I’ve been reading ‘The Writing Revolution’ by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler (2017) and early on in that book, the authors refer to the simple technique of using the ‘because-but-so’ sequence to help structure pupils’ thinking and responses. Given a sentence stem (i.e. ‘Cars are convenient’), students are then asked to complete the stem using three separate clauses:
- Cars are convenient BECAUSE they provide an efficient way of getting to our destinations.
- Cars are convenient BUT they cause untold damage to the environment.
- Cars are convenient SO we need to think more carefully about how we use them and invest more in public transport.
The purpose for using conjunctions is to develop extended writing reponses, to craft more complex sentences and to develop “analytical and deeper thinking” (2017: 39). This latter is something I find really useful in helping students organise their responses to both reading and writing tasks, and I decided to apply it to the reading of literature, and in particular a lesson on Jekyll and Hyde to a year 11 group.
Setting the scene for deeper thinking: ‘the human condition’
I began the lesson asking the students what the exam board mean when they define literature as ‘an exploration of the human condition’. I thought that this would have been a difficult question, but they assuaged my doubts by coming up with some remarkable responses. One student talked about the ‘attributes of our species’ which generated some discussion about whether this was purely biological, or whether this also referred to the physical, social, psychological, emotional and philosphical nature of being human. It’s a short step from this to explaining how this discussion of the human condition fulfils the requirements of AO3.
The reason for this rather abstract start was that I wanted to get the students to respond to a question on the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde. This is of course a knotty problem, as they are the same person, but their distinct ‘characters’ offer an insight into the complexities of the human mind, and the novel is nothing if not a treatise on the human condition. The image slide (above) was a great way to visualise some of these abstract concepts and the figure hanging from the hypodermic syringe elicited some very sophisticated ideas about Jekyll’s reliance on substances!
‘In a word’: using ‘but-because-so‘to extend thinking
The next task was to give them the question I wanted them to consider, and I asked them to think of one word that would sum up the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde:
The words that the class gave me was evidence of their higher level thinking: one student offered ‘seductive’ which I was particularly impressed with. I deliberately didn’t do anything with the words, we just collected them to build a vocaulary of concrete and abstract terms to use in our response.
As you can see, the words offer a vocabulary to talk about the text using some higher level analytical skills, with the odd meta term thrown in (‘symbolic’) to enable pupils to see that, after all, the text is a construct.
We then used these words to build a framework for our response, using the ‘because-but-so’ sequence
There are other connectives you can use in place of these, however, the students agreed that the use of ‘but’ encourages sideways thinking.
Hochman and Wexler suggest that “using but requires students to juggle two contrasting ideas and can be a more difficult task, depending on the stem” (2017: 43). By encouraging pupils to find their own words to fit into the stem, some of the cognitive load is lightened as they have already ‘thought’ around the concept. Of course, what we also have here is a neat, concise ‘thesis’ style opening to the response providing a conceptual framework on which students can ‘hang’ their ideas.
Reading the text with a focus
Reading the text with these words in mind enables students to engage in a more focused way. I asked them to annotate the text using the key words, underlining where necessary the phrases that they might use to support these words. This is the extract I chose (from the final chapter)…
Men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter. I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures. I was the first that could plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty. But for me, in my impenetrable mantle, the safety was complete. Think of it—I did not even exist! Let me but escape into my laboratory door, give me but a second or two to mix and swallow the draught that I had always standing ready; and whatever he had done, Edward Hyde would pass away like the stain of breath upon a mirror; and there in his stead, quietly at home, trimming the midnight lamp in his study, a man who could afford to laugh at suspicion, would be Henry Jekyll.
The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn toward the monstrous. When I would come back from these excursions, I was often plunged into a kind of wonder at my vicarious depravity. This familiar that I called out of my own soul, and sent forth alone to do his good pleasure, was a being inherently malign and villainous; his every act and thought centred on self; drinking pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture to another; relentless like a man of stone. Henry Jekyll stood at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde; but the situation was apart from ordinary laws, and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience. It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.
The next task is to look again at the question, but this time I flipped the usual approach, and asked students to think about how we can USE the passage to comment on the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde. At this point, there were lots of assenting nods which suggested to me that either the class had fallen asleep or that they liked the phrasing of the task.
It’s then up to the students to arrive at some statements on which to hang their analysis. Three is enough, given the depth that we are going to ask them to go into …
Here are some statements that I had already prepared – just in case…
Whilst it is a simple structure, the ‘because-but-so’ sequence allows for some detailed and perceptive responses. I’m not too keen on the shoehorning of ‘but’ and ‘so’ into the above example (beginning the sentence with them feels clumsy), there is enough mileage in the concept to encourage pupils to expand, develop and be exploratory.