Sunday, 29 January 2017

Controlling history or making it a bit more humane

A03: Show understanding of the relationships between texts and contexts in which they were written.

15% of the overall Literature GCSE is assessed on this one little assessment thread. The exam board have tried to define context and their idea is that it takes students outside the text. Context can refer to location, social structures and features, cultural contexts and periods of time. They have also simplified it the marking scheme to be ‘ideas/perspectives/contextual factors’. So, our students need to be aware of the context of ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘An Inspector Calls’ and ‘Power and Conflict poetry’. But, how do you make the contextual knowledge meaningful and appropriate in the long run?

We have taught all the key texts. We now have next term and a bit of the remaining term to get our Year 11s ready for the exams. Part of our revision plan next term is to make a booklet for students. Each lesson and each week will focus on different parts of necessary knowledge for the exams. It will include vocabulary, key quotes, terminology, genre features and contextual points. The idea is that we test and retest these bits of information again and again so we can commit to memory important information. Of course, you could say everything is important when studying a text, but for your average Year 11, we need to help them see what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate when referring to the texts.

Every English teacher has had to plough through an historical information dump in an essay. Facts have been lifted and copied virtually word for word by the student. In fact, contextual information and facts are so tricky. One slight and insignificant piece of information warps a student’s understanding. Mention in passing that Shakespeare might have been a Catholic sympathiser in an odd lesson and you can guarantee that a student will find everything as a clue to Shakespeare being Catholic. He uses this word because he is Catholic. He includes a female character in this scene because he is Catholic. He sets it in this country because he is Catholic. Students shape texts to fit a contextual fact, rather than link texts to the context and explain them.

When I teach context, I do the usual stuff of read articles and other texts related to the historical context, but I tend to boil things down. Below is an example:    

An Inspector Calls: Context

Two Contexts

Edwardian – Setting of the play- 1912

·         Britain was seen as a very rich and prosperous nation.

·         Society insisted the rich and poor should not mix. Marrying or befriending a person of a different class would be a scandal.

·         Britain was clearly a class based society. The rich and the poor had their place and they couldn’t move.

·         The rich had more rights in society than the poor. The poor could be cruel to the poor and society accepted it.

·         Women couldn’t vote so the suffragette movement was started.

1945 – Play written and performed 

·         Britain had just experienced two world wars and was optimistic about the future

·         During the wars, rich and poor people fought together a common enemy.

·         Women played an important part during the war effort. Many had jobs or responsibility.

·         Many women lost their husbands due to the wars so there were some families without a male figure at the head of the house.

·         Rationing and two wars had left Britain quite poor. The rich were not as rich as they were before.

·         Women could vote.

I keep these points on a PowerPoint ready for use in lessons. At any given point, I might refer to these when reading a text. We’ve just read Act 1 so which on these points is most relevant here. How does the writer reflect this idea that women couldn’t vote? Where do we see it? Then, continue reading.

The contextual information is intertwined with the reading. The two are inseparable. Some contextual information might be important to know before reading. Other points might be relevant as and when events occur in the text. But, all the time, there should be a ping-ponging of context and reading. I watched a student teacher start of reading of ‘Lord of the Flies’ with a discussion of William Golding’s life. He said: ‘How do you think that would affect his writing? What sorts of story would he write?’ I recently listened to BBC radio documentary and I gleamed an interesting contextual point. Charles Dickens, at the time of planning ‘A Christmas Carol’, his family were asking to borrow money from him. Often they didn’t pay him back. He felt they were a drain.  

Students dump contextual information in their writing when we have separated in their minds. For years, I have always had the ‘An Inspector Calls’ context lesson. I showed students the BBC video and asked them to answer questions based on the video. In the last three years, I have started with the above list and asked students to memorise and then link to the text. I might pick one point and the get students to look at the text from that angle. I underline a key word so that they memorise that key word or phrase. Hopefully, when they remember the word ‘vote’ in the exam that will trigger the relevant information.

But teaching context can be a simple case of sentence structure. This year I have started using these sentences in writing:

Victorians believed….

Elizabethans felt ….

Some Elizabethans thought…

Edwardians considered….

Men, at that time, saw….

Women, at that time, were viewed as

It was expected that …

It was generally accepted that..

It was common to see …

It was an unwritten rule …

Society, at the time, expected ….

The great thing about using phrases like the above is that you start to make concrete the people of the time. A fact can be pretty inhuman. A belief. A notion. An ideology of the time is something more sophisticated and relatable. Take sexuality in the Elizabethan age. It is as complex as it is now. Elizabethans felt what towards sexuality. Repressed? Puritanical? Open? Heterosexual? Read a few sonnets see all those ideas are confirmed in part, because, just like today, some people think one thing and others think something else.   

The other thing to think about with context is relationships. At the heart of all texts is the relationship between people. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is about the relationship between the young and the old and between different groups of society. ‘An Inspector Calls’ is about the relationship between the young and the old and between the rich and the poor. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is about the relationships between the rich and the poor and the young and the old. Of course, there are so many more subtle or obvious relationships. What about the healthy and the ill in ‘A Christmas Carol’? Or, the confident and the shy in ‘An Inspector Calls’? Understand the relationships and you understand the context better. If you understand that the old controlled the young in Elizabethan society, you understand why Juliet’s actions are so important.

Contextual understanding could be just a word. I recently read a book about the Elizabethan age and one word stood out from the rest. Insecurity. The Elizabethan Age was a time of insecurity. Now, where do we see that insecurity in ‘Romeo and Juliet’? The unsettled nature of time is duplicated in every scene. Things could change at any minute. In fact, the whole play is constantly changing. In fact, you could relate all the plays of Shakespeare to this insecurity. They all end with a sense of security at the end. Normality is established by the end of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’. Okay, probably a bit tenuous. However, having one word is powerful enough to develop an interpretation of the play’s context. The Prince is trying to make things stable. The struggles. In the end, people die and this causes stability.

Right, to the crux of this blog: I am writing this blog to see what people think are the most important contextual facts necessary for students to understand and develop effective interpretations of the texts.  I have included a bit of mine below. I am going to include a page or two for each text in the revision book, but I am really interested to see what you think is important. So, please create your own list or add points in the comments below.

Thanks for reading,


Romeo and Juliet: Context



       Women had to rely on their husbands and fathers – they belonged to them. They were their property – to do as they wish

       They couldn’t own property.

       Queen Elizabeth did not marry as this would mean her husband had power over her.

       A woman could not vote. They had no legal rights and did not have a chance of being educated.

       The only career a woman had in society was marriage, which was organised by the father. 

       A marriage wasn’t based on love and attraction but on financial security.  A marriage helped men get money through a dowry or built alliances between families.

       Women could marry from the age of 12. Common in rich families.

A Christmas Carol: Context


London and the Poor

       The poor often had lots of children as it was expected a few wouldn’t reach adulthood.

       There was a lot of migration from the countryside because of an economic depression. This caused heavy crowding in the cities.

       Overcrowding meant continuous diseases – typhus, diphtheria, scurvy, small pox, cholera 

       Life expectancy in London was only 27 years.

       Everywhere in London there was evidence of physical diseases – small pox, malnutrition, etc.

       Children were constantly dying. Half the registered deaths were children.  

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The purpose of facing one long sentence

I have spent years and years getting students to analyse a text and this year with one set, I thought I’d try a different approach. I have a particularly weak class. They are a Set 6 of 6. They are great, but analysis of texts is difficult with them. They revert to the common plot retelling or jumping in with technique spotting.

When you look at less able students analysing texts, they tend to struggle with whole texts. They feel a need to mention several parts of the text at once and because they are doing this they tend to mention lots of things in very superficial detail. I have marked hundreds of tests and seen this happen again and again. In truth, they are looking at too much in the text. It is as if the quantity of information dwarfs their thinking.

The new GCSE English exams have a connected strand. They all rely on students being able to comment on the language choices, comment on the effect and discuss the writer’s intent. There is no getting away from this common thread. We need students to be experts on this ongoing thread in the GCSEs. Therefore, I developed a starter to use every lesson. Students come in. Write down a sentence from last lesson’s reading and start analysing it.

words / purpose / feeling / techniques  

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

They do this every lesson and their confidence has grown and the analysis has developed considerably.

[1] First students spot  and circle the key words. What words are the most important here?
Gravely, silently
Gloom and mystery

This helps start students off with something simple and personal. There’s no right or wrong at this stage. During this, I highlight the word class. They say word. I use grammatical terms.

Tom: I spotted gravely and silently.
Me: Yes, you have spotted two adverbs.

The hope is that they will make the leap themselves to offer word class when spotting words.

[2] Then, we look at the purpose of the sentence. To frame this for students, I generally put the following phrases:
To show us
To teach is  

Now, in the past, I have always focused on feelings or techniques when getting students to analyse texts, but recently I have felt that purpose should be at the forefront of analysis. Get the purpose and the rest of the understanding follows and analysis follows. All too often, I have, like others, left the discussion about purpose until the end. We have spotted word, techniques and feelings and then last of all we talk about why the writer used those things. This way, I am starting with the purpose. Look, what is the writer trying to do here?
To show us the power and influence of the ghost.
To show us how Scrooge is affected by the ghost.
To teach us that the future is scary.

[3] The next step is to start on the feelings. What are the different feelings we experience in this sentence?
Feel sorry for Scrooge
Feel sacred of the ghost
Feel impressed with the ghost’s power

At each of these stages, we are referring back to the words. What words make you feel sorry? What words show us the future is scary? We are develop meaning without using the short-cut methods of technique spotting and regurgitating a cliché about writing. The writer uses a list to stand out. We explore meaning.

[4] The final step is referring to techniques. To get to this point, we have talked about words, purpose and effect, which inverts the analysis students usually use: I spot a technique; I explain the effect of the technique; and, I explain why the writer chose that technique.  
A list
A pair
A short sentence

At this point, students have a wealth of understanding to connect these elements together.
The writer uses a list to show us the power of the ghost.
The writer uses a short sentence to make us scared of the ghost.
The writer uses a pair of nouns to teach us how scary the future is.   

I am incredibly interested at looking at structures and internal structures in English lessons that help aid meaning. This has been quite successful for me and students have embraced it. But, most importantly, it is the consistency of the approach for me that has been very important. We have used this approach again and again with a class. And, I will use it again and again with poems, non-fiction and other texts. I want to change the internal thought-processes in their brains so they think about the purpose and effect sooner rather than as an afterthought in a mindless rambling.

In the exams, students will be able to spot a sentence and then analyse that in detail and link to other parts of the text. They will, hopefully, start with one sentence and then make connections to other sections of the text and, therefore, show knowledge of the whole text. Without this approach, they will try writing about the whole text and all techniques and all ideas at the same down. We need to channel their thinking, their thoughts.

It is a simple way of approaching things and it makes a crap acronym WPFT, but it does help my students develop their thinking: words / purpose / feeling / techniques. It is how I want my students to think in the exam.  

Thanks for reading,

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Saving time and 'work-shy' managers

I wrote this blog on the basis of seeing somebody writing on-line that they left school early to set an example to staff to have a work/life balance. Where you work is immaterial. You could work at home or at school. You are still working.  My point, when writing this blog, was to focus on the idea that changing a teacher's work/life balance was as simple as showing a teacher you leave school early. I was not passing judgement on the people who leave early to look after children or the people who take their work home. Work is work. Everybody has a different context. I am not judging anybody about how they do their job. Nor am I being pious and righteous about my way is right. I am concerned that there are some people who think dealing with work/life balance is a simple case of modelling behaviour. A manager with only two classes to teach is setting an example to a teacher with six different classes on how they deal with the marking load isn't a fair.

To be honest, I worked in industry before teaching and I worked for one manager. He was the first to leave and the last to arrive in the morning. He worked me into the ground and he got the credit for all the good things I did. He lived the life of Riley and I lived in Hell. I worked so hard, while he didn't. But, culturally, this was acceptable because he was the boss and the boss could do what he wants. If he worked at home, I could see things as fair, but he didn't. He did nothing. At one stage, he told me take things easy. The funny thing is that him telling me to take it easy did not make things easy for me. He could have made things easier through his actions. His actions could have made my life easier. He held the responsibility for making my life harder or easier in his hands, but by making life easier, he'd have to change his set up.

I left that job. In fact, I resigned. I walked out. The same thing, I feel, is happening in teaching.  

This blog isn't about the time a manager leaves school - to be honest, I am not that bothered what time you leave school. Leave on the bell, for all I care. Some people have interpreted this blog as me attacking managers who leave school early; I am not. The fact that I leave at 5 is immaterial to the point I am making - I just used it to provide a bit of context. We all know the work never stops when the bell goes.  

It is what a manager does that is more important. I wanted to make the point that managers have a role in creating balance. Saying the words or modelling behaviour isn't enough to make long-lasting changes.


I once read on Twitter somebody claiming that as a leader they set an example to other staff about having a work/life balance. They were the first to leave school at the end of the day, proving just senior leaders have a life and the teachers didn’t because they have to work and mark stuff. I suppose I am a bit traditional, but I tend to feel that if you have a position of responsibility, you must work harder than those without a position of responsibility. It galled me when I was younger that some people, teachers, viewed management in teaching as an easy option because you have less marking and fewer classes. I’ll be honest I wouldn’t rate anybody above me in a chain of command, unless they were working harder than me. 

I am generally the last to leave school during the week. I don’t do that much at home, apart from a few hours on a Sunday. But, the cleaners are always surprised when I leave before 5. What do I do in this time after school? Well, one thing: making the teaching and learning better in the classroom for the teachers in the department. As a manager, or Head of Department for people who like labels, I feel it is my responsibility to declutter the role of teaching in a school. I simply want staff to teach the best they can and focus on teaching and making students learn. Therefore, I do a lot of stuff to make things easier so that the teacher can focus on teaching. All too often, there are ideas, strategies and processes in schools that have a detrimental effect on teaching. I am constantly asking myself and others, what is the impact on teaching? If it will affect the quality of the teaching, then it should be reconsidered. Teachers want to teach. That is a simple fact. Teachers get angry and frustrated when a greasy oik in a nicely pressed suit tells them to do something that will prevent them in part from teaching because they want to look good as a manager. Anybody in a position of authority in a school should always be questioning their impact on learning and teaching. One wrong cog in a machine can have an incredibly detrimental effect on learning in a school, because they take teachers away from learning and teaching. The hour it took to fill in a spreadsheet is an hour lost on making the teaching of a lesson good, outstanding or of a high quality.

If we want teaching in schools better, we need to make sure we give teachers time to make their teaching better. We have to declutter their lives. The plate spinning has gone on for too long. Yes, give staff a CPD session on ‘dealing with disaffected boys’ but do it in a short burst and do it so that it has a minimal impact on their planning for teaching. I have sat numerous INSET sessions and whilst they have been good, I am still sat there watching the clock, thinking of all the work I need to do and plan before I can teach.

On this basis, I have decided to share my hacks. The things I have done to make the department focus more on the teaching and to declutter the lives of teachers. Some are new things this year and some are things I have done for a long period. People familiar with the blog will recognise some, but all I have designed / used with the teacher in mind. They are used so the teacher can focus on the teaching.

1: The 200 Word Challenge                         

Time saved: three hours

Lessons prepared: Four

At the start of a term, I make a PowerPoint of writing challenges. Each week, students in KS3, and some KS4, write 200 words in response to a challenge. This week, they wrote a story backwards. When the students are writing, the teacher walks around the room marking books and advising students how they could improve. Then, the second half of the lesson is spent peer assessing work and reading out the best responses. Students are developing and improving their writing on a weekly basis.

The staff have three or more lessons planned. They also have time to mark books in lesson, saving them doing it outside of lesson. 

2: Mock Targets

Time saved: two hours

A large amount of a teacher’s time is spent on marking. The mocks, like coursework, tend to dictate a lot of that time. In the past, we used to repeat the same comment again and again. So, the time spent mark wasn’t effective time spent. Therefore, we devised a code system for marking. Teacher mark the papers in this way: 2A , 5F, 5 D and A.  The teacher only has to write two things down. Each question has a set of readymade targets and the student only needs to consult the list of targets and write the meaning of the letter on their paper.

The targets for the mocks has halved our marking of all mocks and has come in very handy this year with the new GCSEs.

3: Department Targets

Time saved: twenty minutes

To reduce the amount of marking, we decided to make the feedback we give more precise. Therefore, we developed a code for marking in class and a further code for units. Instead of long comments, the teacher could write a number. Along with reducing the marking, it helped us to focus on the teaching and the skills taught.

4: Knowledge Organisers

Time saved: two hours a week

I don’t need to spend ages on this one as every man and his dog has written about this one. They have reduced the amount of planning for homeworks. Students are given the sheet and told to learn and revise information in one of the boxes. The following week the students learn another box.

5: Core Knowledge Tests

Time saved: two hours

Lessons Prepared: five

At the end of every term, we have what we call a core knowledge test. We test a student’s ability to identify techniques, knowledge of techniques and vocabulary skills. It takes me about thirty minutes to make a test, but it takes a whole lesson for students to sit the test and mark it. The test was created on my frustration of having to remind students the difference between a simile and a metaphor. We, therefore, return to the definition of techniques each term, so they don’t forget. Students have a glossary of key terms in their English reading logs, so they can revise in preparation of the test.

6: Reading Test

Time saved: two hours

We use a paid for reading test as a diagnostic tool in English. For one year group, a TA and myself mark one whole set of papers for staff. We do it to alleviate a difficult time of marking. The data is used for the latest assessment point and staff can focus on improving the quality of marking with the other year groups.

7: Data input

Time saved: half an hour a week.

I don’t ask staff to fill in endless spreadsheets, when marking mocks and tests. I provide them with a paper copy and they pass the sheet on to me when they have finished. As a HOD, I input marks and prepare it for them to use as a diagnostic tool. There is nothing worse than marking with a laptop in the way. Also, we have all been there when the technology doesn’t work.

8: Resources

Time saved: ten hours

Lessons Prepared: fifty

I have for the last few years provided a poetry anthology for each year group in the similar style of the GCSEs. Staff have taught those poems over the year, when they wanted to. There is nothing better for an English teacher than a lesson on a poem. Nice little discreet lessons separate and easy. Very little planning needed.

This year, I am trialling something new. We are having a piece of non-fiction a term and using that with each class we teach. We agreed that we needed more non-fiction in lessons, so this kills two birds with one stone. The text will have to prepared materials and questions, so teachers can teach the text in a standalone lesson. This, in addition, to other non-fiction texts studied should help to improve our students’ confidence of reading unfamiliar texts.

9: Year 11

Time saved: fifty plus hours  

Lessons Prepared: One hundred

The biggest concern for me this year is the new GCSE. Therefore, I decided the second in department and myself would plan the majority of lessons this year. Between us, we would provide a framework of lessons for the department. Staff could use and adapt for their classes. It has provided, so far, a bit of stability for something that people are concerned about. The funny thing is that it isn’t much work for me. I would be planning those lessons for my class anyway. I am only sharing and adapting those lessons for the department.

10: Photocopying

Time saved: two hours   

My office is near the photocopying room and it is interesting how teachers use the photocopier. I photocopy all tests, sheets and booklets teachers use. If it is a common resource, then I photocopy it. I photocopy things in bulk. The department know that there is a place where to find the sheets needed.

11: Stopping all assessments being at the end of term

The worst time to assess a student is usually at the end of the term. They are tired. The teacher is tired. In fact, everybody is tired. Our assessments are spread out over the year so there are not marking / assessment hotspots. It is not perfect and sometimes it is hard to avoid, but we do assess at different points in the term. There is nothing more stressful for a teacher is having five sets of assessment all needing to be assessed by the end of term.

12: Systems

This might sound obvious, but I feel that systems have help us as a department manage a lot of issues with workloads. We have a regular system for spellings and testing spelling. We have a regular system for tracking reading and we monitor it. Because it is a clear and consistent system, it is easy and stress free. We use these systems for our homeworks and make this clear to parents. Staff don’t have to stress about setting homework for homework sake, because our students are always completing on some form of homework. Reading. Or, revising spellings.

13: Phonecalls /students

If I can solve a problem or issue quickly with a phonecall, I will do it. If I could ensure a lesson goes smoothly, I will take the disruptive student out of the mix. Dealing with things quickly and suddenly can stop problems in the long run.

14: Cover lessons

A teacher is off. Cover lessons are simple. Get yourself better, I will cover things. The class can either do a ‘200 Word Challenge’ or they can work from the department bought CPG workbooks we have especially for cover lessons. First, they need to read for twenty minute and then they do the work. Simple.   

I am not the first to leave school to show teachers they need to have a work/life balance. Me swaggering out of the door at 3.30pm is not going to convince staff to think about their work/life balance. A teacher doesn’t need showing or telling they need a work/life balance. They need managers to enable them to have a work/life balance. Managers need to look at what they are doing and how that has an impact on a teacher. In truth, they need to work harder at making a teacher’s life easier. A teacher wants to teach. A teacher needs to like feel they are teaching. A teacher should be teaching.  A manager should be working their hardest to enable and empower that teacher to do what they are employed to do.

Thanks for reading,