of sentences. There’s just so many good ones. Then, we are going to write the next paragraph. At each stage, I intend to do some explicit teaching or guidance on writing. I might even film a video for it or two.

The next paragraph is about introducing the protagonist. I am very grateful for the writer Dan Walker for allowing me to share his opening to his novel. Students are going to look at how to introduce their character. They will, however, be continuing from the opening sentence I have selected. Here is the link to a resource I am using. 

Each new week will bring a different part of the story. We will introduce our setting, our antagonist, our complication, our crisis and resolution, but each stage is influenced by the students.  All responses written by students are small – not even 200 words. Ideally, I am working on 1 to 5 sentences. The whole purpose being the activity is teaching students about storytelling at the same time as writing a story.

We don’t know how long we are going to be closed, so I am thinking how I can expand and explore ideas. I might get to a stage where we need a subplot. Or a flashback. Or a prequel. Or a sequel. I am even thinking at a later stage we get students, at home, creating PR materials such as covers, posters, trailers, etc. Who knows where we will get to?

As I said, the response has been phenomenal. I have several submissions during the typing of this blog. I am loving the collective and interactive nature of the story telling. To be honest, I have no idea where these stories are going to go. Three separate stories. No plan. No end point. No overall structure. A scary notion, but one that’s interesting. However, we are all working together, uniting people.

Over the weeks, I will place more materials on the blog as and when I create them.

Thanks for reading,


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I shot the counterargument but I didn’t shoot the argument

March 15 2020

At the moment, I have been marking some Paper 2 mocks and the whole process is making me revise how we teach non-fiction. To be honest, I find the teaching of non-fiction really interesting. Throw a paper aeroplane out of a window – disinfect it first – and you are guaranteed to it someone with an idea about how to write a story. Do the same thing for non-fiction and you’ll get nothing.

In fairness, we teach non-fiction writing terribly. We’ll enthuse about creative writing to the extent that we will bring in sand and pebbles from the beach into lessons, just so our cherubs can find the right adjective to describe a beach. We might even play sounds of the ocean and blow in their faces so they can just get the experience right. Coffee breath and all! We might even allow Derek to eat his tuna sandwich during the lesson, because it is atmosphere building. Trish has opened all the windows to ensure the right temperature. Sharon has stolen a salt cellar and started flinging it in people’s faces. Trevor has taken it upon himself to make various bird noises until it draws the attention of SLT.

The problem with non-fiction is that we throw ideas at them. We teach students that non-fiction is about ideas and hundreds of them. That’s why when students write non-fiction they throw every idea at us. Why is smoking bad? Six paragraphs later and the students have listed four billion reasons why smoking is bad. Yes, you could teach them about Pathos / Ethos / Logos - but still they have listed a billion reasons, just with added emotion.

The problem comes with forming an argument. We tell students to list their ideas. We tell them to think of the opposite arguments. We get them to expand, list and build up arguments. We don’t get them to select, pick and identify the best argument. We don’t get them to select the one reason that is the best. That’s why non-fiction writing tends to follow the structure of:

Paragraph 1  - reason 1

Paragraph 2 – reason 2

Paragraph 3 – reason 3

Paragraph 4 – reason 4

Paragraph 5 – reason 5

Paragraph 6 – reason 6

Now, if you get students to think of opposing argument or counterargument, then you get a for argument paragraph and then an against argument paragraph. We need a cohesive argument across the whole text and that usually is achieved by building the whole piece around one reason. That reason is then developed and explored and strengthened not watered down.

Take a question from a few years ago. Parents are too overprotective. What is the one argument above all that will address this argument?

Let’s say we agree that our main argument should be:

Childhood should be about freedom and children should be carefree.

That one idea can then be a starting point. That way we can then start building up an argument rather than trying to link several disparate idea – which is what most students do.

Yes, you can go all Pathos, Ethos and Logos on me, but I’d prefer it if students look at that one argument and exploring it further. Here’s a great opportunity for classroom discussion. List as many questions about the argument.

Why should people have freedom?

What does freedom mean?

What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom?

Why do some people think children shouldn’t have freedom?

What does freedom look like?

Should children have complete freedom?

Does a child’s view of freedom differ to that of a parent’s?

What does a carefree child look like?  

What if I didn’t have freedom?

Why should children be carefree?    

Is my view of freedom different to others?

Do I have freedom?

Did I have freedom when I was younger?

Then, students see if they can answer some of the questions in pairs. The questions all have a natural cohesion because they all link to the same argument, but they are different facets of it.

From that point, it is easy to build and structure a coherent and cohesive argument.

Introduction: Do I have freedom?

Point 1: What does freedom mean?

Point 2: Did I have freedom when I was younger?

Point 3:  Does a child’s view of freedom differ to that of a parent’s?

Conclusion: What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom?

You have a stage at which you can move points and build a complete argument. You have the bones to build an argument. At this stage, you could decide that you could probably zoom on one strand and repeat the process again. I’d be tempted to go with ‘What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom?.   

Then, students can build up the writing and add to their framework.  If we look closer, we can see that the students are naturally demonstrating different skills and building on the one argument.

Introduction: Do I have freedom?  - Speculative writing

Point 1: What does freedom mean?- define and explain

Point 2: Did I have freedom when I was younger? – anecdotal writing

Point 3:  Does a child’s view of freedom differ to that of a parent’s? – comparative writing  

Conclusion: What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom? – opinion

At this point, you could bring in the heavy guns. Decide when to introduce Pathos / Ethos / Logos into the party.

How does anybody deal with an idea? I sit on it – like an egg – and wait for it to hatch. That’s what we don’t do enough with writing. We search for hundreds of eggs and then pick the best ones. Ideas need cultivating, growing, tending, caring. We don’t need hundreds of eggs. Just one. One.

Let’s get students away from listing and get them exploring one idea. Talk, of course, is brilliant for this. You don’t even need a salt cellar, a tuna sandwich, a pebble and sand to do it. It is all in their heads. Oh, and Trevor can make those bird noises in his head.

Thanks for reading. 


Next: Sentence Hacks for Paper 2 Q5 

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