Sunday, 28 December 2014

Nurture 2014 /2015

It’s that time again when people on Twitter go mad for post Turkey dinner reflections. I have crammed my face full of After Eight chocolates, and, to cope with the sugar rush, I have sat at a computer and typed these words. I am hoping that my typing will not wake my aunty up.


This year….

1.       My daughters learnt to read fluently. This has been a real joy for me this year as I have played a big part in it. I have endured tonnes of ‘Biff and Chip’ books, but they now read with joy and aplomb. In fact, as I type this, they are reading all the Christmas cards on the wall. I just need to work on their handwriting now.

2.       The family. They are all healthy and they are my rock.  

3.       I still have a full head of hair – just. See the entry below.

4.       I have made it through one year as a HOD. I have survived. There have been ups and there have also been downs, but for the most of it I have enjoyed the experience. I won’t dwell on it too much as I am saving it all for my autobiographical novel ‘Carry on Head of Department’. It is still in draft form at the moment, but it does contain a lot of slapstick moments.

5.       Putting things into perspective. I think this year I have got better at taking one challenge at a time. Teaching is full of problems. In fact, one of the key descriptors of any teaching job should have ‘ must be good at solving problems’ at the top. This year, I think I have limited the phrase ‘We are all doomed’ to just a few times.

6.       I got published in three books this year. I suppose it is everyone’s dream to be published and I am no different. I’d to publicly thank Lisa, David and Alex for including me. It made me endlessly happy this year and provided colleagues lots of amusement. Chris, I need some INSET on Literacy! Me: 'Shall I just pass the book around?'

7.       I talked a bit. This year I attended numerous teach meets and spoke at the brilliant TLT14 and the fantastic Pedagoo in London.  Finally, I spoke at a conference in London. All events were a fantastic experience and I am indebted to the people who offered me the opportunity to speak. At every event I was incredibly nervous. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be doing this sort of thing when I started teaching. I still have to pinch myself.

8.       I have blogged moderately. I think in previous years I had blogged too much so this year I have tried to balance things out. I blog for myself really. That’s why my entries are so diverse. However, this year I tried to reduce the amount I blog so I can relax more at the weekend.

9.       I have reduced the time I spend on Twitter. I haven’t fallen out with anybody. Nor, have I been insulted or blocked – I think. I found that I was spending too much time on things on Twitter and avoiding things like putting the rubbish out and brushing my hair. I now have brushed hair and the rubbish is outside.

10.    I said last year that I wanted to read lots of books about education. I failed big time on that dream. I read a lot of blogs and a lot of the ideas of said education books are filtered down to me that way. This year, instead, I read lots of books about writing. Crazy or what! My particular favourite is Roy Peter Clark. I have picked up one of his books and it contains about a hundred separate English lessons.

11.    People have been very nice to me.  I write in isolation; therefore, I don’t test the ideas out on my daughters, or my wife. So, it is very nice to have people come up to me at events and say nice things to me. It makes me want to keep blogging and talking about things.



This year, I want to…

1.       Crack the new GCSE specs. Still getting my head round them.

2.       Stop looking at emails. Teaching has become a twenty-four-seven thing. People can and will contact us at all times of the day. I long for the days when teachers would only be contacted during school hours. Now, I am being contacted all times of the day. This year: I am going to stop looking and responding to emails at 7pm. Any email after that then can wait for the next day.

3.       Get the ‘Slow Writing’ ebook finished and out there. It is slowly taking shape and I hope to share some news about it soon.

4.       Read some more non-fiction. I admit that I am a bit phobic when it comes to non-fiction texts. Give me a novel any day. Give me a non-fiction text and I will run a mile. I think this year I am going to start reading other types of text for pleasure. In the past, I have dipped into the odd autobiography, but this year I want to start reading other types, especially travel writing.

5.       Get through ‘Breaking Bad’. I have missed the boat on this one a long time ago. I have seen all of ‘The Killing’, ‘Game of Thrones’ and various ‘boxset shows’ TM. I feel it is time to get on the bandwagon for this one.  

6.        Get another English Teachmeet of the ground. I keep threatening it, but something always lands on my plate.

7.       Learn the art of delegation. I’ll get you to teach me that skill.

8.       Work on developing the culture of learning in students. Fight the endless war on apathy in students.  

9.       Clean the cupboard / draw I keep meaning to tidy.  

10.    Oh, and I want to stop chewing pens.

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



Sunday, 21 December 2014

Punctuate or not to punctuate

Here’s a simple question: When do you punctuate a piece of writing? Before, during or after the writing process.

I know, people are thinking: Duh! During the writing, of course. I think in punctuation, Chris. I live and breathe semi colons, mate. However, I think it is a bit more complex than that. Maybe a mixture of all three. Do we consider all three in how we teach writing? Or, do we focus on one more than the other?

People will know how I have obsessed over sentences. How I have revelled in teaching them. How I have explored and shared novel ways to structure a sentence. How I have taught students to develop writing by teaching an explicit structure. Most of the time, the punctuation in a sentence is mirrored in the writing the student has produced. The explicit teaching of sentence structures has helped students to see where punctuation goes. It has a comma after this word, so I must make sure it has it in my sentence.

Primary schools have and have had the ‘Punctuation Pyramid’ and students, before they started writing, could see what piece of punctuation could get them in terms of a level. Move over commas – I want a sexy colon in my writing. This aspect of punctuation teaching I have always struggled with. The idea that all bright people use semi colons and colons is ludicrous. A systems for assessing writing based on single features is, in my opinion, flawed. It is simplifying the writing process without asking the important question: does the use of this punctuation change and improve the meaning of the sentence? All too often, punctuation is used in its basic form. How many times have I read a piece of writing with fifty exclamation marks in it? Ask the student why they used the equivalent of the GDP of small country’s worth of exclamation marks and you will usually get a blank face. We all know that an exclamation can shout, can shock and can impress something on us. But, teaching a student to use it just once, makes the shock even more effective. It can heighten a serious issue, or raise the tension. However, we tend to say: don’t forget to use a range of punctuation marks. What if we said one of the following things in our directions at the start of teaching?

Use just one exclamation mark to draw attention to the most shocking thing you are saying.

Use just one exclamation mark to highlight your disgust at an aspect you are writing about.

Use just one exclamation mark to raise the tension in the dialogue.

Use just one question mark to show sarcasm.

Use just one question mark to make the reader doubt what they are thinking.

Obviously, you can go to town on this and insist on three questions in a row to shock the reader. This, however, makes the writer clear about the explicit function of the punctuation and it avoids the meaningless spattering of punctuation like my neighbour has placed his Christmas lights on his house.

I seem to spend a lot of my time getting students to explain why something is used in a text. Maybe a narrow focus like this in teaching writing will help students to explain why other writers do things.

Recently I have been marking mock papers and two students had planned before writing. One of the used AFOREST – groan! The other used a list of punctuation marks and I like that one approach. The student in question ticked off the punctuation as she used them in her writing. But, isn’t that like the ‘Punctuation Pyramid’? Yes and no. Yes, it assumes there is an ideal pattern for excellent writing. Use all of these and you will be an A* student. No, because the student ticked off the punctuation as she used it. She only used a punctuation mark once and only once and not fifty times.    

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, 7 December 2014

Comprehensive comprehension questions

I have always had a sense of cynicism about comprehension tasks. I suppose it stems from my mistrust of textbooks. My PGCE course subtlety trained me to start from scratch every lesson. Therefore, textbooks always seemed like cheating, when they are far from it.  Likewise, comprehension tasks had always nestled in the forbidden zone of my teaching toolbox, due to their close association with text books. I might have occasionally used them in a moment of weakness, but I had always insisted that students wrote longer, lengthier pieces of responses to a task. Respond to this question. Find an example of this.

Recently, I have been playing around with comprehension tasks and… have started to really appreciate their usefulness. I take my hat off to you, if you have constantly used them as the foundation of your teaching. My previous wariness has been caused by a fear that I am practically guiding students too much in their analysis. At times, I have thought that if I gave students a comprehension task it was like me writing the whole thing for them. I always thought it as akin to an Art teacher giving a student a colour in by numbers sheet or a Music teacher giving a student a karaoke DVD.

I have been preparing some classes for the GCSE English AQA paper. On the higher paper, the questions are like mini-essays. Getting students to find the right style and approach to each question is difficult. Less able students often struggle with the vast nature of the task. The vagueness of the question doesn’t really help students to write precisely too. In fact, you need a number of different thought processes in your writing at once. One single question doesn’t help you.

Take question 2: Explain how the headline and picture are effective and how they link to the text.

Students read this question and often zoom in the word ‘effective’. The following answer becomes an experiment of how many times the word ‘effective’ can be used in a short space of paper so that the word loses all sense of its meaning. Unfortunately, the question needs more from students – some of it not even hinted at in the question. The most able of students do this without any fear, but the less able struggle. Enter the comprehension task.

1.     List three emotions the reader feels when reading the headline and subheading. (3 marks)

2.     Pick two words from the headline that the writer has chosen to interest the reader. (2 marks)

3.     Give a reason as to why the writer chose one of those words. (2 marks)

4.     Find three quotes in the text that show that the Tyrannosaurus is fearsome or something to be feared. (3 marks) 

5.      Explain why the writer chose that picture to go with the headline. (5 marks)


Start your writing with the sentence: The writer selected the picture to show…

6.     What do the following things in the picture show / suggest / symbolise?  (6 marks)

a.     The people

b.     Teeth

c.      Bones

Use the phrase: The ----- suggests that …

7.     Explain why the writer did not use a cartoon dinosaur for the main picture. (2 marks)

8.     Pick a quote from the article that best sums up the picture. (2 marks)

9.     Explain why the quote from question 8 links to the picture. (2 marks)

10.                        What words best describe the tone of the article? Pick three words to describe the tone. (3 words)

11.                        Describe what the reader is supposed to feel / think during these three points.  (6 marks)

a.     When they see the headline and the picture

b.     When they read the text

c.      After they have read the whole text

This example refers to the exam paper about Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The great thing, for me, about using this with students is that I can see what aspect of the question they struggle with most. In fact, they can see where they struggle the most, because each question links to a different part they have to include in the final ‘big’ question. Usually, I give them the exam question and watch them get it wrong. Or, I give them a great example and show them what it should look like. Both are difficult for students.  

I used the above with a class recently and I found it very interesting. All the class got to question ten and then they struggled or stopped. Why? Well, they had found the idea of a newspaper having a tone difficult. Then one student piped up: What words can I use to describe the tone of a newspaper? I usually have to look at the carnage the whole class produces before deciding on what to teach out of the long list of things they all got wrong. It is like Pandora’s Box: once you start the task you are working to constantly fix everything.  This approach to the question helped me from the start to pinpoint the weaknesses and strengths. Plus, I didn’t need a silly APP grid to spot that they had issues with offering suggestions about the lack of cartoon or how the struggled to see the symbolism of people in the picture.

The next task with these comprehension questions is to turn the comprehension answers into a full exam response to the question. Students are going to turn that into a piece of writing. They have the components and now their skill is to weave them together. Or, look at how other students have weaved things together.  The comprehension task is part of the planning which necessary for students to have the meat on the bones in their writing. I am planning on using this ‘comprehension then write’ approach for essay writing on a novel. Too many times we plan the majority of writing for students. I am all too guilty of saying the following: Of course, you can plan it whatever way you want, but, if it was me I’d plan it this way. It is to be hoped that this approach allows me to direct the thinking without actually providing the content.

What is the defining moment in the novel?

What lead up to the moment?

How has the writer presented the moment in a dramatic way?

What does the writer want us to think as a result of these consequences?

At a recent conference, someone asked me about getting students to think for themselves.  All too often I have used collective planning for writing. I have shared ideas. Students have shared their own ideas. Then, students have been able to plagiarise the ideas. In fact, I think there are large swathes of students that plagiarise their way through school, because things are handed to them on a plate. And, maybe, I have been part of that problem. I am certainly going to use comprehension tasks to build original ideas and thought. If students know that they have to comprehend first, then write second, they might just build into independent thinkers. If they don’t get a point, then the questions point that out to me and I can direct my teaching.

Things to think about with comprehension questions:

·         Start with a find question first to engage students. It is usually easy and it gets the students to read the text.

·         Pepper the list of comprehension questions with several find question throughout. It provides students with several questions they can do and it avoids the usually thing of questions getting harder and harder.

·         Manipulate the question so that there isn’t a clear gradient. Think about how students will approach things. If they know things get harder, they will probably stop completely when they get to a hard question. However, the opposite is the case with very able classes. It becomes a challenge to them.

·         Start with precise question and move to general questions, so you move from concrete thinking to abstract thinking.

·         Reflect the complexity of the question in the marking and not in the position of the question in the list.

·         Allow for a general mop up question. An opportunity that allows a students to point out something else they might have found and you haven’t thought of: What else is interesting about the extract?

·         Provide opportunities for students to offer opinions.  

·         For less able students, offer example sentences or phrases to help develop their explanation.

·         For less able students, write how many sentences needed for the answer.

·         For less able students, use a PowerPoint slide for each question and help students to time their thinking and writing time.

Oh, and on a final note. Look at the answers students provide. The following is a question I used for some revision of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. To ensure students revise the book at home, the class are having a weekly reading test. A quick comprehension task based on the weekly reading at home of five chapters.

What is the first item found in the tree by the children?

Answer: two pieces of chewing gum

Incorrect answers: a toy, a marble

I have always stressed to students that they must examine the writer’s choices, but that one comprehension question has allowed me to explore the writer’s choices with the class. Two pieces of gum highlights how Boo wants to be friends with both of them. The gum relates to the mouth and it can stop people from talking. Gum is often disliked by parents so it is slightly rebellious. Look at the other items suggested by the class. Why didn’t Harper Lee select those items? They are all items that a child can play with on their own.

Talking of Harper Lee, I must plan a lesson for tomorrow.  

Thanks for reading,