What a Bad One Looks Like


Shenmue: the gaming equivalent of my teaching practice?
 Finding that what you have been doing for quite some time actually has an acronym, a tradition and an artful nuance, is not unlike unlocking a secret level in a dungeon-crawling video game. What you thought was a bookshelf (trite analogy, I know) turned out to be a door! What you thought was a routine teaching practice – just something you did because you’d always done it – turns out to be a powerful tool if handled artfully.

A recurring motif in the story of my life is the slow dawning. It takes me a frightfully long time to cotton on, to realise, to have those ‘A-ha’ moments that others seem to have precisely 10 years before I do.  I watched my first episode of Breaking Bad last week (it was good, but the protagonist’s underpants had too much reality about them for my tastes); I started watching Friends, series 1, just as series 8 was launching (the scene where Joey Tribiani is in a hole on a beach, cringing at the prospect of being urinated upon by the aforementioned ‘friends’, is the precise point where I thought “Ah, this is why other people have been enjoying this”);  and I’ve recently bought a Sega Dreamcast. [silence]

And so it was with typical, slothful rapidity that I discovered the WABOLL and the WAGOLL.

In writing lessons, I’d always made a point of showing my students a model written piece. In fact, one of the great delights for me, as an English teacher, is to try my hand at the tasks that I set for my students. It puts me at their level, it enables me to identify with them as they set about the task: there is something instinctively right (and egalitarian) about doing what you’re telling others to do.

And it turns out there’s an acronym for it: What a Good One Looks Like (WAGOLL).

Quell surprise. You, on your umpteenth series of Breaking Bad, bashing away on the field-manipulating controller of your Playstation 7: you already know about the WAGOLL. You’ve graduated to the WABOLL (What a Bad One Looks Like): showing your students how not to do a particular piece of writing.

Again, without knowing it, I had been wabolling for quite some time too. Being a somewhat impish type of teacher, I quite enjoy the opportunity to masquerade my actual stupidity as deliberate anti-exemplar.

However, until woefully recently, I didn’t realise quite how bad (by bad, I mean ‘unhelpful to my students’) my wabolls were.

The point of a waboll is to show students how a piece of writing, engaged in without style, doesn’t quite hit its particular audience’s sweet spot. A flashback (the focus of my current literacy unit) might call for present tense and direct speech to generate a dream-like immediacy and intensity in contrast to the realtime of a narrative. Therefore, a waboll flashback would simply be a recount. On comparing the good and the bad examples, students would see the stark gap (the lack of style) and be in a strong position to reflect on the difference.

What had made my wabolls so bad (too bad)? Basically, I had been shoehorning too much of my ‘unsuccess’ criteria into the anti-exemplar. The waboll would have poor style, but it would also have poor accuracy, organisation and content.

This meant that my students were too free to glean as little from my waboll as they took a care to. They might think, “Ooh, sir is just reminding us to use Kung Fu punctuation again.” or “I reckon he’s asking me for ‘more detail’ again.” or even just “Is he taking the mick out of my writing, cos I did that in the last lesson?!” The waboll was too bad and didn’t tightly focus on the stylistic element (the actual learning intention) and, more stingingly pertinent, it was a product of low expectations.

And so this has been another of my slow dawnings. I related my realisation that my anti-exemplars were too jampacked with lowbrow error to a colleague.

“You mean a waboll?” she shrugged, in quiet clarification.

An entire lobe of my cerebrum fell silently into the sea. A bookshelf miraculously revealed itself to be a door. Phoebe urinated on Joey.

And the rest is history (for you), but laggardly contemporaneity for me.

[Retires for one last game of Shenmue.]

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