Life's a lottery

My daughter gave me Shirley Jackson's We have Always Lived in the Castle to read and I must say that I haven't quite got into it yet. But it led me to a short story of Jackson's that gave rise to huge protests and vilification for the author, as well as praise, when it was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1948. The Lottery is a chilling tale of blind tradition taken to its ultimate end in small town America, a pre-cursor, surely, to the dystopian nightmare of The Hunger Games. No spoilers here but an eerie chill started to wrap its fingers around my heart as soon as I read about the small boys gathering together piles of stones.... 'Outrageous', 'gruesome' and 'utterly pointless' were some of the comments the story garnered on publication. It's easily located and downloaded online; why not have a read and see for yourself? Do 21st century audiences have different sensibilities? Please do email me your comments.

On another note, in my day job of secondary school English teacher, I'm starting to prepare my Year 11 students for their mock exams just before Christmas. These are important as their offers for sixth forms, college places and apprenticeships will be based on the predicted grades that these exams will provide. One of the hardest things I have to do is to teach students how to write ‘creatively’. I put ‘creatively’ in inverted commas because, in fact, there’s nothing remotely creative about what is required at GCSE, and even if there were, the idea that anyone can produce excellent creative writing under timed conditions during the stress of an exam is ridiculous. It's much more a case of 'writing by numbers', just like those 'painting by numbers' craft kids I remember having as a child where you are told what colour to put where and in what order.

Nevertheless, writing is what they have to do – descriptive and persuasive/argumentative in the two English Language papers – and I have to try to show them how to do it. And the reason why I find it hard is that it’s so obvious to me, or not even that, it’s not obvious, it’s just something I can do without knowing how or why or really understanding what I am doing. Trying to unpick the skills needed and repackage them so that 15 and 16 year olds who find the whole concept of writing really, really hard can achieve exam success is a constant thorn in my side. I spent most of yesterday devising a mnemonic to help them remember what they should include in their descriptive writing and I'm quite pleased with the result. I'll see how it goes and if it's successful, I'll post it here. If not - well, we'll just pretend that lesson never happened!

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