Friday, 24 January 2014

What's it all about? Data

I intended this blog to be about sentences, yet, as with teaching, you start with one thing and then suddenly you go off at a tangent and end the lesson on something totally different. So, data. Yes, it has become very important in the day-to-day teaching of lessons. Thanks to the new demigod, Progress, we all sacrifice time, sanity and our waistlines in the hope of achieving a pardon from being sacrificed on the altar of Gove. All hail, Progress. Progress. Progress.   

Since stepping in for the Head of English, data has become my new best friend. It has become my Joey from ‘Friends’: a loveable thing that makes me cry and laugh within thirty minutes. Before, I have always skirted around it. Years ago I produced spreadsheets of numbers and messed around with colouring boxes, but achieved very little. I have shown students in the past the infamous spreadsheets and they have humoured me and pointed out how they liked the nice colours. I responded by telling them off for using the word ‘nice’ and then promptly agreed that the colours were nice. Sadly, the only progress it produced was between parts of a lesson. Nonetheless, data now has helped me work out what I need to do and how I need to do it.

I think the issue with English and data is often they represent two parts of my brain: the creative and the mathematical. Often, I struggle with a student if they love Maths, because they often find aspects of English difficult because there are no clear answers in English or no clear formula. So too, probably, the Maths departments across the land struggle with a student that loves drama. There’s never enough feelings in algebra. Let’s role-play x in this equation guys. Furthermore, I have sat there in the past listening to numbers being spouted out in a meeting and ended up day-dreaming  about windy moors and fields of daffodils. Only to be awoken by the mention of something with a whiff of English about it. But, now I am kind of obsessed with numbers. How many people are doing this? How many people need to be doing that? In fact, a lot of people have written lots of nice (sorry: interesting, good or thought-provoking) blogs about redeveloping the curriculum and what they feel needs to be included in a new curriculum. I tend to be a bit slap-dash with all that stuff, so here’s my overview for KS3.

Year 7:  Dickens / Ibsen / Chaucer

Year 8: Dickens / Brecht / Tennyson

Year 9: Dickens / Strindberg / Marvell

I am only joking, but my thoughts of the curriculum have side-stepped this focus on content. It has even side-stepped some of the focus on skills. I have, surprisingly given the title of the blog, focused on data and specifically on several questions:


What data do we need?

Why do we need the data?

How will we make the data reliable (or in trendy speak ‘robust’)?


I have worked in several English departments and they all do the same thing: students study one topic at a time and then at the end of the unit the students complete an assessment. Occasionally, students might have an end of year assessment, or in the ‘APP-mad days’ an APP test every so often, but this pattern is often repeated.  This formula is used no doubt in most schools. The students do the work and then they get assessed on it. It is quite a sensible formula and that is why it is so common and used by most schools. It works for what people have been doing in the past. My problem, however, is that it can create a false picture of some of their skills and some of their abilities. English teaching is cumulative. Like a ball of fluff, students rolls through things and pick little bits as they go along. At the end of it, the teacher assesses a piece of writing to see what fluff they have picked up along the way. It becomes hard to separate independent thought from thoughts that have clearly been lifted from another source. English assessments then become a case of remembering all the clever things the teacher said rather than a case of engaging and thinking about text or topic.

Recently with a very bright class, I asked them to write a small essay based on ‘The Woman in Black’.  The question I gave them was this:

How does Susan Hill create tension in the opening few pages of the second chapter?'

Their responses were typical of what I often see: a lack of independence. They remembered some clever things I said about the previous chapter and moulded them to fit the chapter. Rather than think about how Hill used description, they spoke endlessly about what they had spotted in the previous chapter. Now, you might say: they probably were not secure with their analysis and terminology. Believe me: they could spot a piece of assonance blindfolded while submerged in vat of Fanta. They find it far easier to recall and adapt instead of think and question.

Therefore, I have adapted the assessment cycle for our KS3



1                                                                                                              Class assessment

2                              Blind assessments          

3                                                                                                              Class assessment

4                              Blind assessments

5                                                                                                              Class assessment

6                              Blind assessments          


We are using blind assessments. An assessment where the student cannot prepare or revise beforehand. Or, the teacher crams them with the answers. Only I will know the tasks. The tasks will take the form of a writing task and a question based on an extract. We are building into our curriculum assessments that demonstrate what students can do on their own. Class assessments, if we are honest, are a mixture of a student’s ideas, the other students’ ideas, the teacher’s ideas and the ideas of a model essay you showed the class. Taking away these factors, will give teachers a clear idea of what a student can and can’t do. Good teaching is about modelling, but maybe we are doing too much modelling. Maybe we need to push the bird out of the nest to see if it can fly or not.

The class assessments remain, but they run alongside the blind assessments, so that we can see how reliable both sets of assessments are.  The class assessments are vital because they help students to form, develop and extend ideas and they help them with the important skill of drafting and redrafting work. However, the blind assessments help students to work independently and work in exam conditions.  Often we see students struggle to write in exams and that is often due to the fact that they have always relied on a class of thirty people to provide some ideas for them in their writing.

But, how do you make it reliable? Well, the blind assessments are going to be blind in more than one way. The sets are going to be broken up for the assessments. A teacher will invigilate and mark a group that are made from the rest of the sets, but not their own class. Therefore, the process will hopefully be objective and transparent. It will mean that two people will mark the same student’s work every other term. There will be consistency in the marking or, if not, it can be addressed.  The results will be used to restructure the sets and students will move as a result of the blind assessments.


Back to my original questions:

What data do we need?

Why do we need the data?

How will we make the data reliable (or in trendy speak ‘robust’)?


For me, we need the data to work out the areas to focus on. We need to see where improvements have to be made. The data is to help us be precise in our teaching. If the reading is where students struggle, then we should be targeting the reading. The data tells us a story. So maybe after all English and Mathematics go hand in hand. The numbers tell us a story, but the English teachers work out how to end that story. A renewed focus on reliability will help us to see if it is a believable story and not one where people comeback from the dead and appear in the shower in the next season.

All hail, Progress!

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 18 January 2014

The solid, loyal and easily forgotten adjective

The humble adjective is often neglected when we teach creative writing to students. Literary techniques always sound better, because they have a name. Why put an adjective in when you can use something with a cool name? How many times have I groaned inside when a student, when analysing a poem, jumps to a piece of alliteration and neglects the fifty or so effective adjectives around it? Adjectives get a tough deal. They are the basic components of writing, yet the figurative devices sound so much cooler, like their older brother who smokes and drinks, and even has a girlfriend.

I am teaching creative writing to Year 11 and travel writing to Year 9 and it is amazing how I have to battle against a sea of clichés when dealing with creative writing. Things are always trapped like animals in a cage or a person is as slow as a snail. I want to leave the classroom like a thunderbolt, leopard and rocket when I hear these. Sadly, the way students write at times is devoid of thinking time, planning or exploration.  Apparently, we have to get them ready to write under pressure. They have to do it in the exam, so they may as well get used to writing like Charles Dickens in 20 minutes. Sadly students rarely get to craft a piece of writing. That’s why I am such a fan of ‘Slow Writing’. It is no surprise that students rush to produce work; we have subconsciously told them you must produce the real deal quickly from the start. This is why students default to their bank of clichés. I need to describe a scary room: cobwebs, shadows and lots of creaking. I often think that their writing neglects the humble adjective. A simple, effective word that can add so much to a plain, boring and uninteresting line.

This is something I often use in lessons. I get students to fill the gaps.

The room was __________, ______________, and _____________. Shadows flickered across the _________ and ____________ walls. In the centre of the ­_________ room there was a ___________ , ___________ table. Amongst the _____ items on the table there was a ___________ , ___________ and ___________ knife.  

It is amazing what they come up with. Usually, I suggest that they make it creepy. Soon as you mention that, the word ‘creepy’ appears that or ‘eerie’ (always spelt incorrectly) several times, leading to a discussion. Does using the word ‘creepy’ make something creepy? Most of them are clichés or at least predictable. This does, however, produce a lot of alternatives. A teacher then can tease the layers of meaning between different words.

 The room was dark, musty and cold.

The room was still, motionless and blank.
The room was cold, silent and lifeless.

So many possibilities, but often students pick the most obvious one. Why not use the second one? Doesn’t it make a point?  It does something different with the writing at least. Students get hung up with the idea of adding techniques (if I hear AFOREST again, I will shove it up someone’s…nose) that their writing becomes a collection of techniques that lacks any cohesion or continuity. I would never be an examiner because I think I would scream with every paper as students cling to the idea that good writing only relies on a shove-lots-of-techniques-in formula.

Anyway, I then get students to fill the gaps to make the room positive. Surprisingly, this always produces better results, as students have rarely been asked to describe a warm, pleasant and welcoming room – the knife always gets them. This simple cloze exercise has always generated a good level of understanding of how adjectives affect a piece of writing.

The exercise also helps them to look at how to use adjectives in a sentence. We now have developed a little mantra. They recite the following back to me every lesson. I find it useful, along with the naming different of grammar structures, to help students understand the variety of using adjectives in a sentence. If they can spot a noun, then they know where to add an adjective or adjectives.

adjective noun

adjective, adjective noun

adjective , adjective and adjective noun

adjective, adjective, adjective noun

adjective and adjective noun

Just giving the above to some of my C grade students has transformed their writing. Things just click. I find it much better than looking at copious amounts of examples as students are given a way to add and adapt rather than copy.

We then also look at how adjectives can be used to slow the pace of writing. It isn’t just long sentences that slows readers down but lots of adjectives too. We explore how we might change the use of adjectives throughout the piece of writing. We discuss where there is a need to describe things and where there might not be a need to describe things in great detail. As teachers we often tell students they need to show rather than tell in their writing, but actually it is about a balance between the two and knowing when to describe and when not to describe something.

I am always cautious of bombarding students with vocabulary lists for descriptive writing because you end up getting flowery writing as they put in words with a lack of thought for the overall impact and effect of a text. It sounds good and clever so I will put it in my writing. Never: I want to make the opening positive so they will help see that it is a friendly environment. I’d rather make a connection between parts of their existing knowledge rather than cram their brains with new things. Unlock the synapses in the brain rather than add new knowledge to the detriment of the old knowledge.  The vocabulary our students have in the brain is hidden, yet we insist that they don’t have enough words. Maybe, they haven’t had a bridge built between an adjective they know and a noun they know. That’s why they never come up with a ‘friendly vase’ or an ‘unforgiving table’. They have never been given the connection . And, if we constantly bombard then with new words, we are missing hundreds if not thousands of meaningful combinations of words.  And, along the way they get to use personification and it wasn’t even explicitly taught to them.  

Adjective                                                                                             Noun

sturdy                                                                                                   table

shining                                                                                                  window pane

delicate                                                                                                flower

deep                                                                                                     hole

What happens if we explore how adjectives can be mixed up?

The shining flower stood on the delicate table before the deep window, which was like a sturdy hole.

Yes, it isn’t brilliant, but it is effective. Do students normally associate flowers with shining? Do students normally describe windows as deep? They do, however, add texture and a new level of meaning. If more of my students wrote like this, I’d be really happy.

Right, before people start thinking of adjectives to describe this blog, I’ll end on this note:  I think if we spent double the time on the basics of verbs, adjectives and other things, than we do on the ‘whizzy things’ then our students will have good foundations to do some of the clever things naturally.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 12 January 2014

Progress:4 Effort:1

I have just completed my first week of being an acting Head of English. So far it has been good, but it is still early days. Things have been tough but I am enjoying it. Anyway, during this busy, hectic week I have been thinking of progress (isn’t that we all do now) and I was thinking of how over the years different phrases or buzz words have driven /directed my teaching. Interestingly, my mother is a nurse and she often bemoans the amount of paper work, but she has never once commented on how she must ‘bandage more’ or ‘raise the antiseptic’. Every year I seem to have had a different word driving every action, thought or deed I have in school. At the moment, I am directing the school play and I can't stop thinking that the actors are not making enough progress.  

Over the years, I have had ‘FFT’, ‘Aspirational Targets’, ‘Personalised Learning’, ‘Every Child Matters’, ‘Value Added’ and now ‘Progress’. It is funny how obsessed things were at the time these words were thrown about . It was once FFT this and FFT that. You can’t possibly do X and Y because of the FFT. Or, don’t forget the FFT. FFT drove me mad at the time. Then, I had ‘Aspirational Targets’. The genius idea of giving students a target two or three times higher than the one they could realistically achieve. In principle it was nice idea, but sadly it was just a joke because teachers struggled to define for students what a student should be aiming for and what they should be really aiming for. I had endless conversations with parents and students over the difference between their target and their aspirational target. Often this led to: ‘Why didn’t you just give them one target?’ Raising aspirations doesn’t lie with a grade; it is a way of thinking, yet I was told to crank up the grades and tell the student to aim high. I love the idea of telling all students they can achieve an A, but you have to do a lot more than telling them that.

Then, not so long ago, I had ‘Personalised Learning’. It is funny all of these things still exist in my brain and they are natural parts of teaching, but the buzz words drove the teaching when it was in vogue.  Every discussion tended to end on personalised learning and we did lot of personalising. Oh, look we have personalised the learning! It is surprising that these concepts were ever boasted as being new pedagogical approaches. They are natural concepts in teaching yet we were being told to include these and not to forget them. We must show evidence of it in lessons. Then, I get to ‘Every Child Matters’. For me this was the most insulting one, it assumed that I walked into a classroom and taught only a certain percentage of students. It assumed that I wrote off children. It assumed that I ignored them.   

That leads me to today: progress. That is the word that drives things today. It is all about the progress. What progress are the students making? How do I know progress is being made? This is commonplace in schools now. Surprisingly, for once, I agree with a buzz word. However, it is for not the reasons you’d think. Rather than witter on about it, I am going to explain through a lesson I taught this week…..

My Year 9s are currently preparing to write some travel writing and as part of the preparation stage for writing we are practising sentence writing. Each lesson starts off with something I call ‘Grammar Time’. Played to the music of MC Hammer, students have to create three sentences using a model I have provided. After they have written the three sentences they come to my desk and I mark the sentences.

This one lesson in particular had this sentence as a focus: Like an animal, he ate the meal quickly. The students went mad and started writing their sentences, starting each one with a simile. A simple little writing task turned into an explorative discussion of the effectiveness of similes and the patterns. Here’s some of my favourites:

Like a fat women hidden behind a twig, we could easily see him.
Like grenade next to a bowl of jelly his head exploded.
Like blood the snow fell.
Like a maze she couldn’t make her mind up.    
Like a broken light bulb her mood changed.

Our discussion covered several different points. They included:

·         Two contrasting items (jelly and grenade) in the simile made for the most original comparison.

·         The first thing we write down is usually the most obvious. (Like a snail, he walked slowly.)

·         The similes that we have not used or heard before make the best ones.  

·         Objects make great comparisons for describing mood.

·         The more unlikely the item of comparison and the item are naturally linked together (blood and snow), the more effective the simile.

·         Adding texture to the object adds an additional layer of meaning. For example, the broken light bulb means something different to a normal or temperamental light bulb.

·         Using a famous figure in a simile reduces the effectiveness of a simile.

When I originally planned this, I didn’t expect to get so complex with writing down one blooming sentence, but we did. However, it is not the lesson that I want to draw attention to. It is the progress. There were three students. Let’s say they are all boys so I can mask their identity. This is what they did:

Student 1: He wrote three predictable similes.

Like a cheetah, the player rushed to the end of the pitch.

Student 2: He wrote the three average similes, but used a different structure.

She was cold like a snowman.  

Student 3: He wrote three average similes.

Like a ghost, I could barely see him.

All three students came to me. They had produced a good effort. They had worked hard. They had produced the work I had set them. I sent all three of them back after marking their work and telling them how to improve.

Student 1:  Before, he wrote three predictable similes.

Now he wrote three average similes.

Student 2: Before he wrote the three average similes, but used a different structure.

Now he wrote three average similes using the correct structure.

Student 3: Before, he wrote three average similes.

Now he wrote three similes which created a particular kind of mood.

The thing I think that has happened too much in the past is that effort has dominated our opinion towards work produced. We have praised students that show a high level of effort and punished those that show no effort. Look at the lesson I did. I could have praised all the students in the first instance for completing the work done. They all had demonstrated a high level of effort. However, there was little evidence of progress. By praising the effort, I am masking the lack of progress. Personally, I think this has been at the heart of teaching for decades: the praising of effort has hidden a lack of progress. The student may have worked really hard: the effort is praised; the progress isn’t mentioned. The student feels he/she has done well. They then feel like they do not have to adapt their behaviour.  

Like the Voice, maybe we need to distance the person from the progress sometimes. British culture loves an underdog and we love someone that tries. Maybe in the past we have focused more on the effort, than the progress. Joe Bloggs has tried ever so hard. I don’t think teachers need to become Simon Cowell, but maybe we need to do something about the connection between progress and effort. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone has made progress if they have written seventeen pages; it just means they have worked hard.

As teachers we do need to praise effort but it should not be at the detriment of progress.  Effort has been like a mask in some cases and hidden a lack progress. How can we expect students to improve or progress if we give them the wrong messages or more likely mixed messages about their work?


Progress:  4                                                                                                         Effort: 1
Thanks for reading,


Thursday, 2 January 2014

Creative Writing - a story inspired by Wilfred Owen's Futility

I didn't intend to blog this, but then I changed my mind as I was writing this. This isn't because I think it is amazing, but I thought people might find it useful when teaching the creative writing element of GCSE English. I am at that joyous stage of planning for a controlled conditions assessment.

I am going to use it to explore other perspectives which could be developed in their writing. Furthermore, I am going to use it to think about how to structure a story and how to build connections between sections and paragraphs. Hopefully, this will have 'legs' in the classroom and help some students to see what they can do with the story. The exam board pass on lots of examples, but, truthfully, I am never inspired by them. Hopefully, this will inspire some of my students to be a bit more creative than describing the act of killing someone.  


Move him into the sun--
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds--
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,--still warm,--too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
--O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?



Move him into the sun…


The clouds snuggle against the sun causing splinters of sunlight across the fields of mud. Pools of brown water spread chaotically across the battlefield like the debris of a large weapon. Silence. No sound can be heard. Not a bird. Not a human cry. Not a gun. Not a bomb. Not a sign of life. Not a sign of help or rescue. Amongst all this he waits. Waiting for something or anything that would make this moment change. The clouds move and paint a speckled pattern across the field. Corporal Tom Griffin lies next to a man. A man silent like the world around him, but warm with life. A life that once worked hard in the fields of England. A man who worked so hard to make something of his life. His hands created so much. Tom holds the man’s hand, searching for a pulse.

It is perfect weather for drying clothes. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky. Perfect for drying the few clothes I have. That will change, won’t it, when he comes home? On the top of the hill I feel the most isolated I have ever felt. In a way, it is refreshing, it is almost how God might see things: tiny, small and insignificant. The wind breathes through my hair and the sun licks at may face. I close my eyes and enjoy.

I stop. The guilt.

I shouldn’t be thinking these thoughts; I should be thinking of others. Not myself and how secure, safe and warm I feel.

A shaft of sunlight falls on the man. It reveals a mud encrusted face. A face that is tired, worn and hungry. The face is a shadow of its former self. There is a twitch. Corporal Griffin sees this spark of life and shakes the body hard. Silently and unsurprisingly, the face is motionless like a statue of marble. Smooth, cold, yet perfect. If there was a moment to capture a man’s life, it was now. He looks strong, solid and indestructible. The battlefield to get here is full of weak bags of bones of soldiers that once could be described as a person. They look more fragile now than they ever were in life. It is as if at the moment of death they were dropped from a large building. Everything holding them together has snapped. Like the puppet master has cut all the strings. Yet the man next to the corporal looks the opposite. There are still strings holding him up. His limbs resemble a man alive.

I pause between the hanging of each sheet on the line Its brilliant whiteness contrasts with the thoughts in my head. Red. Burgundy. Dark shades of red. Keep looking at the sheet, I tell myself. That crisp and damp sheet will wipe away the thoughts. The snippets I have heard. The things he has told me. The things he will not tell me. Men dying, on their own, with friends, with strangers, in groups and in their hundreds. White blanks the thoughts out.  

A hole.
“Come on man. Stay with me,” Tom croaks. His voice has lost its power due to the endless shouting.
A hole that has flowered on his chest. Petals of flesh circle a dark hole of blackness.
“You idiot. What happened to the bet? The one about getting shot. The first one shot or injured buys the drinks for a whole night.”
 The blackness of the centre slowly spreads down across the leaves of the man’s clothes. It is the valuable nectar that keeps life going on.
“One more week. We only had one more week of this crap and we’d be home. Me: Brighton. You: Yorkshire.”
The blackish red liquid moves slowly down. It searches for a home, realising that its current home is not suitable.
“Look – just stay with me a few more minutes. There will be a paramedic here in a minute. Come you on sod. Don’t you dare leave me in this Hell!”
The liquid pools itself on to the ground, searching for cracks. Maybe it thinks it can plant a new life.

What’s she doing there? Not often my mother makes the journey out of town. Perhaps, she needs eggs. I bet she is making one of her special cakes. Maybe, I should be baking one. Instead I am washing sheets and making the home ready, making it fresh and clean.

I walk down to her. Her face looks odd. No longer a welcoming smile. The closer I get, the more I fear, the more I hold my breath. Her face is without emotion; it’s a statue. I drop the basket and collapse on my knees.

The clouds have dispersed. The sun now blankets the field with warm heat. The man is cold. He is no longer a man; he is a body. Empty of heat. Empty of life. The body soaks up the sun’s heat to no effect. Like a stone, it absorbs but doesn’t change. Tom doesn’t cry; he can’t. he has seen too much of this to cry. He feels a different emotion. Emptiness. Emotionally cold.

Tom says: ‘Goodbye, Sam.’

My mother hugs me like a child again, squeezing the emotion from me. She squeezes the maturity and years out of me to. She makes feel like a child. She will fix things. I feel warm and I am getting warmer.

The cold starts to bite Tom. Still nothing. Nobody to save him. A shot echoes across the field of muddy pools. Tom collapses.  

Nobody will save him.

Below is a little bit of a discussion I am intending to share with students. My very own interview. Very hard-hitting.
Questions with the writer

 Why two different perspectives?

I wanted to show two clear sides to a conflict: the solider and their family or relatives. I have always loved this poem and I liked the idea of the ‘whispering’ fields of home, so I used that to create the backstory of the loved one. She waits as he fights. I also wanted to have two contrasting voices. One devoid of emotion and one reflective. I think writing about the shock of war is too obvious for this kind of writing. It would be too easy to describe a horrible event or an act of violence so that’s why I took the story after the events, like the poem. It isn’t the act of violence that is awful; it is the reactions to it. How does a fellow soldier react? How does a wife react? How does a mother-in-law react?

Also, I wanted the dying to be incredibly descriptive and atmospheric and I felt if I told it from one person’s point of view I’d be too bogged down with emotions and thoughts the character was experiencing.

Why kill Tom at the end of the story?

It was a tough thing to do, as originally I played around with the idea of Tom arriving at the farm to inform the wife of Sam’s death. But, I decided Tom had to die. I think it is sad that Tom will have nobody to care for him when he dies. He cared for Tom and yet when he dies, there is no one to hold him. No one to keep him warm.  

What inspiration did you get from the poem?

The weather was an important part of the poem for me. It is the one constant in our lives. We live and we die, but the sun keeps rising every day. I wanted to show this constant part of our lives by referencing the sun throughout.

I also liked how the poem is constantly about two things. Two soldiers. Two stanzas. Death and life. Optimism and pessimism. Therefore, I wanted the structure of the story to be about two things. So, throughout the story, it is often featuring two things.

Furthermore, I wanted to carry on the imagery of plant life and things growing. As was Sam a farmer, he was also a part of nature. As he dies, his body reacts like a plant.  Like the religious imagery in the poem, the hope of bringing life to something cold.

Why did you limit the use of names?

I wanted this to be more about the person than their identity. This isn't about one person. It is about a lot of people, so I left the finer details about the names ambiguous. We only find the soldier's name at the end. And, to be honest, it isn't that important. Likewise, I didn't include a name for the wife or the mother-in-law as there are so many of these kind of people. Naming the characters made me think that this just happened to one particular person, when, in fact, it happened to a lot of people.