First featured in the Guardian Teacher Network.
Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence places responsibility for promoting the development of numeracy skills on all classroom teachers, rather than leaving such nefarious wizardry solely to the maths department. This is an admirable aim but at first glance causes mild panic for us artsy fartsy teachers of English.
I’ve heard some say that numeracy skills can be boosted in the English classroom simply by directing pupils towards a particular page number in a novel, but I can’t say I agree. Certainly, there seem to be fewer opportunities to build numeracy skills in English than in, say, science or computing classes. Nevertheless we can surely go beyond the basic task of finding a page number.
One answer lies in the French literary movement known as Oulipo (its full title is ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which translates roughly as ‘workshop of potential literature’). Founded in France in the 1960s, it seeks to unite poetry with maths to create constrained pieces of writing defined by set structures and patterns. Most famous examples of the form are the lipogram, a piece of writing entirely devoid of a particular letter, normally a vowel and palindrome stories, both of which present testing challenges for experienced writers.
There are a few exercises which can be used successfully in schools, however. Pupils tend to be intrigued and challenged by Oulipo activities when they learn about its history. It creates a sense of purpose in lessons. Capable pupils find the challenge stimulating and usually respond with creativity and imagination, while less able pupils seem to find the restraints and patterns imposed on them beneficial, they no longer have to worry about crafting a whole story with a beginning, middle and end, a character who overcomes an obstacle, realistic dialogue, and all the rest of it. Instead, they can concentrate solely on achieving the next sequence, and the one after that.
A good exercise to introduce pupils to Oulipo is the prose snowball. Starting with a one word sentence, the story builds up sequentially with each sentence containing one word more than the last. Clear explanation and ample modelling is required when for Oulipo, and I always give this simple example, which I wrote myself:
My breath freezes.
Can’t feel my toes.
I have sent for help.
Please God, when will it come?
I have done nothing to deserve this.
Stuck out here in the wind and snow.
Once pupils crack the first sentence or two, they will build up impressive snowballs, and learn to play with the rhythms created by the ever-lengthening sentences. This task also lends itself well to the more competitive pupils. You can set a competition to see who can write the biggest snowball in the room and offer a Kit-Kat, or something, as a prize.
Another Oulipo exercise, which has the potential to produce particularly exciting pieces of work, is the sestina. Traditionally a poetic form, sestinas can be written as prose to create striking, patterned pieces of writing. Pupils start by choosing six words for themselves (or for a partner, as this task is well suited to paired work). The words they choose should preferably have a number of different meanings, words like ‘hand’ or ‘trip’ or ‘crack’. These words are then labelled from A — F and must appear in a story in the following order:
• ECA or ACE
The goal is for pupils to write stories of seven paragraphs with their chosen words appearing in these given sequences. Again, pupils will benefit from seeing an exemplar of this in action, and there is a particularly striking one available to read by Kirsty Logan on wigleaf.com. Pupils can read this story as a class and try to figure out which words Logan started out with, to see if they can spot the pattern in her story. Pupils’ sestinas often seem to turn out slightly surreal and highly original, with the repeated words forming a kind of beat to the narrative.
The purpose of Oulipo exercises is not to produce classical, traditional short stories. The combination of maths and writing forces pupils to think about the craft in different ways, to abandon their comfort zones and embrace new and experimental techniques. Even if the completed stories are entirely unusual or unorthodox, there will often be a section, or a character, even a sentence, of quality material which could be extracted from the original and developed separately on its own.
Embedding numeracy in the English classroom is not an obviously natural fit, but by combining creative writing with mathematical sequences we can bring a little of that French imagination to our pupils’ work.