Thursday, 7 September 2017

About those Pesky Descriptive Questions

Usually, I think descriptive questions in Paper 3 of the CIE 0500 IGCSE are easier than narrative questions, but this year was an exception. I thought they were rather difficult, and invited narrative approaches which, of course, would limit a student's success on it.

Earlier this summer, I was discussing this in a private Skype with one of my students, and we decided to have a challenge.

Each of us would write our version of the descriptive piece based on the actual exam question. His parents joined in, too. Here are the results of that little game that we played, published on the Facebook Page.  

In the next post, I'm going to try to tease out the process I used for tackling a hard descriptive question like this, and make some systematic suggestions should this trend for vague and narrative continue.


PS Why not respond in a comment with YOUR descriptive answer, or pop over to the FB page and add yours there? It would be fun!

FROM FB PAGE: Here's a fun challenge: write a descriptive answer to go along with this question from the Summer 2017 CIE 0500 exam: "Describe the moment when you encounter an animal."

My student, his parents, and I have each prepared one. Why not add your own?

PS Don't let formatting get in the way of enjoying a good piece of description: Facebook is the one taking out paragraphing, not us! Honest!

1. Thud, thud. 

Each quiet footstep was muffled by the leaf litter of the forest path, the different leaves like various dabs of brown paint spilled on the ground. An owl hooted loudly, but not one of the group heard it, such was their concentration on scanning the mossy forest, eerily lit red by their headlights, so as not to scare what they intended to look for. The moss, hanging from one branch, looked like a curtain, hung up to hide their view of what was behind it, but most simply pushed passed it, not even noting its existence. 

Out of the blue, I, at the head of the party, stopped dead, for there, as still as a statue, stood New Zealand’s emblem, a kiwi. The red light from our torches turned the already dark brown of its back into pitch, each feather a stroke of paint. Its long, powerful feet wouldn’t have looked out of place on a small dinosaur, with their sharp talons and thick legs, which instead scratched the earth to look for worms. The bird’s long beak was a scimitar, ready to slice through the earth in the pursuit of its next meal. 

Then, as if it had only just realised that it had been seen, the bird was off like a shot, running through the forest away from the path*, making more noise than the entire party. The bird ran behind a tree, and was lost from sight. A jubilant, exhilarated and quiet “Whoa” was heard, the noise of someone who truly knows the significance of what they have seen.

2. I crouched and peered into the aviary at the chaos of fluttering, chirruping, shuffling, settling and preening that was twenty budgies. The warm homely smell of millet seed filled my nostrils. I tried unsuccessfully to follow all their movements. How I could I possibly single out one bird from so many and so similar? I noticed one who was perched half way back and high up. He was regarding me with one dark shining eye, intently, curiously. I looked up at him and he looked down at me. He bent his head a little, spread his wings, and with a second’s flight he was on the ledge in front of me, close to my face. I kept absolutely still. His chest was vivid apple green with a dash of iridescence, and his head was a sunny cheerful yellow. 

“Hello, little bird!” I welcomed him softly, and slowly inserted a finger between the wires. He gently nibbled it, exploring his way around my fingernail. Having completed this careful inspection, he then fluffed his head feathers up as budgies do when they are smiling, batted my fingertip several times with his beak playfully, and began to chatter and cheep conversationally to me.
I was amazed and entranced. Amid the hubbub of indifferent birds who all remained engrossed in their feeding and feathers, their squawking and squabbling, this one had quietly stepped aside to show his intelligence, confidence, friendly good nature, innocent trust—and handsome good looks. He was different. I straightened up and turned to the breeder who was already smiling with a shared understanding. 

“Could we have this one, please?” I asked.

3. In the San Antonio zoo, the snow leopard is on display. It’s a young cub, but still about five feet long. The cage it’s in is bare with concrete flooring and only about fifteen-by-eight feet, roofed, barred on one end. The only item is a large, purple bowling ball, and the cub is rolling it around in its over-large paws, purring. If it had been a tabby kitten with a ball of yarn, it would have been no more, no less cute.

The crowd who are watching this gentle, innocent scene must number about fifty. We all have our cameras out. We point our lenses to snap pictures, and we point our fingers to giggle at the sweet antics, and those with children are lifting their progeny higher, above the short shrubs in front of the bars, and we all ooh and ahh. What could be more magnificient than this endangered creature, enjoying his ball in such innocent pleasure?

So incongruous, the firm bars like a criminal in isolation set against the kitten-like pleasure of purring, patting, and playing, and I think we all feel a pang of sadness that his playpen is a fifteen-by-eight cell of grey, scrubbed concrete.

A snow leopard in 100-degree heat, trying to find the joy in his heart with a cold, hard, purple-swirled bowling ball.

I feel regret that we have to cage the beast to watch him play.

Almost as if hearing me, the leopard pauses in his game and lets the ball roll to a stop. He blinks at us and lowers his head. It makes me want to pet him and scratch his ears and even rub my hand along his back to make his tail-end rise with the pleasure of a firm stroke.

Then without warning, it roars at us with a deep, long ferocity, almost as though the sound waves plaster our hair back against the wind, and it’s suddenly clear - so very clear - that this is no cute and cuddly kitten: but a compact predator of muscle and killing instinct, and we are perhaps on his mind for dessert! 

1 comment:

  1. I crouched quietly in the long grass. My heart was beating so violently in my chest that I was sure it would betray me. I tried to breathe slowly, I needed to calm myself. I could see it moving, sniffing the dry earth in search of anything it could scavenge. It was hungry!

    The coldness of the gun barrel pressed on my thigh, but I knew it needed a swift execution. The blazing sun had cooked everything around me and yet I shivered as cold droplets of sweat trickled from my brow. I was sick.

    The seconds seemed endless as I tried to find courage to act. The panic came flooding through me like an express train with an unexpected feeling of pity and remorse.

    I had never killed anything before. I knew this moment would arrive and somehow I found myself holding the gun and pushing it out toward the creature through the wall of arid vegetation.

    I hadn't expected to cry. I longed for this creature to live. The loss I felt for its impending doom, overwhelmed me and I clutched my stomach to try to curb the overwhelming wave of grief about to descend on me.

    This pain was a deep rooted thorn and it threatened to derail my very survival. The baby I'd never given birth to had come back to steal my life with the pain I had buried until this moment.

    I don't know how it happened, but it was over as quickly as it had begun. I was shaking fully now, the gun lying at my feet, next to the creature who had charged his final passage. I had shot him clean through.

    The stillness calmed me and I placed my open hand gently on my womb. Closing my eyes I said a final farewell to the animal inside me that I had finally faced for the first time.