Saturday, 13 October 2018

Taking Tennyson and Owen to the pub for a pint

This week I have been working with Year 10 and helping them start writing poetry comparisons. As a class, we created the following opening comparison paragraph.

Both ‘Exposure’ and ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ show us that the reality of war is death. Both show us that death is inevitable and a part of the life of war. However, ‘COLB’ celebrates death and glorifies the sacrifice the soldiers gave in dying and ‘Exposure’ shows us that death is a process that should be pitied and thought about. As Owen fought in the war and protested about war, it shows a personal and bitter point of view challenging the mentality of Tennyson is his poem. 

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem. His constant reference to the ‘noble 600’ and how they are left as ‘not the 600’ is a constant reminder of death. He doesn’t want the death to be forgotten and ‘fade’ away, which is why he constantly refers to the ‘600’ and uses endless repetition. Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten. Although he repeats ‘the death’, he does hide the actual violence and uses onomatopoeias and alliteration to give the sense of chaos surrounding the situation. It is as if the action is so hard to define, as it is here. It is hard to separate one from the other. The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.  In contrast, Owen’s ‘Exposure’ refers to explicitly death at the end of the poem. However, the whole poem echoes the dying process: a cold, slow, long process of war. A common thought is that war is about action and whilst ‘COLB’ shows us that with ‘cannons to the right’ and ‘sabres’, ‘Exposure’ challenges this idea and gives us the idea that war is about ‘waiting’ for death. The use of long sentences and repetition of ‘nothing’ gives us the sense that not much happens and that soldiers are waiting for death and they’d rather it happened quickly. The wait is a metaphoric death.  ‘Exposure’ is the process before the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. It shows us why the soldiers rush into the ‘Jaws of Hell’ because they have had to wait for ages for nothing. They’d rather do something than wait, even if it means dying. They want to be ‘exposed’ to the danger and rather not wait for it.  

Along the way, I noticed that I didn’t use the words ‘poet’ or ‘writer’ in the writing and it got me thinking.  Instead, the emphasis was actually on the writer’s surname.

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem.

Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten.

The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.

For years, I have been correcting the students who use a poet’s first name. Unless you have shared a pint (an impossibility) with Tennyson, it isn’t polite to use their first name. But, interestingly I haven’t really given the choice between writer and surname much thought. Yet, the above example made me see things differently and think of things differently. 

In the example above, I have mentioned Tennyson as numerous times and I haven’t equally given Owen the same coverage. What could I say if I looked Owen? 

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem.

Owen challenges the glory of dying for one’s country.  

Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten.

Owen thinks they are forgotten and the trapped between life and death.

The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.

The reality of war for Owen is endless waiting and emptiness. 

The problem with using ‘writer’ and ‘poet’ is one of emotional detachment. Being academic in writing is not about being emotionless. Put things down to a faceless, emotionless and genderless noun (the poet) makes everything perfunctory. Tennyson was a living, thinking person made of wobbly flesh and bones. He thought, felt and probably drank tea.

One of the things I am noticing with the new literature is the importance in language precision. Long gone are the days of including X, Y and X and you’ll pass the GCSE. Students need to be able to express things fluently and precise. You can’t rely on bolt on statements or sentence openings. That’s why I think a shift in the subject of the sentences makes a shift in understanding and perspective. It’s more personal.

Owen wanted …

Owen thought …

Owen felt …

Getting students to explore the intent is quite hard, but an emphasis on the surname can help students to do this. We are exploring his (or her, depending on the poem) personal perspective on the idea. How he sees things? 

We can then include emotions and add to the student’s understanding of the intent further.

Owen felt bitter.

Owen felt frustrated.

Owen felt detached.

In fact, I’d be bold enough and say we are that blooming obsessed with the reader and their feelings so much that we neglect the poet and their feelings. We are obsessed with how we feel and forget that the poem has been writing with emotion. 
Then, we can add something specific about what the writer is doing: 


Shying away









Owen is uncovering the reality of war.

Owen is dehumanising soldiers.

Owen is alienating the reader.  

Then, we can just add some adverbs to suggest how Owen is feeling.

Owen is quietly uncovering the reality of war.

Owen is subtly dehumanising soldiers.

Owen is controversially alienating the reader.  


The best students don’t plonk ‘writer’, ‘alliteration’ and ‘mood’ in a sentence and magically create great responses. We need to craft how poetry is written about. We need to teach poetry analysis just as much as we do other skills. It will help too with all forms of analysis. 

So when I sat down for a pint with Tennyson and Owen a conversation started. Tennyson angrily mocked and ridiculed the atmosphere of the pub. For he hated, gastropubs. Owen, on the other hand, respectfully disagreed and boasted that it was one of his favourites.

We need work hard on getting students to think of writers as real people with feelings and thoughts. A01 is one that some students struggle with when writing about poetry. That’s because they are obsessed with the language. The starting point should be the writer’s ideas. Their thoughts. Their feelings. Their perspective. I am seriously considering getting rid of the 'writer’. Not in a hitman sort of way. Just the word. 

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 7 October 2018

The woman who fell to earth, and school

Today marks a big and exciting chapter in the world of Doctor Who. This evening we will see the new Doctor in action. We’ve had clips and snippets, but nothing significant to understand how the new Doctor has been interpreted. Oh and the new Doctor is female.

There’s been a significant discussion over the introduction of a female Doctor. In fact, some it has been purely misogynistic.  The audience didn’t batter a metaphorical eyelid when a villain (Cyberwoman and The Master / Missy) becomes female, yet when you change the hero to a woman, the world stops and spouts tirades of abuse.

An actor who previously played the Doctor raised the point that changing the gender meant that boys were losing a role model and hero. In a world full of musclebound heroes, the loss of a hero that wasn’t ‘typically male’ was an issue to be raised.  

As a father to daughters, I have been really interested in role models for girls. I’d be bold to say that there aren’t many that are clearly defined, visible and obvious to little girls.  If I could have introduced my daughter to Buffy at 5 I would have done. There’s a glut of heroes for boys in a variety of shades and forms, yet for the girls there’s very little. They even put them in groups to help the boys. Hermione Granger, however, has become my daughters’ hero and role model over time.

A big part of the problem is the idea of identification and placing ourselves in the fiction. For decades, the companion has been the audience’s way into the story. They represented the audience. They think and feel like the audience. They’d react as most human beings would do in a crazy situation. If I am honest, my heroes were the companions. I didn’t want to be the Doctor; I wanted to be like the companions – well, not all of them (The 80s). I wanted to live an exciting life and be transported away from the drizzling rain of a coastal town. I wanted to blow Daleks up with explosives. I wanted to explore new worlds. I wanted to save things. I wanted to help others. The hero wasn’t the Doctor. The hero was Ace, Sarah Jane Smith, Jo Grant, Tegan and Romana at different times. Strong, funny people.

One problem with role models and heroes is the gender issue. How often do we site the opposite gender as being a role model? We are obsessed with ‘like for like’ when exploring role models. Boys need male teachers for role models. Girls need female teachers for role models. Why don’t we talk about how women can be role models for boys? Why don’t we talk about how men can be role models for girls? The most influential person in my teaching career was a woman. Yep, not a man. A woman. A head of department who still inspires me to this day. She didn’t save the world and fight aliens, but she was a fantastic leader. What made her a fantastic head of department and leader?

[1] She worked hard and her hard work motivated us to work hard too.

I’ve worked for various managers in business and the one the stands out the most is the manager who felt it was his given right to not work so hard because he had got to the top. The office around him was full of resentment and bitterness, because others were working hard so he could relax and take his time.

[2] She was the calm waters in a difficult storm.

Every problem was met calmly and gently. We’d discuss and talk about it and then explore the solutions. We were never brushed off or given platitudes.  Her calm approach matched how we learnt to deal with things. She set the standard.

[3] Tiny details mattered

She’d ensure that no person was missed out and that everybody had a say. She’d also remember tiny bits of detail about our lives. We were felt we were listened to.

[4] Organisation

She taught me how important organisation is in a department. She had things planned meticulously and well in advanced of events and topics. ‘Be prepared’ was an unwritten rule for her. Plus, she had the neatest office I have ever found in education.

[5] Healthy distance

She was friendly but not a friend. She’d join in conversations, but kept a healthy distance at the same time.

[6] Make and don’t break people

A simple compliment goes a long way. I recall how she praised how I dealt with a student in a class. A little comment like that went a long way. In fact, it made me repeat what I did with other students.  

[7] Laughter

But, I think the biggest thing she taught me was how to control my emotions. I am not an emotional person, but we are surrounded by emotions in schools. Staff. Students. Parents. It’s easy to get caught up with things and be affected by others. She taught me how to deal with things. In any difficult situation, I always think: ‘What would L do in this situation?’ And, for me it has worked. Even this week I asked myself the same question in a meeting.

My role model in education and my professional career was a ‘custard tart eating’ woman.

Tonight, I will watch the new Doctor with my daughters and they might idolise the new Doctor or maybe worship Bradley Walsh’s character. 

One thing I want them to do is think about how everybody can be a hero. 

See beyond gender. 

Be inspired by the person.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 29 September 2018

O Benvolio, Benvolio, wherefore art thou, Benvolio?

One of the big things I have been concentrating on more in the last two years is characterisation in key texts. I feel spending good quality time looking, and I mean really looking, at the characters and how they are used reaps rewards. I am forever reminding students that each character is a construct and should be seen as a tool. A spanner. A hammer. A screwdriver. It just so happens they might seem, act and behave like real people. Their role in the story is important.  

Added to this, I have a soft spot for the side characters. The minor parts. I call them the easily forgotten characters. Peter in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The Porter in ‘Macbeth.’ Caroline and her husband in ‘A Christmas Carol’. They are the interesting characters for me. My classes know that I find Juliet interesting to an extent, but I find Romeo really boring. He doesn’t interest me. I don’t neglect him, but I can’t seem to get on with him.   

A sign for me of a good writer is their ability to make the smallest of characters interesting. Take Benvolio. As an actor, you might be miffed if you got Benvolio instead of Tybalt, Romeo or Mercutio, because you don’t get to fight, or even die.

 O Benvolio, Benvolio, wherefore art thou, Benvolio? We know his name means ‘good will’ and all that jazz, but there are some interesting questions to be had when we look at the character’s usage in the play. For me, there are two interesting questions:

Why do we not see Benvolio after Act 3?

Why does Shakespeare introduce new friend Balthazar in Act 5 in a role that Benvolio could have fitted in to?

This week we were exploring these two questions. 

Why does Benvolio disappear? A

fter Act 3 Scene 1, we hear nothing from him. His last words are: 

Tybalt, here slain, whom Romeo's hand did slay;
Romeo that spoke him fair, bade him bethink
How nice the quarrel was, and urged withal
Your high displeasure: all this uttered
With gentle breath, calm look, knees humbly bow'd,
Could not take truce with the unruly spleen
Of Tybalt deaf to peace, but that he tilts
With piercing steel at bold Mercutio's breast,
Who all as hot, turns deadly point to point,
And, with a martial scorn, with one hand beats
Cold death aside, and with the other sends
It back to Tybalt, whose dexterity,
Retorts it: Romeo he cries aloud,
'Hold, friends! friends, part!' and, swifter than
his tongue,
His agile arm beats down their fatal points,
And 'twixt them rushes; underneath whose arm
An envious thrust from Tybalt hit the life
Of stout Mercutio, and then Tybalt fled;
But by and by comes back to Romeo,
Who had but newly entertain'd revenge,
And to 't they go like lightning, for, ere I
Could draw to part them, was stout Tybalt slain.
And, as he fell, did Romeo turn and fly.
This is the truth, or let Benvolio die.
The character is always seen as the peacemaker and a foil for the other characters. He’s just such a ‘good’ character. Why can’t Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio just be like Benvolio?   

I do but keep the peace: put up thy sword,
Or manage it to part these men with me.

He is a wannabe peacemaker, but he isn’t THE PEACEMAKER or even a peacemaker in the play. He is only good in name and not in action. The play’s opening conflict is resolved by Mr Shouty, the Prince, and later the Prince arrives just too late to fix things in Act 3, but he at least makes things less violent for a short period of time by banishing Romeo.  In truth, he is the closest thing to a peacemaker we have, but it is really death that is the peacemaker in the whole play. And it takes a rather large number of deaths to create peace.

A lot of study guides describe Benvolio as the ‘peacemaker’. We should be clear that he tries to pacify people and events. He doesn’t actually fix things.  

I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire:

The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,

And, if we meet, we shall not scape a brawl;

For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.
Then, what happens to Benvolio? His last word is ‘die’. After relaying the details of what happened to Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo, he gives himself up to the Prince’s mercy. Does he die under the Prince’s instruction? As Romeo’s cousin, it doesn’t seem unlikely. Plus, Shakespeare isn’t going to miss an opportunity to plunder drama from a situation and place Romeo in more torment.  So, what happens to him?  

My students believe that Benvolio’s inability to live up to his name could possibly lead to his suicide. Benvolio failed in Act 1 to fix things and the fact that he failed a second time with disastrous consequences changed his outlook on things. The class suggested that his last word echoes his thoughts. He failed and so must die.  He wanted the Prince to kill him. This would leave us with yet another suicide in the play. One that takes offstage. Something that Shakespeare liked to do a fair bit in this play. Bye Mercutio. Bye Lady Montague.

Adding fuel to this theory of Benvolio’s death is Balthasar’s appearance in Act 5. A guilt ridden Benvolio could have easily informed Romeo of Juliet’s death and possibly stopped Romeo from doing anything rash. Instead, we have a new friend (and a servant) introduced at the eleventh hour. It is like Benvolio regenerates into Balthasar. Ironically, Balthasar was one of the wise men and means ‘The Lord protects the king.’  In this case, he doesn’t really protect anybody and just guides Romeo to some kind of star – stars in the shape of his death.

I believe that Benvolio’s exit represents the point of no return in the play. Benvolio was the voice of reason and his disappearance signals how all reason disappears in the play and how things start to defy reason.  A fake death. A planned meeting at the exact point Juliet wakes up. A plan masterminded by a friar nonetheless. Yes, reason has packed its bag and said it has had enough of this rubbish, and taken the kids too.  

Benvolio is a foil for Romeo.

Benvolio is the voice of reason and caution.  

Benvolio is Romeo’s very ineffective ‘good angel’ on his shoulder.

Benvolio is the most visible Montague in the play apart from Romeo.

Benvolio is the Romeo’s family.  

Benvolio is a very, very bad peacemaker.

Benvolio is led by his head, but halfway through the play he led by his heart.

‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a play about the battle between the head and the heart. Benvolio is the epitome of this battle. He is the voice of reason in the sea of emotions. Maybe he discovers in Act 3 that the heart is stronger than the head. A small character with so much depth.  So now let’s stop peddling this lie that he is a peacemaker!

There’s so much to be explored with the small characters. I’ve spent lessons exploring Edna’s silence in ‘An Inspector Calls’.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 2 September 2018

Precision and patterns thanks to dual coding

I have never been a fan of turning a poem, novel or play into a story board. The results have always been underwhelming and slightly disappointing. We are often led to believe that ‘visualising’ is a key part of reading, yet what is usually ‘visualised’ on paper is nothing like the original text. Not even something that would pass off as a cheap carboot sale copy. Story boards had always been a nice filler for a lesson. From a learning point of view, the teacher learnt who could draw and who couldn’t. The teacher could also work out who read the text and who only read the opening. But, sadly, you didn’t get much else than that. You did, however, get some display material to get somebody off your back.

Last year, I decided to draw and use ‘dual coding’ to cope with the demands of the new exams. To successfully discuss the examined texts, a student needs to really know the text. And, I mean really know the text. Really, really, really know the books. I wanted to see if I could use ‘dual coding’ to address this issue. ‘Dual coding’ is simply using more than one channel to process and recall information. These two channels are often referred to as ‘visual’ and ‘verbal’ channels. Other people can explain it better than me, so I won’t go through it in too much detail. Anyway, I wanted to look at what I could do to support the learning of the texts using visual cues as well as reading the text and so I started drawing. I broke down each of the texts into components and created a pictorial map of the story. See below for an example. Warning: I am not an artist.

My key thinking behind some of the ‘artistic’ choices are:

·         Use of letters to signify the names of character so that students would have a visual cue but they’d have to recall the name.

·         Use of one item of clothing or hair style to signify a difference between characters. Or in some cases a connection between characters.

·         Setting wasn’t important unless it was a change of setting, which I signified by a building.

·         All scenes must be included and all events in some capacity.

·         If the positioning of a character in stage was important, then I’d add some detail to help reinforce this point (balcony)

·         Thoughts were always signified with thought bubble and dialogue with a speech bubble.

·         Where possible, entrances and exits were marked on the map. However, some texts it is too much.

·         Words would be used, but only to a minimum and often one word.

·         Symbols were used rather than words.

Then, I started to use it in my teaching. I scanned my drawing and gave a copy to all students as we worked through ‘Romeo and Juliet’. They had it at the start of the reading of the act so as we read they could follow and link visually to what is going on. It also made retrieval practice easier. Instead of a list of questions at the start of a lesson, I’d put the scan up on a PowerPoint and ask students to tell me what happened at each point. We’d keep going back to the pictures throughout a lesson. I’d get to the point that students could recall events without having to consult their notes. The great thing about this is that it kept the knowledge of the text at the forefront of the student’s thinking and it supported the weaker students.

Initially, I wanted ‘dual coding’ to just make the students know the text better; however, as things progressed, I discovered it did far more than that and it actually supported and developed the understanding of how the texts is structured and written.

[1] Precision

The difference between the top and bottom answers in literature is precision. The best answers use precise evidence to support a point. The use of these story maps allowed students to build up that precision. How many characters do students forget? How many events do students forget to recall? Usually, I make a sheet of the ‘easily forgotten characters and events’ to combat this. Every student remembers the balcony scene but not every student remembers the scene where the Friar tends his plants.  

When mapped out like this, all events are equal. No stone is left unturned. But, as a teacher, I could keep going back to those ‘easily forgotten characters and events’.

[2] Structure

The structure of texts is a funny aspect to cover. We tend to refer to tension graphs and the odd question here to address it. This approach put the structure at the foreground and put it in people’s faces. If you couldn’t see how Act 1 and Act 2 both start with a prologue, then you need to get your eyes checked. It also allowed students to see how the acts where structured and how characters were used in the plot. They’d see how Act 1 starts with Romeo and then ends with Juliet.

How do we show the structure of the story? I found presenting it visually allowed for more meaningful discussions than when I approach structure with a summary of the text. Structure is a visual dimension of a text. It needs to be presented visually. Here the story maps do just that.

[3] Patterns

Another benefit of this approach was the increase chance of finding patterns. When you have the whole text mapped out before you, there is a better chance of seeing threads and patterns rather than when in isolation. One such pattern students discovered was how the character of Juliet and Romeo are introduced. There is a pattern of characters talking about them before they are seen on stage. Another spotted how two characters talking on stage was incredibly common in the play.

[4] Themes

Themes tend to be taught as discrete lessons. This lesson we will explore the theme of conflict. When you have the whole text before you, you can pinpoint the cogs that make the theme. A highlighter is a thing of beauty. Highlight all the things related to the theme of conflict. Students saw how a theme develops and changes across the play. They see how a theme is pushed to the foreground in the opening and then how it is in the background until Act 3.

The new GCSEs could be about anything and we need students to have a more immersive experience of the texts and to really know them.  

[5] Decluttering and links

I have mentioned this before. There is an issue with the number of images we use from different versions of the play or novel, which can confuse things. I found that using my simplistic images generated more relevant discussion of ideas, than photographs of lavish productions. My simple drawing of Juliet on a balcony engaged students to think about the use of positioning on stage. Why is she higher than Romeo? Why is she closer to the stars? There was no obsession of clothes and facial expressions, but serious choices about what Shakespeare would have a control of.

For this year, I have placed all our story maps in the various booklets we use to teach students. They are there for revision, retrieval practice and as an aide memoir. They are going to be the pillars for the teaching of the text. The students are going to really know the text, so they can be precise in their ideas. There has been a reduction of sifting through what students can recall from the text this year. I am not doing so much of the old ‘can you remember….?’ as I used to.

For KS3, I am going to get classes to create their own. I had much fun with a Year 8 class and we, together as a class, created our own story map as we read Macbeth. A visualizer and blank sheet in an exercise book is all you need. The great thing with story mapping live is that students can see how each event connects to the other, or doesn’t as the case may be.

We are endlessly surrounded by stories. Students will probably experience numerous stories in the course of a week. Our frustration centres around students remember the key bits of the story and the less memorable ones. Is there any wonder they forget things when they have watched a film, or followed a soap daily? Another story with another set of characters and easily forgettable characters and events. We don’t want to be teaching ‘A Christmas Carol’ every year from Year 7 onwards, so we need to be thoughtful in how we teach the story. Rereading a text alone doesn’t secure memory. It just uncovers the forgettable stuff.

I was surprised how much discussion my rubbish pictures generated. It shows you how much can be gained from very little. And, not all the discussion was based on whether my attempt to draw a leg on a character was dodgy or possibly phallic.  

Thanks for reading,


I have included some of my drawings. They are not perfect, but they give you sense of what I did with each text. It took me hours – what do you mean you can’t tell?- to do, but I recommend, as with all things, you try to do it yourself. 

Romeo and Juliet 

A Christmas Carol 

An Inspector Calls 

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Twinkl Resources

The kind people at Twinkl have given me a free account on their website and, in return, I said I’d review, occasionally, some of their resources.

This month’s finds are:

Gothic Fiction

As the dust settles on the new GCSEs, it gives us chance to look more at KS3. One of the hard things at the moment is deciding and finding texts. If you are like me, you have jettisoned ‘Holes’ already and are looking at what to fill that hole with something in the curriculum. One of the things I like about Twinkl is their extracts from texts to support teaching.

I was looking at building up our ‘Gothic Fiction’ unit and I thought I’d have a look and, aside from the usual extracts from ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’, I discovered some nice extracts from ‘Carmilla’, ‘Northanger Abbey’, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and others. In addition to this, I came across ‘The Oval Portrait’ by Edgar Allen Poe  and ‘A Night-Piece on Death’ by Thomas Parnell in their units on gothic fiction. There’s also a travel writing unit of work which covers some nice extracts from Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.

One of the challenges we have in teaching is time. We never get the time to find new texts, so we stick to the old faithful ones. This year I am aiming to push and try new texts: bring something new to the students’ plates. That's why it is always nice to fine a new one. 


It’s sad to say that spoken language has been elbowed out of the curriculum. One of our big changes this year is to squeeze more of it in to the curriculum and find a way where it supports the learning without it feeling superfluous or being unneeded. The GCSE Paper 2 writing sections has really highlighted a need for students to articulate one clear opinion and communicate that opinion with skill. That’s why we are using a debate a term with each class in KS3. We will give them time to prepare, time to rehearse and then the actual debate. The debate packs on Twinkl are a good starting point.  

Sentences posters

I am not a big fan of display as I find them distracting for students, teachers and SLT – say, when was the last time you changed that display?  I like the focus to be on the front of the classroom and not on some shiny piece of card on the ceiling. The sentence posters present a nice opportunity. They give students an example to model their writing on. My plan is to have them reduced to A5 and laminated. Students then will have to opportunity to pick them up, if they want to revise how to use them.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Interventions – stop swapping cows and magic beans

I hate the word ‘intervention’. It’s a nasty word that has crept into education. It’s so bad that parents and students are using it now. What interventions have you put in place for my Tiny Tim? By creating the concept of intervention and readily using the word, we have separated things from teaching. We have made it seem like something extra.  We have made it seem like extra work and divorced it from teaching. I am all too aware that the rise in workload and pressure is closely linked to the naming of intervention. We have made it seem like something extra and in addition to teaching.  What did we do before 2012 before schools used the word ‘intervention’?

Intervention is just teaching and I think we need to keep going back to the idea. Intervention is just another word for good teaching. It isn’t something extra. It isn’t magical. It is just teaching stuff and working out the right stuff. We can make millions of choices and we are all working to make the right choices for our students. If we use words like ‘intervention’ we are suggesting that there is a magical cure and a simple solution. If I do X, then they will succeed. If I don’t do Y, then they will fail. Not only are we creating stress with workload, we are creating emotional culpability for a student’  performance. I bet there are teacher kicking themselves over the performance of some of their children. No amount of interventions would have worked, because the student didn’t work hard enough. Yet, we beat ourselves up, because there must have been one magic bean that would have worked to transform them.

Every year I look at results and the key thing I keep going back to is this mantra: the student who works hard gets the results they deserve. I don’t look at students and think that the one lesson on ‘An Inspector Calls’ is the secret to a student getting a grade 8. No, the student got the grade because they listened to me and worked hard. The student did two solid actions. They listened. They worked hard.

We need to rewire our thinking in schools. We need to stop propelling the idea that there is a simple fix. A pure, unrefined solution. We need this at all levels and not just with the students. Students need to work hard and listen to teachers. If they do that, then they will be successful. If we think success is driven by something other than hard work and listening, then we are removing a student’s responsibility from the process. We are actively doing this by propelling the idea of interventions.

This year we changed some parts of our teaching and this proved fruitful and positive in the recent results. But, underwritten behind the changes was the mantra: the student who works hard gets the results. None of the changes were mind-blowing. Here’s just a quick overview:

[1] Scanning mock papers

We had an issue with students going into the exams in 2017 and writing nothing. Throughout Year 10 and 11, we scanned and emailed parents the paper of students who didn’t answer the paper or wrote a paltry effort. We sent a nice email explaining how this level of effort would result in an ungraded paper, which doesn’t reflect their true potential.

The great thing about this approach was that I was evidencing the fact that student wasn’t working hard enough. I have electronic files of the papers as evidence to parents and SLT. It was also blooming immediate. I emailed parents after the mock exam, so the parents can speak to the child and address the issue so that the next mock they did showed an improvement. All students this year completed the papers.

[2] Using apps

There are a number of tools to help students revise and I use the PixLit app for literature revision. This year, I closely monitored the use of the app. The app was a clear marker for me to see if a student is revising. The rest of the time we don’t know what students are doing. I told students that this was going to be the thing I’d use to judge their revision. I then emailed parents if a student hadn’t used it and I spelt out to parents that they were, in my opinion, not revising.

I wasn’t draconian to the point of berating hard working students if they didn’t use it much. Instead I used it to monitor the students who don’t work hard enough and highlight to parents this fact that revision is not happening. I used it as a starting point for discussions and meetings. It was evidence of the students working hard, or not working hard.

[3] Homework booklets

For two terms, I produced a homework booklet for Year 11 students. They had 50 practice questions / tasks from the various papers - I used those terrible KS3 exam papers – and students had to use the booklet. On the front cover was a table for students to tick off the work they had done. Some of the tasks were annotating a poem or writing some example sentences. They were all about thinking rather than writing. I wanted students to practise thinking in response to the questions on the exam paper. Instead of writing a piece, I’d ask students to write plan. Therefore, they were practising again and again the thought processes.

This addressed the issue of giving practice papers and them sitting at the bottom of a bag somewhere. There was nothing for a teacher to mark. They just had to quickly skim to see if the student had completed it or not. We were spelling out how to revise. But, more importantly, we were visually showing how much revision students had done. A teacher and a parent can see how much revision had and hadn’t been done.

[4] Redoing mocks  

After we had marked the mocks, we had highlighted in every class a few students who had underperformed because they hadn’t worked hard enough or they just had a bad day. As a result of this, we asked students to redo the paper at home. The teachers remarked it and (surprise, surprise) the students always did better.

I wanted this to be a genuine concern of students. If I don’t work hard enough, then I will have to redo the paper. Simple as that. I want working hard to be the easy option.

[5] Patrolling the mock exams with my invigilator spies

I ditched the walking-and-talking mocks. We teach the papers thoroughly so a walking-and-talking mocks doesn’t add much value for us, so instead I walked about the desks during the mock exams. I made notes about performance. I observed students with heads on the desks and students who looked visibly stressed and panicky.  After the exam, I spoke to the students about their behaviour.

I think every head of department should patrol mock exams, because it gives you a fantastic overview of a cohort. You see the students and all the problems. You see the students who lose steam and motivation after an hour. You see the top set students writing to the bitter end. It gives me an opportunity to praise students (a simple thumbs up) or put back on track students not working (tapping the desk).

The invigilators are now my spies. They tell me and note down how students perform in the exams. They are there to observe and monitor students. They make great spies and they love telling me about students. They are in the best place to tell us who is working hard.

[6] Extra mock for a few select students

I see no point in doing endless mocks. However, for a select number of students I put on an extra mock after school. With the parents’ support, they did another paper. One more than the rest of cohort. Mainly, I did this for bright boys who were underperforming and students with confidence issues. Students were told that if they did better on this mock, it would replace the grade on their previous mock. The whole ideas was about improving and getting better.

This was also a PR stunt. It told students they needed to do better and that there were selected because they had the potential to be better.   

Stop using the word ‘intervention’ in your school. Teaching is one long piece of intervention. There are no magic beans. The students should be working harder than the teachers. For too long the teachers have been working harder than the students. We need to address this. We need to focus more on making students work harder. We need to be the mirror that reflects the level of student’s work and effort.

Plus, we need to make working hard the easy option in schools and not the other way round.

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, 12 July 2018

Challenge Africa

In the 90s, there was a show that I watched with my parents. Challenge Anneke. The premise of the show was simple. Anneke Rice had two build, fix or renovate something in a short space of time. The show tugged on the heartstrings and featured a car I always wanted, which fitted inside in a lorry like some kind of Transformer.

Anyway, I am looking to do a similar challenge. A colleague of mine is visiting schools in South Africa to help them build and improve schools. I think it is a fantastic opportunity. So far, as a school, we have donated textbooks and resources. But, they need something different. They need help with teaching and teaching resources. Things are pretty basic in terms of resources. They need guidance for teaching a lesson. A lesson with very little resources and texts. Basic lessons with limited resources.

Between all the teachers on Twitter, we have a wealth of resources. That’s why I’d like to enlist some help with helping several schools in South Africa.

Below are copies of the schemes of work the teachers have in place. I’d just like to offer guidance on how to teach the different aspects. I’d like to offer lesson plans so a teacher can teach the different elements without the need for resources.

We are at the end of the year and most of us have some gained time. Or, we have resources at the click of a button.

I’d be eternally grateful if you volunteered to write one lesson plan.

One planned lesson based on having no photocopies and just a board with some text written on it.  

Pick on aspect above. 
Like Anneke, I only have a short space of time for this. A week.  

If you are willing to help in this challenge, then DM me on Twitter @Xris32.

Many thanks,


Sunday, 1 July 2018

How many different Macbeths have I got to remember for the exam, Sir?

Dual coding has become a little focus of mine, and others, over the last few months and it is an area I think there’s scope for reflection in the classroom and especially the English classroom. It has highlighted a few problems for me.

Recently, I picked up a revision guide for students on ‘An Inspector Calls’ and in that book alone it had ten different visual images to represent the character of Mr Birling. It included a comic version, several stills from various film and TV versions, and then several stills from various play versions. On reading the revision guide, students could be looking at, to them, ten different characters. There wasn’t any visual consistency. Or visual harmony. In fact, you could place all the characters in a line up for English teachers and they’d struggle to find the common factor between them. For me, this highlighted several problems with using images in the classroom. We bombard students with images.

Pictures on PowerPoint or handout are brilliant, aren’t they? They show that the teacher has tried to engage with students. Look this isn’t dull stuff. It is interesting because it has pictures? Pictures make the work look nice. Nice and pretty. There’s become an unwritten rule for any literature focused PowerPoint that the teacher will include several googled pictures. I am going to question the use of photographs in PowerPoints and challenge their usage.

Take any still or photograph from a literature text and you’ll see that your attention isn’t solely focused on one thing. You don’t just look at a picture and see one thing. In fact, you see many things working together to convey ideas or gain interest. Pictures are quite attention seeking.

What do you think of my hair?

What do you think of my clothes?

What do you think of my lighting?

What do you think of the angle of the picture?

What do you think of the colours?

What do you think of my setting?

What do you think of my background?

There’s a large team of people who have worked hard to create this image and there are several elements working in tandem to get the final picture. A picture is never just a picture. It is something bigger. Cinema is about being visually stimulating and so therefore photographs from films are often visually stimulating. They are designed to stimulate. They have a big screen to fill. So when we put a picture on a slide it is adding something stimulating to the slide. Where we thought we were using a photograph to revise a plot point, we are actually stimulating other thoughts and idea, which could detract the student from the main purpose of a lesson. Yes, you might want students to think and be stimulated, but is that moment the right time for it? There’s a big difference between having a picture on a slide for the primary purpose of teaching an aspect and a secondary purpose of reminding and supporting the learning. Using a picture in the secondary way detracts the learning.

This year, I have taken to drawing. Drawing images from the texts to represent scenes. I have stopped googling for images and I use my own drawings and adopted my own style of visual coding instead.

By using it, I am summarising the plot and at the same time reducing the visual information that students are receiving so that there is a greater level of clarity. So when I ask students to make connections in the rest of the play, students are not think where they have seen the colour red in the play or who else in the play has such a bad haircut like Romeo. The focus, from my experience, becomes a lot more relevant in discussions too. Students are able to talk better about the texts and make more interesting connections. I have, and it took me a while, drawn the majority of the key texts so that I am able to do this and have a consistency of style. I’d also say that this way has speeded things up for me. Present a photograph to students and I’d say they get confused initially as they work out the where, when, why of the image and ask several questions along the way about facial expressions and hairy nostrils. This way for me has made things clearer in lessons for me and helped improve my explanations. I show the picture before reading. We read the scene. We look at the picture again and explore staging choices, writer’s message and language devices through the picture. Then, we look at another scene. Later, I might pick the picture out again to revise or link to another scene.

By using my own pictures, I am build a visual consistency across lessons. To be honest, I don’t think we have ever considered this. However, I have seen PowerPoints with three different actors playing Macbeth for one lesson. Or, worksheets where they have mixed up the actors playing the different parts from two different versions of the play. Lady Macbeth from one version. Macbeth from another. We don’t always think of the visual through line with text. Do we always use the same actor playing Macbeth in everything we do? I think there is nothing wrong in looking at how other actors and productions present the character, but I think we should possibly have a dominant image or actor to help students develop their knowledge of the text. Give them a carousel of bearded blokes and they will struggle to tell you who is Banquo and who is Macbeth. Plus, between lessons they have watched several TV shows or films and met lots of other people. The chances of then remembering one is limited when you haven’t just given them one to recall.    

I like Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a movie, but I don’t like it as a support for the teaching of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ because, for me, the visuals dominate the language of the text. Both are there, but the imagery is domineering. Students remember the imagery, rather than the text. If only Luhrmann toned down the visuals, I’d be a happier. Instead, I have opted for the Globe’s versions of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Macbeth’ recently because they have changed the balance for me. They use a more naturalistic visual style and they reduce the emphasis on the visuals so that the focus can be on the verbal aspect. However, you are occasionally distracted by an audience member in dayglow yellow – must be a Baz Luhrmann fan. Do students really notice the tone and intonation of character in Luhrmann’s colourful 100 BPM version? They could tell you the colours of things and the music played at a point, but they’d rarely be tell you where the emphasis on a word was in a line.  

So, there a several questions I think we have to ponder in the classroom, when thinking about the visual elements of a lesson:

How many interpretations of the key elements of the text have they seen?

What is the primary visual source for aiding the teaching of a text?

When and where should I introduce different visual representations of the texts?  

Is the picture / image on the sheet / slide part of the primary learning?

Or, simplified:

How many Macbeths have they seen this lesson?

Who is their Macbeth?

When should they see other Macbeths?

Is picture of Macbeth really necessary at this point in the learning?

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 24 June 2018

The stench of failure and the sweet aroma of success

There’s one thing we don’t speak enough about in the world of education. Failure. Mistakes. Errors of judgement made by adults. 

The classroom is the place where students can practise, experiment, fail and succeed, yet the school isn’t the workplace to fail, experiment and make errors. Now, before you start thinking I have had a telling off this week for making a mistake and this is a thinly veiled attack at the hand that feeds me, let me assure you that hasn’t happened. No, really, it hasn’t happened. I promise.

As an NQT, I was sold a lie. It wasn’t a deliberate lie, but it was a lie nonetheless.

My youthful self sat and observed lessons and was often presented with perfection. I was taught in university what perfection looked like in the classroom. I watched experienced teachers teach perfect lessons. I heard from students on the PGCE course telling me about their perfect lessons and how their mentor said their lesson on writing as a slug was sublime and ‘clearly outstanding’. I think that same student also informed me that another teacher told her she should be an Ofsted inspector because her lessons were so good. She was the same girl who told me her plan was to teach for two years and become an education consultant and write books.

That one experience highlighted to me from the start that there is a subconscious conflict in education. We strive for perfection, but some of us think and feel that we are the physical embodiment of perfection.

On a personal level, I think that is a dangerous place to be because it is incredibly stressful being perfect. I should know – joke!  ‘Working to achieve perfection’ is a much calmer and less stressful place than ‘holding on to perfection’. Let’s call it the ‘Perfection Problem’.

I admit I am part of this problem. I feed the ‘Perfection Problem’. I talk about more about the ‘perfect’ solutions than the problems. Teachmeets are people sharing their solutions. Books are written about solutions. Blogs are written about solutions. Nobody really talks about the opposite. The mistakes. Imagine a teachmeet about people sharing their problems. Imagine a book written about the mistakes teachers make.  There are businesses and organisations that feed on this ‘perfect solution’ to our problems. We are always one step away from being perfect, if only we had this or this tool. You can see we have an absence of discussion of the mistakes we make and continue to make. We look too much at the solutions and shy away from discussing the mistakes.

We are all guilty of it at some level. But, we do some easy ways to avoid taking ownership of the mistakes.  Errors are usually one of these in the teaching world.

  1. The teacher’s [who used to work here] mistake
  2. The other department’s mistake
  3. The children’s mistake
  4. The parents’ mistake
  5. The head teacher's / SLT’s mistake 

 We displace the ownership of the mistake to someone else. It happened to me. A teacher left one of my previous schools and they got the blame for some inflated coursework marks, when it came to moderation. I left that school and during coursework moderation came up my name was mentioned. Last out of the door gets blamed for a number of things. I was the scapegoat.

The problem is that it is so easy to divorce ourselves from mistakes. How could I possibly control things? They are out of my control so therefore I cannot be held accountable for the mistake. We are dealing with teenagers and they are unpredictable.  The situation allows us to be free from imperfection and stops us from actually talking about mistakes. Then, things transform by the power of semantics and mistakes become issues. ‘What are the mistakes we are making with the boys?’ becomes ‘what are the issues with boys and underperformance?’ I have an ‘issue’ is so much better sounding that ‘mistake’ because there’s nothing personal. And, that’s the crux of the problem.

A mistake is a mistake. It isn’t a person. Yet, mistakes are seen as being so personal. It is somehow a reflection on me. A mistake equals me. We don’t just personalise mistakes; we give them emotions. Mistakes become emotional and personal. Issues are impersonal and unemotional. They are easier to deal with.  But, issues aren’t one person’s responsibility, whereas a mistake is.  

To make us better, we need to be less personal and less emotional about mistakes and take ownership and control of things in the classroom. And, probably talk about them. After all, that’s what we do in the classroom.

With students, we talk about and highlight the mistakes.

With students, we discuss with them how they made a mistake and they can prevent them in the future.

With students, we look for patterns of errors across the group.

With students, we remind them of previous mistakes so they commit them to memory so they don’t repeat them.

With students, we show examples of work with errors and work with less errors.

With NQTs, we let them make mistakes and then afterwards we say to them it was a mistake to do it that way in the first place. Isn’t it a wonder NQTs don’t last long in teaching when we are expecting them to learn all those mistakes on their own. Why don’t we list the mistakes NQT should avoid? We don’t. Teaching isn’t a natural process. It is one that we learn to do. Wouldn’t it be helpful and less stressful if we support others with how they learn to teach? The best thing a teacher can do to help an NQT is talk about mistakes and mistakes to avoid.

‘The Perfection Problem’ is everywhere and to create real change we need to address the balance between solutions and mistakes. And, this will take some shifting of perspective, because we don’t have help from other camps.  One organisation uses words like ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’, which encodes that a school is almost perfect, just perfect or nowhere near perfect.   

My hope is that we can have some grown-up conversations about mistakes and avoid the ‘I’m perfect and don’t make mistakes’ attitude. The new wave of ‘research’ I hope will help support that. My big concern is that it doesn’t become about finding the magic solution.

Yesterday at the Teaching Learning Leeds Conference 2018, I spent 40 minutes talking about loads of mistakes I have made as a human, teacher, middle-leader and beyond and it was full of my mistakes. And it was juicy and full of salacious gossip. So juicy that the people attending have all signed non-disclosure forms.  However, I thought I’d try to categorise the mistakes I have made over the years in the classroom to start the ball rolling.  

  1. Combination mistake

Human’s don’t come with instruction manuals, so when you put Sam and Sally together you don’t realise you are putting dynamite next to a flame. These can take a number of forms like the combination of PE period 4 and English period 5.

2.       The first time experiencing it mistake

We don’t talk about this one enough. The first time I teach anything I make loads of goofs. The next time, I teach it better. We are working on the process for the first time so you can’t see the shortcuts or the problem areas.

  1. Pitching the level mistake

Finding the level of work for a class takes lots of trial and error. I’d say that we are constantly working on this and getting it wrong and right sporadically.

  1. The comfortable mistake

We are sometimes too familiar with material that it clouds are judgement. It worked with classes for five years previously, so it must work well with this class.

  1. The situation mistake

Giving students an assessment in the last week of term isn’t always the best time to get the best from a student. They will be tired and not working at their best. Period 5 on a Friday is a danger point for this too.

I have made loads of mistakes and I work hard to avoid repeating them, but we need to talk about the mistakes we make and why we make them. We need a collective effort to share mistakes in addition to solutions. The solution only really works we have understood the mistake. Our insistence in distancing ourselves from the choices we make in the classroom leads us to try to solve bigger issues in schools with solutions.

It’s all about that classroom.

When that door is closed, it is down to us to make the difference.

And you don’t make a difference without making mistakes.

But, schools need to give permission and support to staff to make mistakes and learn from them.

We won’t get to the real problem unless people can talk about they make mistakes and admit them.

Then, act on them.   

So come on, if you think you are hard enough, talk about your mistakes.