Saturday, 22 November 2014

Making errors and spotting where the plain socks are located

Making mistakes is just a part of life. I have made mistakes and I still do make them. I put my hands up. Once, in my youth, I bought a yellow canary coloured shirt once. My ‘friends’ ridiculed me constantly the one time I unveiled the shirt as the latest fashion choice that I never wore it again. In fact, I have a complete aversion to the colour yellow now. I have been mentally scarred by the whole experience. I’d like to think it was a colour-blind phase I was going through; but it wasn’t.  At university I purchased a lime green shirt. Then, a few years ago I bought a red shirt. The reaction to the colours often makes me understand the mistake I have made. I learn my mistake after the purchase. Then, I change my whole perspective on the whole thing. What felt like a good idea at the time becomes, on a reflection, a terrible mistake. There is almost an ‘eye of the storm’ aspect to making mistakes. We don’t see them at the moment of doing it. It is only when I have left a shop with my purchase and put on the shirt and then been ridiculed by family and friends that I realise: maybe, bright yellow isn’t my colour.

Yes, this is a blog about fashion tips for men in teaching. No - although maybe that could be a possible series of blogs - I am interested about mistakes and the nature of mistakes. The clues is in the title of the blog. It is interesting how we seem to have two ends of the spectrum: students that fear speaking in a lesson or endlessly draft work to avoid making a glaring error; or, students that make a mistake every word or line and accept them as a part of life, like breathing or blinking. We, teachers, traipse a tightrope between praise and punishment. Between highlighting and correction. Between frustration and ignorance. The problem often is time. There is never enough time. This is a result of our curriculums. The emphasis on content leads us to often have a crammed curriculum with no time for dealing with the mistakes head on. What if the content of curriculums was reduced to the ten lines? And, the overall focus was on making better readers and writers?

I have seen endless blogs about proofreading, DIRT time and taxonomy of errors, but their existence highlights a need for this issue to be addressed. Does the juggernaut of the curriculum actually hinder progress? Do we spend enough time looking at the errors? Or, do we feel the need to teach new things, just to appease the god of progress? Or, are we teaching students to learn that mistakes are tolerable as long as their ideas and the content of their work is good? Maybe, our obsession with getting students to the next grade is making us neglect helping students to secure their current grade. Oh look this C/D student is using an A grade skill!

Of course, marking is at the heart of the mistake conundrum. I spot mistakes. I comment on mistakes. I get students to act on the information. I hope they learn to not make the mistake again. I mark again. I spot the mistake again. I comment …. You get the idea. As a teacher, I will think: is it me? Am I teaching them correctly? Do I need to do more? However, I think at the heart of the problem is the unwritten philosophy of teaching. New is better. Old is worse. The new teachers are often popular. The old ones fade into the background. A new concept in a subject is sexier than on old one. Look commas are dull as dishwater. They are so last year. Pathetic fallacy sounds sexy. It sounds exotic. It is sounds so fresh and clever. As it turns out, the student learns to use pathetic fallacy, but cannot use a comma correctly in a hostage situation.

I recently bumped into a student I used to teach and we had a conversation about what he is doing now. Interestingly, he is studying A-level English. I asked him: ‘Does your English teacher nag you about using quotes?’ The reply was in the affirmative. I was saddened by this response. It was great to hear that he is studying English, but the fact that he hadn’t learnt from that one constant mistake he used to make in my lessons saddens me the most. At one stage, when I was teaching the student, I wrote the word quote 50 billion times on his work to help him get the message.  A great lad, but he didn’t get it.

Is it our student’s mindset?  Or is it teachers’ mindset? Do students think that a piece of work will be good if it has great ideas and basics do not matter? What makes our students learn from their mistakes? Teachers? Students? Both?

I started making some posters for students, identifying three key things a student would do in their work at a particular grade. However, in my planning I was focusing on what students should add such as paragraphs or a variety of sentence structures. I wasn’t focusing on the basics, so I came up with this:

A* - One error in the whole piece or free from errors  

A – A few basic errors throughout the whole piece  

B – One basic error on every page

C – One mistake every few paragraphs

D – One mistake a paragraph

E    - One mistake a sentence

Now, I expect people would look at this list and think it is too negative. Show a student this and it focuses on the negative aspects of their writing. But, doesn’t our obsession with seeing the positive sometimes cloud our perspective on the basics? The focus on APP made this apparent. Look they have the spelling of a Level 7, but their punctuation is Level 3. Let’s give them a Level 7.  You could dress anything up to be an outstanding piece of writing, but without the basics, it cannot be an outstanding piece of writing. Rather than upselling writing, let’s look at the basics. Let’s focus on the basics. Let’s explicitly talk about the basics. Let’s make the basics the core of what we do and make the ‘lacy’ or ‘sexy’ new stuff be secondary to the basics. As long as the sexy new stuff takes priority, the old basics will drag everything down.

If only clothes shops had these lists, then I wouldn’t make so many fashion mistakes. Then again: shops want us to fail at this so we buy more from them. They are forever shoving the spangly and garish new items of clothing in our faces. But, where are the plain socks? The item of clothing you need, in this country, every day. The basics are neglected. They are hidden away. They are neglected. They probably sell more yellow shirts than socks to people like me.  

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 15 November 2014

Pinstriped Intervention

There’s a new swearword in schools. Sorry, I mean buzzword. Often, I get the two things confused. It is intervention. Intervention this. Intervention that. I have heard how other schools intervene. I have read what other counties are doing for intervention. In fact, I have intervened in my interest in intervention and actually blanked parts of Twitter.

Yesterday, I attended a conference and the brilliant Geoff Barton was there talking. In his talk, he mentioned about this incessant wave of invention obsession that seems to be spilling into our schools. He described it as being ‘men in pinstriped suits taking students out of lessons to discuss with them how to improve in lessons’. I have to say: I wore a pinstriped suit to that conference. Aside from the pinstriped suit comment, I think he is right. We have an obsession on meetings. We meet for this. We meet for that. We identify students for intervention in a meeting. We discuss the issues with the student in a meeting. We track the progress of the student in a meeting. We review the progress in another meeting. For good luck, we invite parents to a meeting to discuss those meetings.  

As I progress in schools, I have noticed the amount of meetings have increased. In the first few years of teaching, I only had one meeting a term and that was generally to see how things were going. Now, I have meeting after meeting. With great power comes lots of meetings. I do sympathise with headteachers. The amount of meetings they must have to deal with daily puts them closer to sainthood.

Of course, meetings are about communicating information. They can be very important, but they can also be very futile. A simple answer to the question what. Or, the solving of a problem. Mostly they simply focus on a lot of whats.

What is the problem in the subject?

What is it you need to do to improve?

What are you going to do?   

Those questions can be applied to both a general meeting in education and to a meeting with a student for intervention. Or, the questions are asked of the teacher - wrongly in most cases.

What if we spent more time on acting on things rather than discussing things? This was something Geoff alluded to. Acting rather than meeting. He has a very good point. My frustration with a lot of interventions is that they focus too much on the teacher. What has the teacher got to do to for intervention? I don’t mean to sound silly but isn’t the word teaching just another way of saying constant intervention? Yes, I think there should be a dialogue about what we can do to help improve a student, but the emphasis of intervention tends to focus heavily on how the teacher should modify their behaviour. The modifying of a student’s behaviour almost seems an afterthought.

I understand that a student’s needs are very complex and there are lots of variables to explore, consider and ponder. However, I worry that teachers are working harder for students who are working the same they did before any intervention.

So what am I doing? For each year group I have identified several students to track. Instead of meeting them I am going to do some work. I am going to request the student’s exercise book. I am going to see what story it tells me. I have faith in the teachers in my department; I know that they will have interventions in place. I will analyse the student’s work. As HOD, I want to see what the story is from the exercise books and assessment. Then, I am going to write a comment, describing my observations and what I expect the student to do. I will also put a sticker saying: 'Big Brother is watching you!'. Maybe not that, but something along the same lines.  At the end of the term, I will request the books again and I will expect to see changes. There might be a need to meet, but that will be up to me and I will not do it for every student. A meeting is good to tell a student that we care or that we have noticed they are not pulling their weight. But, my starting and ending point will be the work they produce in their exercise books. I will be expecting to see them acting on my direction. I have intervened in a quiet and subtle way, but it is to be hoped that it is more effective than the loud and, clearly, visual for SLT approach of a meeting.

Plus, I will not be taking any students out of lessons.

I now have to organise a meeting to discuss the meeting about what to do with my pinstriped suit.

Thanks for reading,


The Literacy Journey

The Literacy Journey

Here’s a list of links to the various literacy pages on the blog:

An overview of my approach

Guidance to parents


Slow writing


What are the problems with writing?

Is texting the problem?

Sentence structures in lessons


Exploring writing choices

Deep reading

Developing high level reading skills

Developing confidence at reading longer and larger texts

Reading comprehension

The purpose of reading

Getting students to read

The importance of the library

What are the barriers to reading?

Whole school events


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Essays Part 3: Making students think

The question that I often asking myself when marking is: ‘Why don’t they think for themselves?’ Thinking, or more precisely, original thought is gold dust in lessons; yet, it often rarely seen. That’s not without me trying. Try as I might, they rarely seem to step-up to the next level. At the recent TLT, someone asked me: ‘How do I get students to think for themselves?’ Again, I go back to A* essays I have marked and go all misty eyed. If only I could bottle what they do. Bottle it! I’d inject it daily. Or, inject them as my starter. Bring back daily milk too. I’d put it in that.

I often say to students that English is thinking. They look at me slightly bemused and a bit agog. Some get it. Some don’t. The problem we have with English is labels. The subject’s name, English, means students label the subject as reading stuff and writing long stuff. Rarely do they see reading as exploring how other writers think. Rarely do they see writing as showing what they think. English, for me, is the communication of thinking – I know, it doesn’t have a ring to it. But, the lesson is about thinking. What I think? What they think? What others think? What a Victorian lady thinks? What a repressed Edwardian man thinks? What their partners think?

Why don’t student see it as thinking? Could it be our insistence on analysis all the time? Could it be our insistence on labelling things? Could it be the pace at which we teach? Look at the English AQA GCSE paper, there is only one question that addresses thinking. What is the writer’s attitude to blank? The rest of the reading questions focus on spotting and picking apart things. It does focus, in part, on some thinking – what the reader thinks – but its starting point is always techniques. The exam paper isn’t really focused on thinking. It is about spotting language points and then talking about the reader’s feelings. Things have a knock on effect. The percentage time in lessons spent on thinking is reduced due to the insistence of students looking at techniques.

But thinking is hard to teach, isn’t it? I mean it is easy to teach a technique. They learn its definition. They comment on its use. They spot more examples. They have a go at creating their own example. In the terms of progress, it is great, because an outsider can see that a student has learnt said technique. Well, they didn’t know that at the start of the lesson. Brilliant, they do know it now. In fact, they know it so well they can even use it themselves. Outstanding progress.

Now, apply that to thinking. Observing lessons for thinking is a totally different ball game. The fruits of a lesson cannot be seen at the end of a lesson. They might not be seen in the next lesson, or the week after. Sometime, it might not show itself until one time it pounces out and shocks you. That’s why I struggle with non-specialists observing lessons. I admitted to a friend if I observed one of his lessons I wouldn’t know if it was outstanding or not. I wouldn’t, because I don’t know that subject. There might be some markers like students listen attentively and do the stuff they are told, but I wouldn’t really know whether it was outstanding or not because I am not an expert in how students think in that subject. Just as much as he wouldn’t be able to do the same with me.

An essay is a symbol of a student’s thinking. It shows the depth of their understanding and application of an idea.  The problem is knowledge and writing style get in the way of a good essay. A student’s insistent on copying everything off Google makes an essay focus on telling rather than explaining. A student’s insistence of impressive vocabulary, connectives and techniques clouds a clear point. Essays have been morphed into something else. They have moved away from being about detailed thought and moved to being these strange chameleons. Gaudy pieces of writing that repeat obvious and benign things.

How did I learn to write an essay? I think A-level English taught me how to write an essay. My teacher would give a weekly or fortnightly essay to complete. The teacher would give it back marked and I would then do the same thing again with a different essay title. I cut my teeth on writing essays with repeated exposure of essay writing, not explicit structures or approaches. I don’t even think my teachers referred to plans, example essays, connectives or any other gubbins.  Just write one essay after another. They were appalling at the start, but after a time I improved. I learnt how to form and develop an argument over time. My wife joked that she hated English and that she only did well with her essays because she learnt a formula and stuck to it.

Here’s the crux for me: Does drafting the same essay make us better writers of essays? I can understand drafting pieces of writing when the impact is important. Let’s make this horror story even more atmospheric. But, when has an essay ever been written for impact? It hasn’t. It is about clarity of thoughts and ideas and not about impressing the reader and ‘making them want to read on’. Drafting as a process is important, but is it misguided with essay writing? Essay are about writing down thoughts into a logical argument. Drafting often involves changing, adding or removing things. Yes, it can be used to clarify things, but students don’t see it as that. Drafting is about making things better, not about clarity.

Recently I have tried my ‘A-level days approach’ with a GCSE class. Before a big assessment, I, for several weeks, got them to write a two page essay on an aspect relating to the text being studied. I wasn’t drafting their final assessment. I was getting them thinking about unrelated aspects. Each essay focused on a different aspect. Was Shakespeare racist? Does Shakespeare define good and evil clearly in his play? Each subsequent essay showed progress. They got better. In fact, they were much better than the old way of drafting GCSE coursework, which amounted to copying things up and fixing the spelling mistakes. Now, I have always done this thing with A-level teaching, but never with GCSE. I have always printed off a sheet of common problems and great ideas to share with students. Has my obsession with the end product (coursework) at GCSE lead to me not using this approach? I think: yes.

Could also the problem be two-fold? How we teach essay writing. And, how we teach thinking in a lesson. A lot of teaching in English is towards the end product. Tasks are leading students along the merry path to writing a decent essay at the end. Along the path they pick up some ideas from the teacher. They also pick up some ideas from their friends. In effect, the student hasn’t had to do too much thinking, as I have merrily led them to some ‘answers’ without them having to apply their own thinking. Their writing is just a filtering of good ideas and great ideas. They cherry pick their ideas. We are teaching students to plagiarise ideas. We like to think this is them thinking, but it isn’t. Some will think. Some don’t.  You could say without others they would struggle to write anything. True. But, without them attempting to think, they will never think for themselves.  I mentioned in a lesson how some critic suggested Don John in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ sounds like the word ‘dungeon’. I know almost every student will try to crowbar that point in because it sounds good to them.  

Essay writing can be a tool for a teacher to see how a student thinks independently. Without the teachers input. Without their best mates input. A blind essay, an essay the teacher hasn’t prepared students for, could help us to understand their thinking more. Without putting chances for students to independent thinking in lessons, we will not create independent thinkers.  Maybe, our insistence on verbal discussion of ideas has neglected the emphasis on an individual’s thoughts. Good things can come from group discussions, but surely students must come up with their own ideas first.

We have so much discussion about skills and knowledge over the last few years that it is easy to see how thinking has slipped through the cracks. It is a fine balance we tread every lesson between skill, knowledge and thinking. Perhaps, we need to build more independent ‘thinking time’ to lesson. Not a daft starter, but real time dedicated to problem solving without getting your mate to do it and copy off them.  Possibly put more problems in a lesson for them to solve rather than a glut of differentiated resources to alleviate the difficulty of a task.    

Why don’t they think for themselves? Maybe I am part of the problem rather than the solution.  My fear of them doing badly has meant that I have protected them from failing. I have structured the writing too much for them. I have given them ideas through discussions. I have offered some ideas to them. I have done everything, all designed to help them, and then I am expecting them to think for themselves.

If I want them to think, I need to be prepared to let them think in lessons.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Exploring the presentation of a character in a play

I have been working on exploring the presentation of a character in 'The Merchant of Venice' and 'Othello' with a group and I thought I'd share a resource.

The students are comparing the texts and looking at how the characters are presented in the plays. There were 4 slides in total. On each slide there are six questions. . Each student ( in a group of 6) has to take responsibility for their question and then at the end of the 10 minutes they have to, as a group, feedback link ideas to the coursework question.

Slide 1 - Presentation: Staging

1.When are they seen in the play?

2.Is there a pattern in the way they appear in the play?

3.Are they in the opening and closing scenes?

4.Are they part of the main plot? Or are they part of the subplot?

5.Who usually features in the scenes with them?

6.How does the character actually interact with characters?  Soliloquy / dialogue with one character / dialogue with many characters / speech to many characters

Slide 2 - Presentation - Character Development

1.Do they learn something by the end of the story? When?

2.Do they change over the course of the story? When? Why?

3.Does the character’s presentation differ at the start to the ending?

4.Does the character behave in a ‘predictable’ manner?

5.Does the character’s development in the story link to another character? The misfortune of one is highlighted by the fortune of another character.

6.How does the play show the changing of a character’s thoughts and feelings?

Slide 3 - Presentation - Construction

1.How does the writer portray the character through actions?

2.How does the writer portray the character through dialogue?

3.How does the writer portray the character through behaviour?

4.How do other characters interact with the character?

5.How do other characters make this character look better or worse?

6.How does this relate to the audience? Can they empathise with them?


Slide 4 - Presentation - Critical Views

1.How realistic is the portrayal of the character? When is / isn’t it realistic?

2.Is the character a stereotype? How? 

3.Is the writer consistent with his portrayal of the character?

4.What is the character’s function in the story?

5.What is the character’s symbolism in the story? Society?

6.What are the flaws in the way the character is presented on stage?

The nice thing about this approach was the results. The discussion my class had with these questions was very good. They were able to explore the presentation of a character really well.