Friday, 27 December 2013

Nurture 2013/2014

I said to @deadshelley that I wouldn’t blog for a fortnight; I didn’t even last a week. Sorry, Jamie. I am like an addict; I need my fix. As everybody else was doing one, I thought I would do one of these #Nurture2013/2014 things.  What went well this year? And, what do I hope for the next year? Apart from the obvious – still being alive at the end of it!


1.       Fatherhood. This year has been a joy with my daughters as they have started to read and I have shared in that process. I know, always thinking of teaching. However, the hours of joy I have spent reading to them and with them is a constant source of enjoyment. Reading is something that brings us together as a family. They love The Faraway Tree and similar books. We just dread the non-fiction books on the reading scheme at school because, I don’t say this easily, they are boring. Even when life has been busy, I have always made time for reading with my daughters. No matter how tough things I have been there has always been a story for me to read at the end of the day. Great stuff. However, 'Meg and Mog' are crazy.   

2.       Living with a disabled daughter, you try to normalise things. The disability isn’t an issue in our family. We support her but we don’t single her out. We neglected how she might see herself. This year we discovered that she didn’t see herself as normal. She knew she was different and said to us that she wanted to be ‘normal’. This clearly upset us as we had tried so hard for disability to not be an issue, yet we discovered this year that she needs to see others with cerebral palsy.  She needs to see more disabled people so she doesn't feel like she is alone. That’s why seeing disabled people on television is so important. We see ourselves reflected in others. She never saw, until now, anybody that reflected her disability; she felt she was the only one. Therefore, we have found some children with cerebral palsy and she has made some lovely friends. She is much happier.

3.       Still having a full head of hair as I meet the mid-30s.

4.       Reading – I have read, read and read some more. I am quite happy that this year I have read some great books. I have read sixty books in total. Four of those include Jo Nesbro and one was Frank Herbert’s Dune.  

5.       Hobbies. I always struggle with my hobbies. Finding the time has always been difficult. Whereas some people spend time in the gym, television and reading have always been my hobbies. This year writing has joined my hobbies. Well, I say joined. More like, take over. Well, I say take over; I mean dominate. It has really become something I enjoy now, so much that the blogging has become more regular than I ever wanted it to be when I started it off. But, I love it.  I enjoy it. I am not as high-brow as other blogs, but I have enjoyed sharing ideas and playing around with my ideas and writing. I try every so often to do something different with my writing. I am not perfect and I am guilty of the odd mistake, but I am happy to try things out.  The bonus is: I get paid to write now thanks to another website. One of the results of blogging is that I do some freelance writing for a website.

6.       Perspective – I suppose, if I am honest, I am an all or nothing person. Either passionate about something or not. I feel this year I have balanced that out. I have found writing as a way to get things out of my system and as a result I have felt quite balanced and positive. This has helped me with work and helped me slow down a bit. I have learnt that I can’t do everything at once, so don’t even try. The old me would have tried everything and then more. Do one or two things really well rather than several things badly. I think I have a more grounded approach to things now. Next time I will do it better. This helped me so much when Ofsted paid me a visit.

7.       Ofsted came and that is all I want to say about it.

8.       The Blog – I am quite proud of this year from the blog’s point of view. People read it and it keeps getting views, and, most importantly for me, people tell me how it has helped them. I love the idea that my little old blog has inspired someone out there or it has helped them plan a lesson. I don’t want to rewrite the education system; I’d leave that to bigger and better people. My ramblings are simply me thinking of ways to improve my teaching. Obviously, I have a slant on English and literacy so I am a niche thing, but I love that.  Surprisingly, I was one of the top ten education blogs in August – it was a quiet month.

9.       Presentations and teach meets – I organised and participated in  several teach meets this year and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I didn’t think I would but I did. I have met so many lovely people through these and the TL13 was a major highlight for me.  Teaching is done in isolation a lot of the time and just spending time with others teachers who are experiencing the same things as you is great. Like a self-help group for teachers.   I think I have formed some great friendships as a result of these. Plus, running my own teach meet has helped me to network and meet some other local teachers. Thank you to everyone who has helped with these.

10.   Teaching – I was hit hard by the C/D GCSE English fiasco last year and it took a bit of time to get through that. This year I came back fighting and determined to battle the system. Like the song: I get knocked down and get up again; you are never going to keep me down. I tried hard. I experimented. I got some great results in the summer.

11.   I started the year as a Literacy Coordinator and I finish it as Acting Head of English. Enough said. Bit of a journey.

12.   Twitter – I float around Twitter. I am not on it constantly but I’d like to think I have made some lifelong friends and ‘frenemies’. I’d love to that everyone for their support and help. The list is endless but I’d like to thank David, Lisa, Kerry, Anne, Gwen, Kate, Carolyn, Mark, Kev, Helene, Julie, Sarah, Kathy, Rachel, Mary, Jo, Phil, David,Jamie, English Lulu, Fran, Kenny, Alex, Paula, Jill, Thomas, Harry, Andy, Debra, Gordon and all the others.  And you dear reader: I appreciate all the RTs and discussions or kind words this year.


1.       Make time for my friends. Parenthood has meant that I haven’t always been so good with keeping in contact with my friends. Some are quite flaky, but there are some friends that I need to make time for.

2.       Watch some films. One of the main things in my life I have let go is film watching. I am an avid fan of serial dramas, which has pushed my film watching away. I think the number of films I have watched this year amount to five and four of those are Barbie films and the other one in The Croods. I think I will start by watching the new Superman tonight.

3.       I want to read some books on education. I tend to read practical teaching books rather than books on the philosophy of teaching so this year I’d like to read one or two of these.  There often is a conversation going on Twitter about some book and I am a little bit left out with it because of my lack of reading. I am a sucker for a good story. So if it hasn’t got a story, I will probably not read it. This year I will try to read some of these books and then quote them in the staffroom - maybe not the last bit.

4.       Read more of the classics. Maybe another Hardy and Dickens novel.

5.       Continue to work smarter rather than harder.

6.      Crack 'fashion for men who are not young anymore'.  I have hit that precarious age where clothes either makes you look like you are trying too hard to be young or they look right.  Fashion is a dangerous path and I struggle all the time. I would like to crack it this year and work out a style that doesn’t say granddad and doesn’t whiff of a man trying to be younger than he is.

7.       Being good at the HOD role. I don’t expect to be the best, but being good is what I am aiming for.
8.  To combat my blogging addiction and maybe save things up.

9.       Learning from the mistakes I made this year and getting a little bit better in 2014.

Thanks for reading and I wish you and your family a happy and prosperous New Year,


Sunday, 22 December 2013

Taking the ... risk - I want the SATs back!

I am Scrooge. I have an extreme dislike about all things relating to Christmas. Not what Christmas represents but more about the baggage that arrives with it when the Christmas period starts mid-October. Aside from Slade playing everywhere, the wall-to-wall gaudiness of decorations, the fairy vomit of lights on houses (mental note to self: move away from my neighbours), the apparent acceptable bad taste in clothes and the obsession it has on people’s lives and daily existence, I mainly hate the following phrase: ‘Come on, it’s Christmas.’ It has become an unwritten motto for Christmas.  It is worse than some dictator’s rules, worse because there are no rebels against the dictator’s party line. Everyone MUST enjoy it. 

Wear this novelty tie that has naked snowmen dancing on it. Come on, it’s Christmas. Gorge your way through this plate of sugar with a thin layer of fat and sugar mixed in for good measure. Come on, it’s Christmas. Drink this yellow drink that has the consistency of tar. Come on, it’s Christmas. Dance this stupid dance. Come on, it’s Christmas. Smile. Come on, it’s Christmas’

I suppose it the enforced happiness that is the problem for me. Generally, I am a happy person, yet I struggle to be happy with someone insisting I smile ‘cos it’s Christmas. It completely puts me off Christmas. Furthermore, it is too structured. You have to do a, b, c, and z or it will not be the best Christmas ever. For me, it about getting through Christmas and not making it the best it can be.
The journey that people have to Christmas is like the journey that students have in lessons and … Oh, sod it. I am not, for once, going to make a tenuous link between two ideas. I am just going to talk about how I miss the KS3 SATs. Yes, you heard me right. I miss them. I am pining for the good old days, when we had them in Year 9.  Why do I miss something which was the constant bane of every teacher’s life for several years and months? Why do I miss the meaningless assessments and questions? Why do I miss the strange results generated by students sitting them? Why do I miss the preparation for students sitting them? Why? Why? Why?

The reason is simple: I think there are very little risks for students in schools. Yes, there might be a few sharp edges on a few tables, but do be really create an environment of risk? Or do we make learning too safe and too comfortable for students? Do we scaffold too much? Do we avoid using red pens because they are too negative? Do we always start with a positive comment so they feel happy about what they have produced? With our fear of being held accountable for results, do we stop students making mistakes? I think, if we are honest, we do. I am guilty of scaffolding work so much sometimes that there is very little chance for students to make mistakes. Very little chance of getting it wrong. I work so hard on making sure that they don’t get it wrong that maybe I am missing a point.

Our Year 11s have just had their mock results back this week and I felt that this has been the one moment in the past five years that has been very risky for them. They prepared for what they thought would be in the exam and it was a hit or miss if they were successful. Some have had great results; others have not been so successful. One thing is clear: those that did badly have made a huge milestone in the learning. They made some bad choices. Next time they do that assessment they will not do it again, or they might fail again.  Several of my students missed a question out. In the past, I have had students attempt write something for every set text in a GCSE Literature exam, even though they have only studied one of them. I can assure you none of them will do it again. They will make the right choices or different choices next time. Sadly, I think we take the choice element out of learning. We make the choices for them. We don’t let them decide for themselves. We, in truth, are preventing them from being autonomous individuals and forcing them to be good, rule followers.  

I think of phrases said by students over the years. Thankfully, they don’t say: ‘Come on, it’s Christmas.’ But they do say: ‘What do I need to do?’ Or: ‘Is this right?’ I usually answer these questions. I usually stagger the task, preparing them for it stage by stage. What if occasionally I didn’t do this? What if I gave them a task and they had to get on with? No bullet-points of what to include. No discussion beforehand to generate ideas. No examples of how to do it really well. No sentence stems to guide their writing. No question and answer of the main things they need to include. No, they just do it. You, the student, make the decisions. Not me for once. What would happen if we did this? Wouldn’t we have a better understanding of what they can and cannot do? I think a lot of assessments are a collection of things the student has remembered the teacher has told them to include. Not a true engagement with the task. Obviously the tricky point is: when does teaching become giving a list of things to include in an assessment or giving guidance?

I am not suggesting that we ditch drafting. It is a valuable process. Only this week, I made my Year 7 class redraft, a film review they wrote, three times. All of them made progress along the way and surprisingly they enjoyed it. They got it. Hopefully, they will make a few less mistakes next time we do it. However, I am suggesting that we need to have some points in the curriculum that are about risk taking.  An assessment that has no introduction, no instructions and no build up; they just do it. Let’s call them ‘blind assessments’. In English, this is quite easy. I can easily invent a task; other subjects might struggle. Students do the task and I assess it.  Yes, they might get it wrong, but it is in those mistakes that I will learn far more than what they do with scaffolding. I will see what they can and cannot do. What comes naturally? What parts of their writing are ‘artificial components’? Look at GCSEs papers and you will notice that examiners frown and dislike artificial component writing like AFOREST. Sadly, I think our current assessments, in English, lead us to this component lead writing. Across the country you will find Year 11s trying to crowbar a fact in because they have a witty acronym. Good writing isn’t formulaic. It just works.  

The SATs provided a clear ‘blind assessment’ for students. They had an idea of what the paper looked like, but the texts and the tasks were unknown. It wasn’t perfect, because there was too much teaching towards it, but it upped students’ game. They worked hard for it. Sadly, it was a measure for schools rather than anything meaningful for students. I always felt sad for students when they got their results as it was brushed off in the education journey. Yes you have a level 6, but now we use grades in GCSE, so really that number is a bit meaningless. Sorry.  What it lacked was a direct consequence for them? To be meaningful for a student, it must have some consequences. There were no consequences for them. You might have a grumpy teacher after the results, but usually the results were received so far after the assessment that there could never be any meaningful consequences.

At the moment Ofsted are pushing for 3+ levels of progress in schools. We are, apparently, not pushing students enough in their education. Gove is changing the GCSEs to make things tougher for students. Things are too easy so students don’t feel driven to work hard. About this time of year, Year 11s start panicking about their future options. They start realising that they need to work harder to get the grades they want. They start becoming aware of the consequences of their actions in lessons. Some lucky few are aware of this from the start. However, a fair few suddenly have moments of realisation of the consequences of their past actions. In reality, they want to get better. No matter how many times I have told them that they must use paragraphs, they don’t. Yet suddenly after this moment of realisation they do it. In fact, they do it again and again, without me prompting them. They even fix their handwriting that I have never even mentions, because they want to get better. The student is aware of the consequences. They are aware of what they need to do. They want to do something.

What I think we need to do is to make them care sooner rather than later in education. Year 11 shouldn’t be the time that students realise the consequences of not working hard. They should know this from the start. There have to be clear consequences for not working hard enough. There are students that coast throughout Years 7-10.  These students need to know the risks of not working. Telling a student over and over that they are not reaching their target grades is meaningless. Having clear consequences for not working hard will give them more momentum. If you don’t get X, then you will not be Y. I constantly live with data, yet I think the data can be meaningless when there are no consequences or risks for the students. Lots of students want to get better. However, there are some that are apathetic and have level blindness. There needs to be some consequences for these students. Telling them that they might not get a C at GCSE might be meaningless in Year 8. Therefore, an immediate consequence is needed such as changing sets or something else. And, no I do not think giving them monetary rewards or prizes are the solution. It could be moving sets or limiting their options.

Anyway, the  SATs. They originally provided some risk to the curriculum. An assessment that could have had so many consequences for the students, but it didn’t. Gove has highlighted the current obsession with levelling and has put things in place to deal with this, but I am under no illusions that we will not see some other form of testing making its way into the curriculum. He’s changed KS2 testing. He’s changing the GCSEs. In time, KS3 will change and I reckon an assessment is due. Otherwise, we are looking at a huge gap between KS2 and GCSE in terms of monitoring progress. For DfE, education should be a line graph that goes up and up and up, yet most of us realistic teachers understand that progress happens in peaks and troughs. However, to maintain a climb in progress, they will add another test sooner or later so that they can monitor the climb.

Like Scrooge, I am visiting the ghosts of past Christmases. The SATs remind me of the good old days. I feel so much happier now; I think I understand Christmas now. I am putting on my Santa hat and singing carols as I type this. God bless you – I wish you and all a very, merry and happy Christmas!

Thanks for reading,


P.S. I am taking a break for blogging  for a fortnight, but I will be back in the new year.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Spelling Problem: finding a voice for people

Spelling. That annoying thing that bugs a lot of us. It drives us mad, crazy and slightly mental every time that a word is spelt incorrectly. A fantastic piece of writing is always spoilt by the constant misuse of the word ‘there’ or ‘their’. It is the metaphorical equivalent of bird poo on a bride’s dress. Yes, it is beautiful, but you just can’t get over the yellow smear that drips down the dress.  For me, spelling is the thing that most people pick up on in a person’s writing. That and handwriting. Often during a parents’ evening, parents hone in on their child’s inability to spell or their handwriting. I am left agreeing with them. In attempt to appease Ofsted, I bet most schools have upped the amount of spelling tests students sit. The problem, however, is the English system of spelling itself.

One article I found stated that ‘English is a relatively simple language, absurdly spelled’ ( I can only agree with them. Certainly, as an English teacher you commonly traipse from one pitfall to another. No sooner have I established one spelling rule, then I have to address another rule. The rules are not joined up. One rule applies for one set of spellings and then a different rule applies to another set of words. Spelling in schools is like a hydra. You chop one head off and another two appear. It is never completed or finished.
My daughters are learning to write at the moment and it has been a very interesting experience. Recently, they started writing their own books (I assure you: I had nothing to do with it), but their spellings highlighted to me the stupidity of what we expect students to learn, know and retain for the rest of their lifetime. One of their books was about a sea creature finding a shell. In fact, it was written as: a see cretur finds a shel. Now I think the spelling was very logical. The sounds were correct. The meaning was clear. Also, the grammar was correct. Everything about it was good and made me happy, but the spellings were a different matter. I’d be a harsh dad if I was expecting them to spell these words correctly at their age. However, if they were in Year 11 I’d be very disappointed. Yet, over the years they will be taught various methods and approaches to improve their spelling based on a set of irregular rules based on several European languages and many different influences. The beauty of the English language is that there are new words and combinations of words being formed and created every day. That beauty is almost spoilt because of these spelling rules that seem to dictate our approach to writing. I loved my daughter’s idiosyncratic spelling because it was based on creating meaning by rearranging sounds. They made logical choices based on the sound of the words. Their rules made sense. They weren’t underwritten by a form of Latin root. They used a functional approach to language. This is what I want to say and this is me saying it. Everything was correct about from the spelling.
For several years, I have battled to get less able writers to write. Sometimes I am successful. Sometimes I am not. Sadly, I have seen a trend over the years of students writing less and less. The educations system should have helped these students to communicate effectively; yet they write less and less because they fear making  a mistake. The less I write, the less a teacher can highlight as being incorrect. The joy of reading my daughter’s novel was not in the writing but the act of communicating thoughts and ideas. Why is it that by Year 11, students are not expressing their thoughts as freely as a Year 1? Does the current system of spelling shackle students and stop them sharing their voice? Do we empower or oppress people through these difficult rules?

If we want an educated society, then we must have a society that is populated by people who read and write freely.

Now, I know what you are thinking: I am a crazy teacher who thinks that spelling errors should be ignored. No, I am not suggesting that. I am suggesting that maybe the rules governing our spellings should be simplified. Students could have a wide vocabulary. Students could have sophisticated grammar structures in their writing, but the spelling error in every line holds them back. It looks like a bird has pooed over the work. Things are getting even worse as our technology supports American spellings.  We now have another set of rules influencing our English rules. Microsoft Word and other packages have made some American forms of spellings normal.

Recently, PISA tests have highlighted that there ‘might’ be a difference between the educational experiences of students in different cultures. Apparently, the UK is not doing as well as it should be. Now, the finger of blame is pointing in every direction. But, people aren’t talking about the culture that each education system works in. Our reactive culture is being compared with proactive cultures that value education and its importance for bettering the individual. The student understands the value of education from an early age. Their family understand this. Their culture understands this: you work hard and you get the best in life. You improve by working for it. We have a reactive culture and this hinders progress. Only when it is staring us in the face do we really do something about it. How many times have I seen Year 11 students changing their behaviour in the last few months? Why? They react rather than act.

Back to spellings, why don’t we regulate spellings? Why don’t we simply consolidate the different spellings of homophones? The context of a word would certainly help us understanding the word and sentence. We have lots of homographs, so why not add some more? But, we will never have anything so drastic. Why? Well, it might make a few things equal. We do not have a class based society, but spelling is just another way to form a barrier between people in our society - those that can spell and those that can’t.  
The dictionary was a fantastic invention many moons ago. Maybe, we need an organisation that regulates how we spell. Maybe we need to look at our language in more detail. Maybe, like the ‘lovely’ Universal Credit system, we need to consolidate all these different spellings together. Maybe have one combination of letters for one sound. Maybe not: it sounds like a lot of hard work.  I know: keep things as they are and we can divide society into those that can spell and those that can't.



I wrote the above on Saturday and John posted this great response on Tuesday.

Further websites about spelling:

Saturday, 7 December 2013

A lesson on character – most roads lead to Dickens

I love Dickens and I am embarrassed to say that I never studied his work at university. I even did a whole unit on the Victorians and yet I never glanced at a page of his work.  Furthermore, I never read any of his work at school when I was a student. Yes, I was Bill Sykes (that is quite hard to carry off – you’ll know what I mean when you have met me or meet me) and I did a lot of method acting for that part. Just drinking! However, it was my PGCE course that led me to his work. We were due to have several sessions on ‘Great Expectations’ and we were instructed to read the book. As I wasn’t busy, I read and read and read the novel. I read it solidly for about two or three days and loved every word and line.

There was a barrier I had built up around Dickens. It was complex, difficult, troublesome and so slow to read. Yet, as soon as I read one I enjoyed the experience that I read another. And another. And another. I traipsed through ‘Hard Times’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and I am making my way through ‘Nicholas Nickelby’. I have devoured his short stories like ‘Captain Muderer’ and ‘ Sid and Nancy’. Sat patiently on my shelf are another two of his novels. Like most people, I like a balance in my reading, but every year I visit a Dickens in some kind of way.

As an English teacher, I read. I read and then I read some more. I read everything and anything I can get my hands on. Last week, I read a Darren Shan book and next week I will try and read ‘The Snow Angel’.  My favourite opening to a conversation is: ‘What are you reading?’ I love hearing what people have read.  There is a proportion (I am not judging) of English teachers that have never even sniffed a book by Dickens.  Yet, each novel is rife with lessons on description, character, setting, rhetoric, facts, opinions, structure and other aspects of English. I see endless resources on TES about extracts from ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Harry Potter’ and other contemporary novels, but few cover Dickens. In fact, I received very few views on this blog when I put Dickens in the title of a post. I don’t intend to be elitist about books, but within seconds of opening a novel written by Dickens I can find a description of a character; however, I have to search bit harder in some teen fiction.   

Shut up, Chris – what do you know? Well, I think I have proof of the benefit of Dickens. Every year our Year 8s read ‘Great Expectation’ (all sets – yes, even that set) and they also read a modern novel. In Year 10 or 11, I show them the poem ‘Havisham’.  All students remember the character and recall key facts about the story.  I then ask them what novel they studied. Nothing. I then shout out some names. Nothing. I then mention some key plot details. Nothing. I then show them a cover. A slight glimmer. The class novel seems to disappear in the memory but Dickens lasts longer like it is etched in their brain.  

Anyway, below is a series of activities that I always do with ‘Great Expectation’ and it goes down a storm.  I did it with a set 5 and they enjoyed it.

Step 1: The Context
There are three things that students need to get their head round when studying Dickens:

·         He was paid by the word to write.

·         His work was serialised.

·         His readers would probably forget things quickly from chapter to chapter.

Yep, they are huge generalisations, but they help students to understand the context that Charles Dickens wrote in. This all opens the dialogue up about what would they do in this particular situation.

What would they do if they were being paid a pound per word?

What would you do to stop people forgetting what happened in the story?

Step 2: The Names
I give students a selection of names and descriptions of characters which they have to matchup.

Oliver Twist

Edward Murdstone

Mrs Billickin

Mr Gardgrind

Uriah Heap

·         A person only concerned with their tenants paying their rent

·         A cruel stepfather

·         A boy whose luck keeps changing

·         A teacher who is only concerned with teacher boring facts

·         A person  who  is quite sneaky  

We usually discuss these character’s names and try to create our own.  My favourite this week was Mr Shat: a teacher who shouts a lot and wears a large hat.  I had to explain to the student that his could mean something else.

Step 3:  Caricatures

I show students a selection of caricatures of famous people. The first activity is name the celebrity. Then, students identify what the writer has done to make the picture of the celebrity funny or unique. Most artists pick two clear features.

Finally, I take the pictures away and ask students to describe how the people were painted. Usually, they all tell me all the things the writer has exaggerated.

We then discuss the terms exaggerated, caricatures and grotesque.

Step 4: Mr Bounderby
We guess the personality and appearance of Mr Bounderby from his name. Then we look at the following:

He was a ---- man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, ----- man, with a stare and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been --------- to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a --------- skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open and lift his eyebrows up. A man with the pervading appearance on him of being an inflated -------, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-------- of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

We guess the words and then look at how it is like a caricature. Students make links to the pictures before and discus how Dickens has created this through the writing here.

Step 5: Having a go at being Dickens
Finally, I show students this example and ask them to write their own Dickensian character. 

To my amazement, a strange woman walked into my room with the most strangest of attire I had ever seen. She walked in with so many coats on that she looked like a clothes horse, and each item of clothing had holes in it, where a maggot or moth had eaten the material away. She walked in in a most peculiar fashion too with her head bent forward as if she was searching for something on the floor. She was looking, possibly, for her marbles, which I am sure she lost a long time ago, as she muttered something about a missing boy. She walked in barefoot as well, which suggested that she hadn't travelled far or that she had the toughest skin in the world that even a knife would struggle to penetrate.

 However, their description must have:

·         Exaggeration

·         Elements of a caricature

·         A grotesque element to it.

The results I get are hilarious and brilliant. Teachers, strangely, make great characters for activity. I had one student describe a mole on a character’s face being a spider poised to move any minute now. Some students go down the snot route but others go for a more subtle approach.

All this is from one description of a character and a few names. The beauty of Dickens’ writing is that each line is loaded with effective writing and a range of techniques. Open a page of his book today and I will guarantee you will find something you could use in lesson.



Saturday, 30 November 2013

Preparing for the end

It is that time of year again! No, not Christmas. I mean the seasonal regeneration of Doctor Who. Like the makers of ‘Downton Abbey’  and ‘Eastenders’, there seems to be nothing more Christmassy than a death*.  It could be a psychological trick to make us feel happy. You might be bloated with a combination of Roses’ chocolates and sprouts (Did I ever tell you they were sexy?), but at least you are not dead. Or, maybe on a far deep-rooted level: the death of a well-known character in a show displaces and embodies the secret feelings we have towards an annoying relative. You may be stuck in a living room listening to an uncle or aunt fart and spout rubbish at you, but there on the shining television is a character that if you close your eyes you could imagine taking the form of your uncle or aunt.

Anyway, the Doctor is being bumped off and while I am waiting for the inevitable to happen I was thinking about the ending of novels, and in particular how we deal with the ending of a novel in lessons.   I teach and have taught lots of novels and plays and the ending is always an interesting thing to concentrate on in lessons. It is the culmination of everything you have done. It is the showstopper. It is the climax. It is a make or break moment. You often love or hate a book, film or novel based on the ending.  We always hear: ‘It was a great film apart from the ending.’ Or: ‘Wow- what an ending. I can’t possibly say why, but you have to watch it for the ending’.  In fact, I have become one of those sad people that are the last to leave a cinema, because somewhere in the credits there will be another ending tagged on that is ‘like amazing’.

For an English teacher, the ending has become a tactical nightmare. My opening talk on ‘Of Mice and Men’ is like the opening of ‘The Fight Club’:

The first rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t look at the last page or chapter.

The second rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t talk to a student in another class who has read the novel.

The third rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t talk to your parents about reading the book, as they will probably have read it.

The fourth rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t type the words ‘Of Mice and Men’ on any search engine.

The fifth rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t mention anything, if you find out, about how the story ends.

The sixth rule of reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that you don’t discuss the book or these rules.

I know: it is all a bit convoluted. I should just say: ‘George kills Lennie, but you don’t know why, so let’s read the book.’ But I don’t. Instead I have this tightrope act of balancing between spoilers and secrecy. Usually, a crafty student discovers the ending and plants massive hints when we predict future events in the novel.  This is further evidence for teaching a wider variety of books at GCSE.

I hear of legends where students have openly cried in lessons over the ending of a novel.  Mine just cry with relief that they can talk about the ending, which they have known of since the first lesson.  It seems that everybody knows because Tim shouted it out on the bus home.

So what do you do when they have finished reading the book then? Well, here a just a few things that I do, or have done in the past.

Rapid Reactions
This is something that I have used again and again with endings.  All too often we have a big intelligent question to ask students when we finish a book and we neglect the emotive response to the ending.  When I close the book, I ask students to not talk and just fill in the sheet of paper, explaining I want their first impressions.

The sheet usually has the following things on it:

Event that sums up the novel:

Greatest scene:

Realistic moment:

Wasted opportunity:

Character you empathise with the most:

Character you loved to hate:

Character most like you:  

One thing you would improve:

Best line:

The beauty of this is that it always generates discussions. And the most surprising of things are found. I did this recently with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and I was surprised that when a student said they thought the visit to the church was the most important scene.  She was right as it was a symbol of harmony in the novel and that is something we never see in the trial, which is the scene the majority of students picked.  

Evaluate the ending
I used to teach the WJEC GCSE exam and in some ways I hated and loved this question at the same time:

How satisfying is the novel’s conclusion?

For the most able, it was a challenge to justify the resolution by linking it to the structure, language and themes of the text. For the rest, it was a simple task of retelling the story and explaining why the ending was so good – something they thought the Examiner would be happy with, as if he had written the book.  However, with a bit of structure students can achieve a lot with this question.

Rewrite the end
There are several books I wish had a different ending.  A few years ago I got fed up with modern novels and their postmodern ways. I escaped this with Victorian novels.  I just got tired of the silly ways that contemporary novels ended. Trying to be too clever often ended with vague wishy-washy conclusions.  All too often the protagonist was left like they had smelt a fart, looking pensive and worried about the future. Cue the Victorian novel. A nice neat ending with no loose threads.  Baddies punished. Tick. The good guy or woman live happily ever after. Tick.

How different would the novel be if George was killed alongside Lennie?

How different would the novel be if Boo was stabbed at the end of the book?

Making links
Write a brief summary of the ending and get students to work backwards and label it with connections to other sections in the book. Students then easily see mirroring or foreshadowing.

I have done this a few times.  Students fill a shoebox with items that link to the plot. They justify putting the item in and then as a bonus I use the shoebox with another class when we start reading the book for the first time.


Some endings are clearly predictable and they were sign posted from the beginning. Others take you by su………

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Why don’t they ever blooming remember things?

Disclaimer: my knowledge and experience of neuroscience amounts to seeing a pickled brain in a classroom once and knowing the definition of the word.

Over the last few months, I have read numerous blogs about the inner workings of the mind and browsed several articles on how knowledge is more important than skills. From all of these I am coming to some of my own conclusions about memory and more importantly learning.

We all suffer with the same experience in the classroom. You ask a child about what happened in the last lesson and what nugget of gold they learnt through the meticulously planned lesson you tailor-made for their enjoyment. They look at you stunned. You probably haven’t given them enough thinking time, so you give them so more thinking time. And some more. And a bit more. A tumbleweed rolls across the classroom and in the distance you can hear a solitary bell ringing. You try to prompt them with words, gestures and semaphore signals. Nothing. Zilch. Not a glimmer. Why? They have forgotten it. The fantastic lesson where even the angels and archangels in Heaven were singing by the time the plenary arrived and they, the students, can’t remember it the following day, week or, not surprisingly, month.

The problem is short-term memory. The drive and thrust of our education system is on short-term memory. Everything we do feeds into the short-term memory. Our assessments. Our teaching. Our approaches. Our ideas of teaching too feed into this. A student’s memory is like a small purse. They pick up some coins (unofficial term: learning units) in period one and then in the next two lessons they pick up some more coins of a different currency (stay with me with this comparison).  By the afternoon, the students have a purse full.  After lunchtime, the student then tries to fit in a few more coins. However, there is no room, so something has got to go. They can slip in two more coins but only if they ditch the two pound coins that the English teacher worked so hard to give the student at the start of the day. Then, it all starts all over again the following day. More coins are added and the older ones go.

We are constantly trying to fit £100 in a purse that will only fit £50. Short-term memory has its uses. It is great, but it is not as good as long-term memory. We all want to commit the knowledge and skills we teach to permanent memory, yet we commit it to temporary memory or the short-term memory. That’s why I get fed up with students forgetting a book we studied last term. The majority of the lessons I taught were geared to temporary retention rather than permanent retention of information.  Yes, but you are teaching the skills and that is more important than knowing the book. The recursive nature of English means you will repeat skills but not the text.

I am starting to think that the unitary structure of our curriculum feeds into this obsession with short-term memory. We teach topics and assess the topics at the end of the unit. This structure, I think, supports temporary memory. Students after the assessment can dump all that knowledge because they have completed the assessment. What happens afterwards? Do they use it again? Is it referred to? Often, and I am talking about my teaching here, you refer to it in another topic, but the learning isn’t repeated again. It is assumed that it has moved over to permanent memory, because an assessment has been done. More than likely it hasn’t because the purse could only take so much.

Take Year 11: the year of constant cramming and rushing to cover the course.   We all panic because they have forgotten something or their knowledge of a topic is weak, so we employ their short-term memory again to plug the gaps. We all do it. I do it. Surely, most of Year 11 should be about developing the long-term memory in preparation for exams and life? Yet, the curriculum is jam packed with so much that it means short-term memory is employed because there isn’t enough time for developing long-term memory. This Mr Gove could have fixed by slimming down the curriculum and focusing on less and concentrating on quality. The current system (thanks Dickens) sees students as empty vessels to fill with facts, facts and more facts. Sadly, our students are small pots and can only take so much. Better to teach a few things properly than lots of things ineffectively.

So, how do we develop the long-term memory? I can’t find the blog here, but there is a brilliant one about repetition and using repetition in the classroom. Repetition is one way of achieving things. At the moment, I am employing some of these techniques in my classroom. One thing I hate is whistling, but another is the student who asks me: ‘What exam is this one?’. I endlessly tell students the details of the exams. Before, I used to think it was laziness on their part, but now I realise that they are not committing the most basic (and vital) of information to permanent / long-term memory. Therefore, I have been teaching them in a very repetitive manner the basics of the exam. Weeks later when I test them, they can recall all the information.

Fundamentally, I think we need to look at the structure of our curriculum. My department is currently looking at how we teach the novel to students. Each year we teach a novel, or more, depending on the circumstances. The novel usually takes a term to teach and we assess students through an essay based task. We questioned if this structure really helped them to ‘learn a novel’. Our conclusion was negative. They often forgot key things and knowledge wasn’t always carried over. Look at GCSE and we expect students to ‘learn a novel’ and we constantly refer to it across the course. Their learning is mixed with other things, but their long-term memory is developed as a result of this method.  So, we are changing how we teach the novel in Years 7 -9. Instead of narrowing it down to one term, we are spreading the teaching of the novel over the year. Each year group will have a novel. Interestingly, Year 8 will have ‘Great Expectations ’. Over the year, the teacher will teach the novel and at the end of the year they will have a large assessment. The hope is that their memory will be pushed to hold a story and key things over the year and instil things to their long-term memory. Time will tell, but that is the thing with short-term memory: it is quick and simple, but long-term memory takes time.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. Emotional memory is very important to transferring information from short-term to long-term memory. Students always remember the time when John farted in a lesson, because it was ‘so’ funny. That’s why I think humour is so important in the learning process. Failing that, you could always use clips from scary films. Show a clip from ‘Carrie’ after teaching students something and the scare they had will help transfer information from short-term to long-term memory. The emotional experience they had will help commit the information to long-term memory. Warning: I don’t advocate the showing of horror films. Instead, use bad pop videos from the 80s. Far more scary.  

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Techniques for dummies

My presentation from the English Teachmeet

My presentation was a journey through my teaching of techniques. I discussed what I do to get students to explore language choices effectively. We have so many resources, yet we don’t have any clear step by step instructions of how to approach things and this is problematic if you are new to teaching English, or if you want to have a clear structure in your teaching. There is no single way to teach, yet it would be nice to hear how people approach things.
Our common approach to teaching techniques is often based on two approaches.  One: what students notice in a text. Two: asking leading questions highlighting key things.  There is also the teaching of a specific technique through writing but today I am mainly concerned with the analysis of techniques. Our questions usually sound like these:

       Why did the writer use the word ‘++++++’?

       How does the writer make the writing dramatic?

       How are questions used effectively here?

       How does the reader feel at the start and how does the writer create that feeling?

       What effect does the use of emotive language have at the start of the text?

I have felt that the two approaches don’t always work well for me. They are two extremes. One structured and the other not. Occasionally, I might use both approaches, yet I have always felt underwhelmed with the results. In fact, I felt that my whole approach to analysis was limiting. Approach one was trying to build independence yet it was based on what I had taught students previously. Approach two was dependent on me leading and students explaining. Therefore, I needed to think how I could get students to explore without being too dependent on me.  I needed some steps and approaches that would stagger the progress from explain to exploring. We seem to flip at the moment between the two.


Independence – choices – exploring (A/B)

dependence – formula – explaining (C/D/E)

The secret I find to writing effectively about techniques is about doing three things at once: talk about what the writer has done; explain how the reader feels; and explain why the writer wants people to feel or think this way. Hopefully, some of the approaches below help to address some of these things. Each of these I have experimented with and I am still experimenting with them.  

Approach one:  creating sentences.

This worked really well as a starter as it allowed students to construct simple sentences that could be expanded at a later stage. It made students think and they produced some clever and insightful points. I usually get them to write 6 sentences as a starter or a plenary.  They then feedback their best ones. 

To extend it further, I have asked students to link two techniques together ( alliteration and 1st person perspective) to show an understanding that techniques work in combination with each other.

Approach two:  offering them alternatives.

This I have blogged about before, but again it is a brilliant starter or plenary. It engages students quickly with its multiple choice approach. We are always asking students to say why something is used, which is like plucking something out of thin air, and rarely show them the possible alternatives. This approach gives students a clear alternative to say why the writer picked one rather than the other. I have used it with poems, plays and non-fiction texts. It gets to the heart of the choices and makes students think. The question, ‘Why did the writer use a simile here?’ becomes slightly more concrete for exploring when turned to, ‘Why did the writer use a simile instead of question here?’.  In their discussions they will relate ideas to the purpose and effect and structure without direct input from the teacher. They are simply exploring.


Approach three:  offering them precise alternatives.

A variation on a theme, but nonetheless it works well. Some teachers use draft versions of a text to explore choices, but this one worked really well. It removes jargon and technical terminology that bog some explanations down. Simply it focuses on the meanings of the words and how the word functions in the text. I had a group discussing endlessly the difference between look and glance. Harper Lee’s writing is quite simple, yet even with simple choices there are layers of meaning.


Approach four:  looking at the wider choices

Shakespeare is both easy and difficult to teach. This approach I have used before, but I am refining it here. Getting students to think wider as a writer is important. Here the students explore what were the big choices made for the scene and explore why those specific choices were made. Again, this is about making the implicit explicit. These are often the biggest choices made by the playwright, but they are neglected by the dominance of language features.  This is part of a bigger document which I will share later.

Approach five:  predicting the use of choice

This approach is my most ‘out-there’ one. The students are told the context of a scene. In this case, it was Othello killing Desdemona.  They have to explain why the writer would use the word ‘it’ in this situation before reading a single line of text. Students explore in detail why the choices were made. For me, this approach worked as it removed a lot of the barriers to understanding here – the complex language and numerous allusions to things students are not familiar with. Rather than decode a text, they were thinking like a writer. Why would you use the word ‘honour’ in this situation? Furthermore, it took out that annoying simplification of Shakespeare that sometimes happens. Why study Shakespeare if you are going to reduce it? The students were able to explore  the choices even before reading the scene. Then, in the reading of the scene an extra layer of analysis was added as they searched for the techniques or noticed what the writer actually did.
These are just some ideas and my exploration of teaching techniques is just an experiment with some positive results. I am going to take it further and apply it now to writing. For example:

Write a letter to the producers of X-Factor persuading them not to use the chairs again?


rhetorical question vs emotive language vs fact

I am going to get students to discuss which approach is best when writing the letter. We will explore the choices at the same time that we write. Write like a reader and read like a writer.

Thanks for reading,