Sunday, 26 February 2017

Starters and the three part lesson - R.I.P.

I remember a time when the most important thing for me in teaching was the starter. I’d spend hours, days and weeks thinking of ways to start a lesson. Ways to hook students. Ways to engage with students. Little did I know, decades later those starters would be redundant, useless and pointless. They’d sit gathering dust in cupboard somewhere. Common sense raised its head and people started to see that ‘engagement’ shouldn’t be a driving factor behind education.

For years now, I have worked on getting students to pull knowledge from one lesson to another. The great thing about knowledge organisers is that they do this explicitly. In a few conference talks, I have mentioned the need to ‘pull’ the knowledge learnt between lessons. Revisiting the knowledge learnt again and again in lessons, for me, is important in learning. During one conference, Andy Tharby explored the use of questioning and the use of different types of question. I like the idea, so I started playing around with it and I made some interesting discoveries.

One approach of Andy’s was the use of precise questioning. Here’s an example I used for ‘Bayonet Charge’.

  1. What colour is the hare?
  2. What kind of material was he wearing?
  3. Who is he fighting for?
  4. What ‘c’ is the shape the hare runs in?  
  5. What ‘r’ is numb?
  6. What ‘f’ is used to describe the way the hare moves?
  7. What alliteration is used?
  8. What is the last word and image of the poem?
  9. What is personified in the poem?

This started as ‘starter’ with my Set 6 out of 6. The class had studied the poem in the previous lesson. As a class, we had been studying four poems from the Conflict and Power anthology. I decided to group the poems together around an idea or specific aspect. In English, we are working on student knowing a poem for an exam. They are expected to memorise and recall the poems.  

Anyway, verbally we answered the questions. Not everybody in the class could answer the questions on the first round of questioning. However, at least one person could answer each question. The rest of the lesson was spent looking at a different poem, ‘The War Photographer’. At the end of the lesson, I then revisited the questions again. Students could answer more than one question now. Then at the start of the next lesson, we attempted the questions again, and, as you would expect, the students were able to answer more questions.  In addition to these questions, I tested students on another set of questions linked to ‘The War Photographer’.

  1. Where does the poem take place?
  2. What colour is the light in the room?
  3. Name three places the War Photographer has been.
  4. What ‘r’ is how the poet describes England?
  5. What ‘g’ is how the poet describes the person in the photograph?
  6. What ‘s’ is where the pictures will be published?
  7. What metaphor does the writer use to describe the photographs?
  8. What contrast does the writer use to show us how lucky we are?
  9. What religious reference is made in the poem?

Alongside the poems I questioned the students on these questions. And I repeated it over several weeks. The start, middle or end of a lesson would contain these questions. Sometimes we’d do one of these sets of question. Or, we’d do all of them. We answered the questions verbally rather than through their writing. The questions were repeated and repeated. I never named the questions, so the first thing the students had to do was identify the poem based on the questions. Sometimes, I’d even as students to recall the questions based on the poem.

Here are some more of the questions I used:

  1. How many people were in the Light Brigade?
  2. What did the soldiers ride on in battle?
  3. What ‘v’ is where the battle took place?
  4. What ‘c’ did the enemies have that the Light Brigade didn’t?
  5. What ‘H’ is the way the writer describe the place where the battle took place?
  6. What ‘s’ did the soldiers have instead of guns?
  7. What is repeated at the end of every stanza?
  8. What body part is used as a metaphor to describe the place?
  9. Give an example of repetition in the poem.

  1. What is the poet’s connection to war?
  2. What animals celebrate when the soldiers head back to war?
  3. What is the weather like in the poem? 
  4. What ‘n’ is repeated in the poem several times? 
  5. What ‘g’ is used to describe the soldiers?
  6. What ‘i’ is used to describe their eyes at the end? 
  7. What punctuation mark does the writer use to make things seem so slow? 
  8. What kind of sentences does the writer use to create a sense of never ending torture? 
  9. What pronoun does the writer use to show us that the speaker isn’t alone?

Over several weeks we kept revisiting these questions again and again. Now, here is the crux: we spend time generating questions upon questions in lessons; we spend hours planning what questions to say and when to say them, hoping to develop the learning.  What if we just asked the same one question again and again? There is an assumption that questions must be getting progressively harder to enable progress. What if asking the same question again and again supports learning better than asking hundreds of questions with different answers? Now, I could have changed the questions or I could have asked some more challenging questions at the end of the lessons; however, what I did with asking the same few questions again and again was build up the knowledge and ensure that the knowledge is stored and retained. How many times have students given us the wrong answer and we have just told them the correct answer? We consciously or subconsciously feel that the student will make a metal note of that mistake and learn from it. In truth, they don’t.

By revisiting the same questions again, I was building the knowledge up explicitly and with the students onside. The great thing about this was the time it saved. One slide on a PowerPoint. That one slide was starter and / or plenary for several lessons. Five minutes planning time became thirty minutes of lesson time over the course of a few weeks. Those questions will be used again and again in Year 10 and Year 11. The questions will be where the knowledge is stuck to the sticking place.

Tomorrow, as requested by the class, they want to be tested on all the questions in the format of a test paper. They have spent two weeks answering the questions, so they feel ready to complete a test on it. They haven’t seen it as boring and pointless. In fact, they have enjoyed it. They have enjoyed testing the knowledge again and again. Plus, it is going to take me ages to create the test paper. Umm… no it won’t. Copy and paste it.

We have always tried different methods to ensuring knowledge is retained. We often reword the question or we have presented the question in a different format. We expect possibly too much from students if we think that them making a mistake on one test fuels them to not make the same mistake on another paper, when the question is reworded or presented differently. What if we asked the same question again and again and ensure that they get the answer right? What if the memory of the question is equally as important as the memory of the knowledge of needed for answering the question?

So, when I think about my planning of lessons for the next group of poems I am studying with the class, I will not be thinking of how will I start and end lessons. I will be thinking of the 9 questions I want students to know about each poem in the group. What is the starting knowledge I want the students to have for each poem?   

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Subject of Sentences

The new AQA English Language GCSE has a bullet point on Question 2, Paper 1, suggesting students might want to comment on sentences. Well sentence forms, if we are going to be pedantic about things. It is a small bullet point, so it might be easily missed when students franticly write an answer to the question: How does the writer use language to describe…?

I have a lot of problems with asking students to write about sentences. I love a good sentence. They are squishy and joyously fun to squeeze and poke. I love a crisp, brief sentence like Susan Hill’s sentences when she isn’t writing horror stories. I also love crammed sentence like the one’s Dickens uses. Go on, just add another clause. The problem I have is that we are often so basic when talking about sentences.

In fact, part of the problem comes from the language we have to describe a sentence. The basic terms of simple, compound and complex actually hinder expression. I have seen students crow bar the following phrases into their analysis.

The writer uses a simple sentence to show how simple his thoughts are at the moment.

The writer uses a complex sentence to show how complex his thoughts are at the moment.

Sadly, the words simple, complex and compound are very misleading to students because of the terms alone. If a student then has cottoned on that you could replace simple, compound and complex sentences with long and short sentences, you then get sentences like these ones:

The writer uses a long sentence to create atmosphere and slow things down.

The writer uses a short sentence to create pace.

The problem is that students have, at this point, not said anything precise, or even meaningful about the texts. In their heads, it might sound good, but in reality they are pretty bland and meaningless. Part of the problem is the terminology. Another part of the problem is the fact that students view sentences as something to be analysed in isolation. All sentences have hidden tendrils. They link to the sentences before and after them invisibly. Therefore, any discussion on sentences must focus on the rest of the sentences. Take this example extract from ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus. It isn’t likely to be in the actual exam, because there isn’t enough for a student to talk about in terms of techniques; but it is enough for looking at sentences. Along as you have more than three sentences, you can say something meaningful.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

Source: The Stranger by Albert Camus

So, what can we say about it? Well, it has lots of short sentences, so the writer is building up the pace of the story. The sentences are mainly simple, so this shows us that the narrator has simple thoughts about the death. Wrong! You can see how meaningless these terms can be.

I think students should know what the subject of a sentence is and be able to spot the subject in a sentence. Look at the extract and you see the following subjects.

1: Mother

2: ?

3: I

4: That

5: It

Sentences two and three are a little bit more complex, so I will come back to those later. What is interesting for me is the fact that the subject changes across the extract and more importantly the first sentence refers directly to the mother and the last sentence indirectly refers to the mother.

The subject of the last sentence refers to ‘it’ which creates a sense of distance compared to the first sentence which refers directly to the ‘mother’ and her death.

The first sentence has the ‘mother’ as the subject to reflect the shocked the narrator had to the event. The lack of any other words describing the subject highlights a lack of connection or thought. The voice doesn’t refer to her as ‘my mother’ or even use a more personal noun to describe her like ‘mum’ or ‘mummy’ suggests there is a level of detachment.  

Now, sentence two is quite interesting, because it is a grammatically incomplete. It should be a continuation of the first sentence joined by the co-ordinating conjunction ‘or’. The telegram message as part of sentence three is full of broken sentences, but that’s the convention of telegram writing.

The writer uses a grammatically incomplete sentence to create a level of informality and make the writing seem conversational. Therefore, the reader develops a personal connection to the narrator as they are speaking to them personally.     

The ends of the sentences are interesting too: today, yesterday, tomorrow, yesterday.

The writer tends to end sentences with a reference to a time which adds to the sense of confusion of the narrator and highlight a level of obsession.

In our teaching of the language questions, I feel that we need to be especially cautious with how we present it. Students need some clear structured teaching. Simple terminology will not work alone. In fact, I’d actively work against students use the words simple, compound, complex, long and short. I’d use these questions instead.

What is interesting about the way sentences start/end?

What is the subject of each sentence?

What is the connection /changes between the subjects?

How are the sentences structured?

Are sentences complete or incomplete?

How are the sentences linked?

From that starting point, I feel you come to most interesting points when talking about sentences. Then, you can add relevant terminology. However, there is nothing better for sentences than identifying the subject of each and every sentence. Then, look at how each sentence is linked.

It is interesting to note that identifying the subject of a sentence is directly supporting the structure question (Question 3) on the paper. My advice for teaching questions 2 and 3 on Paper 1 is focus on subject, subject and subject. Understand the subject of the sentences and extract and the rest follows.

No sentence is an island, so let’s stop treating them as discreet islands of meaning. Students, in fairness, only need to say one meaningful thing about sentences for question 2.  We just want that point to be meaningful and thoughtful. They can only be meaningful if students can see the trade routes in and out of that island.  

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Patterns and dominant methodologies in English

I have focused this year at developing patterns within English teacher that help and aid learning. I have mentioned before the problem with how we teach English. There are so many ways to attack a book, novel or poem. Each one makes a great starting point for teachers to start teaching a text, but they make a terrible starting point for students to analyse a text independently. Mr Smith always starts poetry by looking at pictures. Mrs Jones always starts poetry by picking out words. Miss Bloggs always starts poetry by looking at the poem’s title. Is it any wonder a large proportion of our students struggle to engage with texts when we have given them seventeen different ways to approach a poem? But, it gets even worse, because each time we give students a poem we teach it in a different way.

My daughters are in the primary school wilderness years. The Year 6 exams are on the horizon and their teachers are preparing them for the future exams. However, I find something quite surprising: my daughters are being taught several strategies to divide numbers. They are then taught several methods to multiply numbers, over the course of a year. Now, I am no mathematician, but I feel that a dominant methodology is preferable to several dominant strategies. Sophisticated mathematicians, I presume, start with one methodology to solve an equation, before moving on to another one, when the first one doesn’t work. However, I feel that a student must have a clear preferred one as a starting point. When perfecting mastery, is it better to have one approach rather than seven differing approaches?  

I do feel for secondary Math’s teachers, when there are so many different methods out there to teach Maths. Inheriting thirty students with a different methodology for solving a sum must make teaching and differentiation difficult. The equivalent in English would be:

10 students who read books backwards

5 students who read books upside down  

2 students who read books from start to finish

3 students who read books by skipping every other page

5 students who read books by using reading the titles and pictures

10 students who read books by letting someone else read it for them

I can see with my daughters the struggle with the shift between methodologies and selecting the appropriate one. They haven’t got a definitive methodology or dominant approach. Now, apply that to English teaching and you can see how students struggle. What is the dominant methodology to approaching texts in your lessons? In fact, for years, books have been peddling lots of different methodologies to engage with texts. As English teachers, we have been dazzled by an engaging approach. Creativity has been the driving force behind education. Look at this creative way to teach this poem. Isn’t it creative? When you have creativity as a driver in education, you have engagement and fun not far behind. This would be great because they will engage with the poem and it will be fun. I have taught creative lessons because they were fun and engaging, yet they did not develop a student. I think time has taught me that the right text is good enough on its own. That PowerPoint does nothing. That image does nothing. That card activity does nothing. That drama activity does nothing. That drawing activity on it does nothing. The text, however, does something. In fact, a lot of something; I just need to work on developing that something.  

For all the reasons above, I have developed cognitive patterns in my teaching to aid and improve understanding and learning. A repeated pattern. A familiar series of steps. A routine. A clear methodology. As humans, we crave routine and predictability. Stress is often a result of unpredictable circumstances. Our school is due to have a visit from Ofsted. The visit might cause some stress, but that is nothing compared to the unpredictable nature of when that visit will take place. We could be paid a visit in a week’s time, a month, a term or next year. There is no routine. Ofsted creates panic because there is nothing concrete until it happens. You are constantly on edge because things are not secure. Ofsted might not intend to create fear and panic, but the secretive nature of when they drop in does.

Since becoming a Head of Department, patterning has been a key aspect. For years, we have repeated mock exams three times in a year, so students are familiar with the process of the exam. I am not that phased by the results. For me, it is about students getting used to the rhythm of the paper and the processes. We also have the 200 Word Challenge every week for students to build the pattern of regular independent writing. Now I might have to buy a shed load of new exercise books due to the amount of writing, but our students are used to the pattern of writing on a task without support or guidance, making sure they use a number of techniques in their work. It is a regular routine. I teach a lively Year 9 class last lesson on a Friday and they are silent that lesson. In fact, it is a great lesson.

Has our drive for creativity hindered the boys? Have we misread boys? Admittedly, we have tried various things to engage boys and we might have missed a key point. This natural desire for routine and predictability. Look at the computer games boys play. They are all about routine. You complete a level and at the end of the level is the baddie to beat. Each level is harder and the baddies get significantly tougher. Yes, there might be lots of flashing imagery, but the structure isn’t creative. There is a consistent routine. There is a pattern.  

I teach a low set of predominantly boys for the new GCSEs and I don’t teach them in a creative way. We have a series of patterns in the lessons. It has taken me three terms to embed some of the routines, but we are making some good progress. They are used to the patterns and my teaching is about constantly using those patterns and repeating them. One such pattern is an approach for analysing texts. It follows the pattern of 2, 2 and 1. When they are looking at the language of a text, they are to pick out two words of interest, two techniques employed by the writer and one sentence of interest. We repeat this pattern again and again with any text. In effect, I am supporting them to answer questions on the literature and language papers. Paper 1: Question 2 and 4. Paper 2: Question 3 and 4. I will repeat this pattern continuously in lessons so that it is an automatic natural process for the final exams.

I suppose that this experience has taught me that maybe we need a mature discussion on how we teach aspects of English. Do we teach one methodology / approach first and then add more as a student masters things? Or, do we focus on one dominant approach? In the classroom, we model behaviour. I fear, however, at the moment we model behaviour on a scatty mad professor. Our behaviour is creative and unpredictable but so hard for students to emulate. We need students to be systematic and methodical and that simply boils down to us.

Is a regular routine really a bad thing? Not, in my opinion, if it supports and helps a student to develop a strategy for learning.  We just need to fight the thought that systems and routines remove creativity in the classroom. A regular routine would also reduce planning and preparation and focus on the good stuff – the text.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 4 February 2017

Success is 5-6-7-3-2-0

When I was a child, I had a bike and because I lived in a dubious part of town I had one of those combination locks. A green plastic coated thing. Three numbers could simply unlock that bike. Turn the cogs round to 4, 7 and then 2 and I could use the lock.  Thankfully, when the lock was purchased for the bike, the combination was provided for me. I didn’t have to scroll, for hours, through each combination with the hope of using the bike. It was done for me.

Recently I have been asked to support teaching and learning in my school. There’s been some reshuffling and I am filling a void for the moment. And, it is quite interesting, from my point of view. I have always thought from an English point of view. In fact, all my discussions and thoughts have always been about the teaching of English. When I have been talking about French or Geography, I have secretly been thinking about English and dressing it up as another subject. Now, I have to think about every subject and, boy, does it makes my brain hurt. I am having difficult questions and arguments in my brain: How can you show progress in Science books? How can you convince students that teachers are not fooled by large handwriting masking a lack of work? What do you do if a student has started a new book in a subject and the evidence of progress is in his old/new book? These and other questions are floating around in my brain.

However, education is paradoxically both simple and hard. The solutions to the problems are relatively easy, but the journey to those solutions is difficult and tough. You have to sift and sift through things to get the right solutions. It is as if each school has a combination lock and it is the leadership’s job to work out the right combination. They should sift through each dial on the lock until the barrel clicks. Then they should move onto the next one. They might have to revisit an old dial because it wasn’t the right combination for the school and they didn’t realise it at the time. It is a long journey, but is a journey.

Things are not helped by looking at other schools because ‘other’ schools are clearly ‘other’ schools. They are different. They have different students. They have different parents. They have lots of differences. One thing that people have yet to learn in schools is that other schools are different. Schools are not the same thing repeated hundreds of times over with different names and uniforms. Ofsted and Twitter haven’t helped with this myth. Ofsted deems a school is outstanding and everybody rushes to replicate the success. The school has a combination of 7-8-1-2-5-6. Everybody tries to emulate them. People visit the schools and attempt to bottle the success. Some go whole hog and change their combination from 2-1-4-9-0-0 to 7-8-1-2-5-6. Others do it in bits so they might change the first two dials.

Schools should spend more time reflecting and thinking about their contexts. Rushing to emulate another school means you are probably barking up the wrong tree. You don’t copy success; you work out the steps that lead it success. Those steps are often not visible to the human eye. That’s why I think intervention is the single most dangerous word in schools. What interventions have you used? How do you know it has worked? If you think one single action is going to be reflected in a piece of data then you might need to think a little bit more. Yes, my intervention was to paint the room green and look Tim made three levels of progress. Really? That one act was the miracle cure for the student? There’s a lot of things going on in schools and classrooms and we are na├»ve to think we teach students in isolation separated from factors like emotional state, family life and interest in the topic. The word ‘intervention’ is just a lazy attempt to reduce teaching to simple components. It would be much easy to say ‘stuff you do or have done’.  

I am interested in the Michaela Community School model. Their code of 1-2-0-4-5-2 seems to cause unrest, but what they are doing are exploring the different components that ensure success. They might be using numbers that people are cautious about using, but at least they exploring the components. How many times have I seen people just copy what a successful school does without thinking about the steps? I am interested to see what they do so I can look at my school’s combination. We are all trying to work out what the numbers mean and what the correct position for the numbers should be. I think it is important for schools to reflect and not copy, and schools like Michaela are mirrors to our own. We see ourselves better when we compare ourselves to others.  

Each school has a unique number. My school’s code is  5-6-7-3-2-0.  It’s now my job, for the moment, to work out what each number represents and then twist the dial to the number. I just know that my first number is something to do with the students, so I am off to think with my fingers in my ears. I am looking at my own school and I am not listening to anybody else until I am ready to. Lah…lah…lah!

Thanks for reading,