Teacher Gratitude

A space to reflect on teaching and learning, celebrating and prioritising learning.

A Year of Educational Reading

  1. reading

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Mahatma Gandhi

When I started this blog in August of last year, I penned this rather cringe worthy, clearly too much sun inspired, rationale:

“The blog is merely offered as an attempt to crystalise and share thinking about teaching and learning. It will also be a place to prioritise reflection on what helps children to learn. In short: to find a weekly space to express gratitude for something that has ignited a teaching and learning flame!”

Let’s more on rather swiftly. What has proved to have one of the most positive aspects of writing has been reflecting on reading. It has been a very helpful way to streamline thinking about what I will be directly changing as a result of educational wisdom. It is also very easy to join the narrative of the negative in teaching, this process helps to focus on what matters and is joyful: teaching and learning.

This is a collection of the posts on the twelve books that have had a real impact on my thinking this year and inspired those grateful “flames!” If you need some inspiration to energise you for next year (or even a teaching orientated stocking filler!) then look no further than these:

  1. Mary Myatt’s ‘Hopeful Schools: The Book to read in 2017’. This was a hugely inspiring book that I read in December last year. If you need something to remind you of the value of education and all there is to be hopeful for, this is a perfect read.
  2. Carl Honore ‘In Praise of Slow.’ Although not an educational book as such, this is the book that really changed my thinking about how best to function and teach this year. It is an examination of the merits of slowing down in our frantic world.  If you would value some slow reflection over the festive period, this is a brilliant read. This post on slow teaching and slow marking in February set me off on a slow odyssey and a writing journey for the rest of the year. Ten months later and 70,000 words (cue shameless book plug!) ‘Slow Teaching: A guide to being calm, organised and teaching for impact’ will be published by John Catt Education in February of next year. Many thanks to Mr Honore for the inspiration!
  3. Doug Lemov’s ‘Reading Reconsidered’ was a real game changer in developing my understanding of how to effectively teach reading. I combined lots of his excellent strategies with teaching Year 7 ‘Alice in Wonderland.’
  4. A fortnight of obsessing on the brilliant ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ by Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison led to two posts: this one looked at improving teaching of writing skills through modelling and this one looked at building in some of the strategies for giving more useful feedback. 
  5. Returning to revise ‘A Christmas Carol’ with Year 11 in March required some emergency help from the fascinating read: ‘Make it Stick’ by Peter C Brown, Henry L. Roediger and Mark A McDaniel. This post looked at developing strategies for retaining information based on reading the book.
  6. The book that I found most informative in terms of opening up new understandings was Peps Mccrea’s ‘Memorable Teaching’. It takes the complex and rather baffling topic of memory and makes it seem remarkably simple, with a wealth of strategies that I have built into my teaching. In this post I summarise a range of these excellent strategies.
  7. Spring well and truly arrived with some inspiration from Alex Quigley’s ‘The Confident Teacher’.  For those of us who might struggle with aspects of confidence inside and outside the classroom, his book is a wise and informed examination of not only this area but a range of brilliant teaching ideas. This post was on the optimism that reading his book inspired.
  8. Continuing the slow interest, I spent a few weeks reading books on the Minimalism movement: the idea that we should live with less. This post looked  living and teaching embracing some of the principles.
  9. Public speaking and teaching go hand in hand. Often we forget how vital it is that we communicate with assertiveness and clarity. This post on reading the fascinating ‘Ted Talks: the official TED guide to public speaking’ by Chris Anderson ‘Head of TED’ looked at ten public speaking tips for teachers. 
  10. The best book I have read on English teaching by far is Andy Tharby’s ‘Making Every English Lesson Count’. Reading it in August before returning to school in September provided a range of inspiration and ideas.
  11. The Micheala school mysteries and debates have always intrigued me. Reading ‘Battle Hymn of Tiger Teachers’ was another interesting summer experience, with lots of practical ideas on how to raise aspiration and cut through some of the gimmicks.
  12. A more recent read that is fascinating in providing a road map through the complicated world of educational research is ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom’ by Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson. As I explore in this post, for anyone interested in the pressing questions of education this is a perfect and important read.

Having been working through a Masters on Educational Leadership and spending a chunk of the summer holidays taking a group of Year 12 students to India for World Challenge, 2017 will definitely go down as the year of education.  Regular reading and experimenting in the classroom has certainly energised my teaching. It has also reiterated how vital it is that we are given space as teachers to reflect. The more we can make teaching an intellectually stimulating profession, the more we will retain, inspire and motivate teachers. More importantly, the more we will continue to hone and improve, driving better experiences and outcomes for young people.

After the glorious failure (made it to a pathetic G!) in the A-Z of Literature Challenge, I will be aiming to read more of a balance next year and write less.  As my pregnant wife has been frequently reminding me, there will be far less time for reading and writing when our first wee one arrives in April! Little does she know of my secret marathon running plans, having surreptitiously signed up for the Edinburgh marathon in May. I will be combining the ambition to run sub 2 hours 45 minutes before I am too ancient, with raising money for my inspiring paralysed friend Drew Graham who has set up a spinal injury rehabilitation charity in Newcastle. 

On that note, I’m off to finish the manuscript of the book, which is due next week, and then go for a run (or in reality limp to the end of term then collapse!) Thank you for reading, best wishes for a fantastic Christmas and New Year.


Teaching ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’

curious incident

“Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.” (Christopher Boone, Chapter 19, p. 12)

At the start of this term I was a bit perplexed about how to approach Mark Haddon’s wonderful ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ with my Year 8 group. I am a big fan of the novel (and the incredible stage production) but there is much in it that is ostensibly very much “grown up”: the complexity of family life; the understanding of the memorable Christopher as an individual; the infidelity that dominates it; plus the very small matter of some rather choice language at times! How would a group of twelve year olds respond? How could I get them to appreciate the beauty of his perspective of the world and the thrilling murder mystery elements of the novel?

The past few weeks, however, has been interesting in illuminating the fact that reading doesn’t happen in some sort of age defined vacuum – young people are very capable of understanding and evaluating the great mysteries and complexities of life. It has been a fascinating reminder of the importance of not diluting the expectations of what younger students can empathise with, or indeed explore in depth.

So some solutions: first we employed a full time class bleeper, who conveniently and comically bleeps over any additional swearing. We have rationalised the language and spoken often about why Haddon has employed the swearing in the novel, how it is an insight into the frustrations and difficulties that the adult characters have to deal with.

In terms of building interest and engagement in the narrative, at the start of term a far more creative colleague in our English department brought in a large teddy dog, a pitch fork, red blood style paper and police tape to drape around the room. So I pinched them for the opening lesson, opening up with some sense of awe and placing the murder mystery at the centre of the text. The novel’s opening is brilliant, and visually demonstrating this really hooked them in.

In terms of deepening an understanding of Christopher, I took from Haddon the risk of the students being too focused on autism in their evaluation of the novel.  In this article he urges it not to be seen as ‘textbook for autism.’ He also writes here about how he didn’t want autism to be given an “an unfair representational weight in the novel” and how  “for this reason he does not use the words Asperger’s syndrome or High Functioning Autism.”  I was interested to see how the students would respond to Christopher without any background understanding for the opening fifty pages or so, so I let their understanding and opinions of him evolve without prompting it. They were free to construct whatever impression they wanted of him.

We eventually did begin to look at Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. I led into this by using the trailer for ‘The A Word’, from the BBC drama.

The programme has lots of good teaching links with the novel: the conflict in family, the difficulty in understanding how different that the protagonist Joe is. We then spent some time researching the condition – leading to lots of “ah, so thats why Christopher did that”, moments. Rather than starting off the study of the novel with this, by the time we approached it they had started to form their own viewpoints. It led into an interesting discussion about the importance of understanding others and empathy. We talked about how we will meet people who appear to be different and unique and about trying to understand this and reserve judgment rather than any other response. Some of them had been very harsh about Christopher – all this was an interesting learning curve (hopefully!) in how we treat people in society.

One of the aspects I have been trying to explore with them throughout the novel is reading with empathy, and trying to understand how a writer might construct a character to reveal different layers. This was the focus of the lesson I taught them on Thursday, which explored the aftermath of Christopher discovering that his father had in fact murdered Wellington the dog (to the genuine outrage of some of them!)

We have been starting lots of lessons with ‘The Curious Quiz’, a set of questions for them to respond to immediately that recap on meaning and events in the novel.  Viewing the novel as a holistic whole at Key Stage Three is so important, constantly referring back to why the structure is vital and previous events. If they get used to this in their early years in secondary then the exam requirements of GCSE become easier, it is effectively training them in their memory of the novel as a whole. More importantly, they are also fundamentally become better readers, more confident in ranging throughout a text and understanding narrative development in a novel.

This was their opening task:

The Curious Quiz (Answer at least two in full sentences)

  1. What has Christopher recently discovered?
  2. How does Christopher feel about his father at this point in the novel?
  3. What do you predict that Christopher will do now?
  4. What do you think that Christopher’s father will do now?
  5. What themes and ideas have been explored recently in the novel?

Now despite the fact that this was a Thursday afternoon lesson and snow had decided to delightfully shatter any serenity by arriving during lunch, the students came in and got stuck straight into the questions. The sense of routine is helpful for securing focus, as is the fact that they know they will be pugnaciously probed without hands up (I am officially patenting that teaching technique – that has a ring to it!) to hear their answers immediately after finishing. It all becomes rather competitive as they try to cover more questions in the time available. It also ensures the lesson begins were it should: with the text. They are also aware of the ‘Express yourself’ talking guidelines that I wrote about last week; they have to frame their answers in full sentences and show understanding of the novel.

After this quick recap we introduced the ‘Post it of Empathy’.  These nifty giant post-it notes are very handy for some structured collaboration and discussion in small groups. The groups had to come up with a range of words and phrases to describe Christopher’s emotions and feelings as he found himself isolated and unsure what to do at this point: “So I grabbed Toby’s cage and went round the side of Mrs. Shears’ house and sat down behind the dustbin so they couldn’t see me”. They are aware that one of them will have to hold up the giant post it note to give feedback at the end – giving the discussion a sense of immediately and urgency in terms of an output.

This then provides them with the mental priming to be able to connect more with the experience of Christopher in the extract as he tries to decide what to do.  As Daniel Willingham highlights in the fascinating ‘The Reading Mind’: “If you’re a good reader, you’re more likely to enjoy a story because reading it doesn’t seem like work.”  I have been working with this group in their study of the novel to build what Willingham calls in  a reading ‘self-concept’: a more positive attitude towards the challenges of reading. These priming tasks are helpful in motivating those who might find the reading passage more challenging: with the giant post it notes in the middle helping them to identify with the range of emotions that Christopher might be experiencing when it came to reading the extract.

We then unpicked the question: How does Haddon present Christopher in the extract?  We talked about how the how aspect means they need to look at Haddon’s purpose and read between the lines: language and word choice, structural points, techniques the writer might have used etc. The frequent reminders of this will hopefully allow the thought process about a writer’s tool kit to become more automatic.

The extract Extract for Year 8 was then printed out on an A3 sheet with room at the side for them to annotate. Given the dominance of extract style questions at GCSE getting students confident at knowing what to look for when they evaluate a writer’s intention in an extract is a useful skill to begin to touch on. I keep coming back to the detective analogy with this group to link in with the murder mystery in the novel: what lies beneath the surface of Haddon’s points?

While we read the students had to highlight the words and phrases that they thought presented Christopher’s feelings in the extract. We have done lots of work again this year on what Doug Lemov splendidly calls ‘Show some spunk’ in the excellent ‘Reading Reconsidered:‘ trying to make sure that any reading we do as a group is full of expression and interest.

After the first reading they compared the quotations they had used. We then looked at some more quotations in more detail: what exactly did they reveal about Christopher at this point? What technique was being used? This was all discussion led, with the students annotating as we went along. Again the hands down approach and the frequent holding up of the extract meant that most of them kept up with the annotating. This was followed by another of Lemov’s writing techniques, presenting the opening of a model then asking students to continue to write in the same style:

Haddon highlights that Christopher is experiencing anxiety in the opening: “sat down behind the dustbin”, he feels he is alone and is clearly concerned. He realises that he has to make a decision: “I had to work out what to do”, this is given a paragraph of its own to emphasise finality. The repetition of “I decided” then highlights that he is making a series of quick decisions. Continue using:

Haddon highlights…

The use of the word…

Christopher’s emotions are shown in…

They then had fifteen minutes to continue to answer the question. The model and the sentence starters again all guide them in the appropriate style of the writing, preventing any confusion. All of this works to develop their stamina as writers, short and quick bursts of comprehension type activity have been present in most of the lessons this term.

Nothing fancy, all very simple with very little preparation: I wrote a short quiz, annotated an extract briefly and started a few lines of a model.  At the heart of it all is genuine exploration of a novel and the ideas it develops.

To fully embrace that Friday inspired over-emotive exhaustion, teaching this novel has reminded me of all the wonderful things that English teaching can do: genuinely engage young people in literature; open up new perspectives and encourage deep and profound empathy. I might have imagined it, but I’m sure one of them paraphrased Christopher as they trudged off into the snow at the end of the lesson:  “I felt happy, because I was being a detective and finding things out”. Thanks for reading.

Experiments with strategies from ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’

what does this look like

“Teaching is the best profession in the world and has given us a huge amount of satisfaction. This book is, we hope, a useful contribution to the work of our fellow travellers”

Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom’

There is, let’s be clear, not a huge amount of time for dipping into the murky depths of educational research as we power on through this epic term. We still, however, need motivation to fuel our tired and frazzled minds. Finding the time to think, reflect and work on our teaching helps to energise us and find the joy in our endeavours in the classroom. What we need is something concise and practical: something we can dip into and use to make some immediate and informed changes to our practice.

Here is where I formally introduce the splendid ‘What does this look like in the classroom?’ by Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson, the most informative and accessible education book I have read in some time. This term I have been reflecting on lots of different elements of this very useful guide to some of the pressing questions in education. The chapters each work as separate explorations themselves, with the question and answer format used to respond to the pressing questions that we all face in our daily practice in the classroom. There are a range of fascinating and informed voices that each offer genuine expertise on areas that it can be hard to find clear guidance on: assessment, marking and feedback; behaviour; reading and literacy; SEN; motivation; memory and recall; classroom talk and questioning; learning myths; technology and independent learning.  Three areas I have been particularly thinking about and experimenting with this term:

Classroom Talk and Questioning.

How about this for an inspiring opening:

“The kind of talk that happens in our classroom largely determines the kind of learning that takes place and developing an armoury of tools to facilitate that talk should be at the top of every teacher’s list whiter that be learning how to scaffold learning with effective explanations and worked examples or setting up the kinds of fruitful conversations that can lead to genuine learning.”  (pg 146)

With a gulp I was instantly reminded of my Year 8 class when I read this. Their verbal expression is something we have had many conversations about but never developed a consistent strategy to tackle: this class is full of informality and they have an obsessive desire to show off with each other. Doug Lemov’s and Martin Robinson provide some sage tips and guidance throughout this chapter on how to tackle such lackadaisical approaches to classroom talk.  I particularly liked this from Martin Robinson:

“You want them to talk in a subject-specific language, in an appropriate register, and to talk in way that can be understood. Clarity. And, so long as they’re aware of the need for good rhetoric, classroom talk can help learning, thinking, arguing and writing. So don’t let them get away with second-rate chatter.”  (pg 154)

The mission begins. The students have been studying Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time’  and entered to the wonderful ‘Express Yourself’ by Charles Wright. Their task was to link this song to the novel so far (though to be fair the song was a tad too funky for them to handle, and it did result in some interesting dance moves!)

This led to some interesting dialogue about communication and about Christopher’s method of understanding of the world around him. I then used it as a nifty lead into some discussion about the way in which we ‘express ourselves’ in the classroom and begin to form our new talking guidelines. Exploring this with them and thinking about the different contexts in which they will be required to speak in was useful.

Lemov (although he might not have had my interpretation  in mind!) suggests that “a useful move might be the write out and practise the prompts you would use to ask a student to upgrade their language”. Now this is very simple with this group, anything that does not conform to our classroom dialogue rules, i.e. fillers or incomplete verbal sentences, is responded to with an “express yourself.” Students now leap in to correct each other, admonishing with a quizzical eyebrow raise and an “express yourself!”. While all very light hearted and collaborative, it has seen them take more care in how they communicate in the room. Fillers are vanishing and we now speak as we would write as often as possible. They still want to show off with each other – but now in a slightly more verbose fashion!

Assessment, Marking and Feedback 

It is, of course, the aspect in which we wrestle most with as practitioners: how much, how often, how to ensure a response to our endeavours?  Everyone ‘expresses themselves’ with their 50 pence worth in this debate: from the purists who believe it is vital that we mark everything in depth and consign ourselves to an early marking grave; to the liberamarkers, who believe that nothing should be marked. We are frazzled and overwhelmed with the feedback we have been given about feedback!

I have again tried to simplify this based on reading this excellent section with Dylan William and Daisy Christodoulou. Both offer tangible and clear guidance on how to manage the marking monster. This advice from Dylan William particularly struck me in its clarity and pragmatism for teachers on a full timetable:

“I recommend what I call ‘four quarters marking’. I think that teachers should mark in detail 25% of what students do, should skim another 25%, students should then self-assess about 25% with teachers monitoring the quality of that and finally, peer assessment should be the other 25%.’  (pg 32)

It is with my Year 9 group that I have been experimenting most with this. They are currently working on a narrative writing unit. On a two week cycle I want them to complete one extended piece of narrative writing. This week, for example, they used my Catastrophe narrative example to write their own narrative called ‘The Catastrophe.’ Their extended writing is then the 25% of what I will mark in specific detail, although still employing codes and sparse guidance in order to speed up the process. Practise paragraphs that they may complete in class are either self-assessed against these generic thought prompts or peer assessed:

Am I on the right track?

What am I doing well?

What do I need to do more of?

Do I need to do something differently?

Am I following our narrative writing targets?

The peer assessment that students have completed has all been using the excellent strategies from ‘Gallery Critique’ in Ron Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’.  Students are now used to giving this kind of feedback and are becoming better at being specific the points they give each other:

  1. Something kind: I really like the way you/Excellent use of/The most successful thing about this was..
  2. Something specific: In the first/second/third paragraph you/ Your point here was difficult to understand because…/ Your sentence, paragraph, point here is…
  3. Some helpful: Think about adding/think about taking away/have you thought about/you could improve this by…

All this helps students to see their work as their responsibility, not something they immediately pass over to a teacher for the red pen frenzy to begin. It all  helps to create Williams’ vision of “students as essential partners in the learning process.” They are clear that the 25% that they do mark is something they take very seriously and I expect to see improved.

Memory and Recall 

Finally, my work this term with Year 10 on ‘A Christmas Carol’ has been very much influenced by the strategies in the book. I wrote about my action plan for teaching the novel at the start of the term.  In this section of the book, Paul Kirschner and Yana Weinstein respond to some of the points that perplex us about memory. Their focus on using regular review is something I have used regularly this term, even using mini quizzes to open lessons with Year 8 to secure their understanding of the plot of ‘The Curious Incident’. This was today’s ‘The Curious Plot Quiz’…

  • What tensions exist between Christopher and his father?
  • What was revealed last lesson about Christopher’s mother?
  • How do you think Christopher will respond to this news? How do you think he is feeling?
  • What is the mystery that is central to the novel?
  • What are some of the important themes in the novel?

As Yana Weinstein highlights in response to how to ensure students don’t forget what they have learned in previous lessons:

This one’s easy! Give them a starter quiz. Once they get used to the routine of needing to remember information from one class at the beginning of next, they will adapt by trying to keep the information fresh in between classes. In addition, the retrieval practice in and of itself will cause additional learning”.

This has certainly been the case with Year 10 this term, as they enter they know they will face ‘The Ghost of Christmas Memory’ tasks, and as a class of a large number of male students they don’t want to lose face when we go over answers quickly. I also like the idea of introducing a mini quiz in the middle of lessons, to check how much students are retaining during the lesson.

The summary that Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson offer at the close of the book was also something I found very interesting, very much in keeping with ethos from the contributors throughout:

One of the things we learned in writing this book is that an awful lot of what goes on in the classroom simply doesn’t matter. The signal-to-noise ratio is often less-than-optimal level for effective learning, with many extraneous activities taking up valuable learning time in the name of demonstrating progress, whether that be burdensome marking strategies or the creation of time-consuming resources to ‘engage’ students.

This would appear to be a refreshing beckoning call for the final few weeks of term: it is time to simplify and streamline. A very long winded book recommendation perhaps, but “What does this look like in the classroom?’ is an essential read for anyone interested in making informed improvements to their teaching practice. Thanks for reading.

express yourself

How do writers create effect? Year 11 and ‘Enduring Love’

opening enduring love

“I’ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man”

Ian McEwan ‘Enduring Love’

In the spirit of ‘Enduring November,’ a month that for us hard working teacher folk feels like a never ending marathon, a post on using Ian McEwan’s wonderful ‘Enduring Love’ with my Year 11 group.

Today saw the the beginning of the mock exam preparations, which this year will see my group sit both English Language papers. Last year there was a sizeable enough gap in the results of my year 11 group between Literature and Language for me to look closely at exactly how I was teaching the Language paper. Dave Grimmett’s posts have been very useful, particularly this on the problem with techniques, which gives excellent strategies to keep answers specific.

In this opening lesson I wanted to look at some generic skills to reflect on how a writer can create effects. Specifically we looked at this question:

How does the writer make the extract tense and dramatic?

This is a useful one to get them thinking again about reading for meaning skills and how a writer deliberately engineers a text in terms of language and structure to create impact. The opening of ‘Enduring Love’ is an excellent example of the use of both structure and language: with the juxtaposition between the delightful pastoral picnic and the tragic balloon incident brilliantly crafted.

We started the lesson with the hazy image that opens this post. Students had to be clear about exactly what the narrative issue was and begin to try to describe the event. The aim with this was to get them to think like writers from the start of the lesson and begin to reflect on the skill set a writer has to generate tension. This led into a dialogue about the methods that writer’s can employ to build drama and tension: structural points, techniques, word choice etc.

I then shared the first five minutes of the excellent film version with them, giving them the context of Joe and Clarissa’s romantic picnic. They had to again think like a writer as they watched it: how would they capture the drama in writing? I asked them to jot down some descriptions as they watched the clip, writing from Joe’s perspective.

We then analysed the opening and the drama that was so apparent (there were some good quips about how how convenient it was that James Bond happened to be the first on the scene!) This meant that they had absolute clarity about the plot before going near the extract – allowing us to focus entirely on looking on how McEwan had crafted his writing for impact in the extract. I also asked them to share some of the descriptions they had written down to see which methods and words they had started to employ.

They then were given this extract and asked to highlight 7-10 quotations they could use that create drama and tension.

What we saw when we stood from our picnic was this: a huge grey balloon, the size of a house, the shape of a teardrop, had come down in the field. The pilot must have been halfway out of the passenger basket as it touched the ground. His leg had become entangled in a rope that was attached to an anchor. Now, as the wind gusted and pushed and lifted the balloon toward the escarpment, he was being half dragged, half carried across the field. In the basket was a child, a boy of about ten. In a sudden lull, the man was on his feet, clutching at the basket, or at the boy. Then there was another gust, and the pilot was on his back, bumping over the rough ground, trying to dig his feet in for purchase or lunging for the anchor behind him in order to secure it in the earth. Even if he had been able, he would not have dared disentangle himself from the anchor rope. He needed his weight to keep the balloon on the ground, and the wind could have snatched the rope from his hands.

As I ran I heard him shouting at the boy, urging him to leap clear of the basket. But the boy was tossed from one side to another as the balloon lurched across the field. He regained his balance and got a leg over the edge of the basket. The balloon rose and fell, thumping into a hummock, and the boy dropped backward out of sight. Then he was up again, arms stretched out toward the man and shouting something in return–words or inarticulate fear, I couldn’t tell.

I then explained we would go through the extract in chronological order – they would see a quotation come up on the Powerpoint and have one minute to write a brief explanation about why it was tense/dramatic. This gave them the opportunity to practise condensing points about textual evidence quickly and using the words of the question:

  1. “a huge grey balloon”
  2. “His leg had become entangled in a rope”
  3. “In a sudden lull, the man was on his feet, clutching at the basket, or at the boy”
  4. “the wind could have snatched the rope from his hands.”
  5. “I heard him shouting at the boy, urging him to leap clear of the basket.”

Things got really exciting when I shared my nifty: How to set your examiner soaring tips. The idea is these will be repeated as we approach these questions so they know exactly how to get the marks. This was, of course, coupled with this image (given my Scottish credentials).

scottish hot air balloon


Begin with an immediate focus on the question

Work through the text chronologically.Select sensible examples and explain them briefly.

Focus on language – why are the phrases important?

Demonstrate awareness of the structure of the text.

Use: the writer uses, the line… 

Use: suggest/implies/reveals etc to show how the writer influences the reader.

They then completed their examples in around fifteen minutes. Having looked at some this afternoon, it is clear that a number are still suffering from ‘waffleobia’ something I wrote about in this post on preparing Year 9 for GCSE. They are still trying to relate everything back to techniques and not covering a wide range of evidence in their answer.

So on Monday I will be photocopying some of the answers that suffer from particularly shocking cases of wafflobia, then comparing them with my own answer below. Hopefully this spot the difference approach will help to show them how to be more specific and concise in their analysis.

Tension and drama are created as there is an immediate revelation to open the extract: “what we saw when we stood from our picnic was this,” this builds a sense of urgency in the opening of the extract. The writer then describes the “huge, grey balloon”, with the adjective “huge” building drama as it captures the enormity of the balloon as it approaches. This is reinforced with the fact it is then paralleled with “the size of a house”. Using this at the start of the extract immediate implies the grave danger that those inside the balloon face. Tension is then generated with the description  “his leg had become entangled in a rope” The verb “entangled” builds drama as it implies an inability to help to get the balloon under control. The writer then uses a collection of verbs to convey the power and threat of the wind: “wind gusted and pushed and lifted the balloon”, all implying the force that will leave those in the balloon powerless to escape and building tension.

The reference to the “child, a boy of about ten” builds significant drama as readers understand the danger of the situation. The noun “boy” in particular implies vulnerability and the fact that he is at the mercy of the wind. The writer then introduces a break to the pace of the extract, with “In a sudden lull, the man was on his feet, clutching at the basket.” The use of “sudden” conveys the speed at which the man will have to move, as does the desperation implied in the verb “clutching”. Tension is further built when we see the futility of this, as he quickly finds himself “back on his back, bumping over the rough ground”, the verb “bumping” again illustrating the fact he has no control over the situation. The writer then uses personification with “the wind could have snatched the rope from his hands.” This implies the malevolence and ominous control that the wind has over the situation.

Drama is then explicitly created through the man “shouting at the boy”, which captures his growing desperation and anxiety, coupled with the fact the narrator has started to “run” towards the incident. We then see the writer employ more dramatic verbs as the boy is “tossed from one side to another” returning to his vulnerability and reiterating his inability to take control of the situation. The instability of the balloon is further generated as the writer uses the description of “lurched across the field.” This rapidly increases the pace of the action. The writer then describes the boy vanishing and appearing “then he was up again, arms stretched out”, his physical position building drama as he appears to be grabbing for him in desperation. Finally the writer concludes the extract with the sensory description of the boy shouting in “inarticulate fear”, highlighting the sense of finality and panic.

On Monday we will do an examiner’s report on this response – slowly unpicking exactly what it is that I have tried to identify in the example. We will then apply this to the next extract from the novel to see if they can try to be more specific in their evaluation of how tension is created:

I must have been a hundred yards away when the situation came under control. The wind had dropped; the man was on his feet, bending over the anchor as he drove it into the ground. He had unlooped the rope from his leg. For some reason–complacency, exhaustion, or simply because he was doing what he was told–the boy remained where he was. The towering balloon wavered and tilted and tugged, but the beast was tamed. I slowed my pace, though I did not stop. As the man straightened, he saw us–or at least the farmworkers and me–and he waved us on. He still needed help, but I was glad to slow to a brisk walk. The farm laborers were also walking now. One of them was coughing loudly. But the man with the car, John Logan, knew something we didn’t and kept on running. As for Jed Parry, my view of him was blocked by the balloon that lay between us.

The wind renewed its rage in the treetops just before I felt its force on my back. Then it struck the balloon, which ceased its innocent, comical wagging and was suddenly stilled. Its only motion was a shimmer of strain that rippled out across its ridged surface as the contained energy accumulated. It broke free, the anchor flew up in a spray of dirt, and balloon and basket rose ten feet in the air. The boy was thrown back, out of sight. The pilot had the rope in his hands and was lifted two feet clear off the ground. If Logan had not reached him and taken hold of one of the many dangling lines, the balloon would have carried the boy away. Instead, both men were now being pulled across the field, and the farmworkers and I were running again.

I got there before them. When I took a rope, the basket was above head height. The boy inside it was screaming. Despite the wind, I caught the smell of urine. Jed Parry was on a rope seconds after me, and the two farmworkers, Joseph Lacey and Toby Greene, caught hold just after him. Greene was having a coughing fit, but he kept his grip. The pilot was shouting instructions at us, but too frantically, and no one was listening. He had been struggling too long, and now he was exhausted and emotionally out of control. With five of us on the lines the balloon was secured. We simply had to keep steady on our feet and pull hand over hand to bring the basket down, and this, despite whatever the pilot was shouting, was what we began to do.

Hopefully this introduction to writer’s effects will begin to help them to feel clearer about how to structure their responses. We will now look at a range of different extracts and do lots of practise in picking out suitable evidence and condensing analysis into succinct points.

Thanks for reading. And, while we might want to make our own hot air balloon escape out of November – remember the delightfully optimistic words of Nelson Mandela:


Slow Teaching: ‘Serene and Stoical Behaviour Management’


“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” Epictetus

A short journey through the remarkable life of the philosopher Epictetus can begin to justify why his words open a chapter on the mystery that is effective behaviour management. Born around 50 A.D he arrived in Rome without family as the property of the rich and powerful Epaphroditus, a man who liked nothing more than to torture his own slaves. This lovely chap was particularly cruel to Epictetus, twisting his leg until it broke and leaving him lame. There was a glimmer of hope as Epictetus was later set free from captivity, although this joy was short lived when he was  banished from Rome by the ruthless Emperor Domiltian. Not to be deterred by his evident lack of good fortune, he went on to form a popular stoical school of thought in philosophy. Today he is widely regarded as one of the finest philosophers.

One of the central principles of his philosophy is the capacity to remain calm in the face of adversity and control our emotions, no matter what the provocation (qualities of character that to this day are referred to as ‘being stoical’). As Alan De Botton highlights in ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ stoicism is not a “recipe for passivity and quietude”, but rather about our priorities and focussing on what we ourselves can control and influence. Epictetus himself provides an apt summary: “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Here we have the perfect encapsulation of a path to calm and consistent behaviour management.

Low Level Disruption

There is no debating the importance of effective management of behaviour in the classroom. Like all of us, I am very aware of the utter frustration that comes from ruined teaching experiences due to poor behaviour. We have all seen how low level disruption has the infuriating impact of derailing learning for our students.  There is no quick fix, no speedy top ten strategies to instantly employ to guarantee passive compliance and ‘outstanding behaviour’. In fact, many examples of further escalating poor behaviour are the consequence of reacting too quickly, from emotional impulses that are the product of the heart rather than the serene thinking of the head. Instead, as Paul Dix highlights in his excellent ‘What Adults Change, Everything Changes: Seismic Changes in School Behaviour:’ 

“In behaviour management, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Getting the culture right is pivotal. With the right culture the strategies that are used become less important. The culture is set by the way that the adults behave.”

Quick fix impulse reactions will not ‘solve’ behaviour in our classrooms, rather it is a complex amalgamation of a range of factors that will assist us in securing classrooms in which learning, not behaviour, takes central stage.

Perhaps one of the most important steps we can take in the management of our classrooms is to see behaviour management as, in part, a deeply interpersonal and emotional process. It is founded on our ability to manage not just our own emotions, but the fluctuating hormones of thirty adolescents. In order to secure calm and clarity in the classroom, we need to tap into what Vincent Van Gogh called ‘The little emotions that are the great captains of our lives.’


Despite our utopian fantasies, thirty adolescents are not going to meekly comply with our every request (nor would we ideally want them to!). A small proportion of them are likely to want to do anything but comply. Unless we have the capacity to control and take ownership of our reactions and emotions to these external events then we are going to find difficulties at every turn.

While students will respond with behaviour that doesn’t confirm with our expectations, our character should ideally radiate constancy, clarity and calm. There is so much about working with young people that will be beyond our control, focussing instead on what we do have ownership over will help us to begin to manage behaviour proactively.

What do we have power over: to make sure the content of the lesson is interesting and challenging; to demonstrate real ownership of our classrooms and that we are clear on a suitable seating plan; to streamline our communication in regards to behaviour and ensure it is clear and assertive; to be relentlessly consistent in our applications of rules and structures in our classrooms; to make sure we are working hard to build positive and meaningful relationships. We do this while remembering that we are all part of a wider whole school system that needs to be slowly and meticulously adhered to, in order to build a school that can provide a calm and safe environment for young people.

‘Slow Teaching’ will be published at the start of  February by John Catt Education.  I originally wrote about strategies for stoical behaviour management in this post. 

An action plan for teaching ‘A Christmas Carol’


“Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold.”

Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’

There is always an element of “Bah, humbug” about this week. Back to work blues is combined with the unwelcome clock rewind, and the apparent colour of choice being an encompassing and rather depressing black. Ahead lies a long half term:  who needs day light any more?

Nevertheless, as Marley would quip: “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men”. To begin to make a Scrooge style transition: there are glimmers of hope. One is Liam Gallagher’s new solo album, but this may not be the right audience for that one. The other, slightly more educational one, is teaching ‘A Christmas Carol’ again to my Year 10 group. They are a low set group of twenty delightful young people (most of the time!)  With a busy half term ahead I am trying to get myself as organised as possible for the next eight weeks. An action plan for teaching the novel is required.

A starting point was to look at the feedback from the exam board last year, for our students the WJEC Eduqas exam board. For their exam they are given extract to explore and in forty five minutes expected to make wider reference to the text in general, while linking to context. Last year’s question asked students to explore the role of the ghosts in the novel. Some key points for me to think about with this group:

  1. “At the lower end, there was a tendency towards unfocused narrative
  2. “Context, on the whole, was handled well. Inevitably, there were examples where it was practically absent, poorly understood or included as a stand-alone bolt-on.”
  3. Some responses were unbalanced with those that did not use the wider text losing marks
  4. “The text was well used to track the presentation of the various ghosts though this inevitably led to some weaker narrative approaches that were thin in terms of detail and a number of candidates got confused in terms of the ghosts’ order, appearance and impact.”

My concern with this weaker group is that they will end up falling into some of these traps. Then there are also the various other challenges that this text presents: the difficulty of the language; the number of characters; the complexity of some of the thematic concepts.

Ideally over the next eight weeks I want them to have a good grasp of characters and plot and to make sure they can confidently approach an extract.

Knowledge of plot and learning key quotations. I wrote this ‘The Ghost of  Memory: Revision and Retention for ‘A Christmas Carol’ when preparing my Year 11 students for the exam earlier in the year.  There is lots in it I will be using, particularly the focus on starting lessons with ‘The Ghost of Memory’: a quiz that tests students knowledge of the novel so far. The class know that they come into the room and answer these questions immediately.  They will get increasingly challenging as the term goes on, interleaving various elements of the novel. This will be Monday’s lesson:

  1. What is the significance of “secret and self-contained and solitary as an oyster”
  2. How would you describe the relationship between Scrooge and his nephew?
  3. What words can you use to describe Scrooge so far in the novel?
  4. How did Scrooge respond to the requests for money for the poor?
  5. From your research what context has been explored so far in the novel?

We will also be generating: ‘Stave in Ten’ revision guides. I have done the first Stave for them as a model. The idea is to simplify the events of the novel  for them as far as possible, into ten key sentences and ten key quotations from each stave. This will also help them to track the structure and development of the key characters throughout the novel. This is the example for Stave One:

Key Events: 

  1. Background on death of Marley – Scrooge’s business partner.
  2. Background about Scrooge – cold, greedy and selfish.
  3. Contrast between Scrooge and Fred (Scrooge’s nephew) introduced.
  4. Scrooge refuses Fred’s offer of Christmas.
  5. Scrooge refuses to give money to the poor.
  6. Scrooge complains about Bob Crotchet taking the day off.
  7. Scrooge alone on Christmas eve.
  8. The visitation of Marley’s ghost.
  9. Marley’s ghost warns Scrooge about his need for change.
  10. Scrooge informed that the three ghosts will be visiting him.

Key Quotations: 

  1. “Marley was dead to begin with”
  2. “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone”
  3. “as solitary as an oyster”
  4. “Bah! Humbug!”
  5. “Why did you get married?”
  6. “Decrease the surplus population”
  7. “I wear the chain I forged in life”
  8. “Speak comfort to me Jacob!”
  9. “You will be haunted by three spirits”
  10. “The air was filled with phantoms”

Students will be responsible for creating their own for each stave in for the rest of the novel. The process of doing this active revision and recall of each stave will hopefully help them to retain important points.

While the ‘Stave in Ten’ will end up familiarising them with fifty quotations throughout the novel, I also want them to have a top twenty  quotations from the novel that they will focus on learning (cunningly named A Christmas Twenty). The students have this stuck in the back of their books and we will be annotating the quotations as we arrive at them in the novel. They will then learn the quotations and the language analysis points they make for revision.

Finally, students will have to pass a ‘Christmas Cracker’ exit question to leave the lesson. This will be a key question related to the plot or context in the novel, or the requirement to give one of the key quotations for the stave.


This week the students have gone away to complete some research on Victorian society. This will be shared with my ‘Context in Ten’ revision guide for them (Context in Ten). These are the ten important aspects of context that I want them to try and apply to their analysis of the novel.

This is combined with the following key phrases that we will repeat in lessons and in their writing.

  1. Contextually this is significant because…
  2. This embodies Victorian attitudes to…
  3. Dickens employs this to make a comment about…
  4. Arguably Dickens is using this as a means to…
  5. Victorian society is encapsulated here in…

One of the self-assessment strategies they will use after each piece of weekly writing will be to highlight the links they have made to context in yellow, providing a visual reminder for them to link to the background of the novel. Importantly we will look at how to make sure the links they make to context are relevant to the question.

Extended Writing.

For the next six weeks students will complete one extract style question a week. This will be a thirty minute task that encourages them to do all the elements of the mark scheme. These are the six extract questions they will complete: Six extract questions.

Another aspect of this will be to use the SCROOGE acronym that I encouraged my Year 11 group to use last year. This helps to break down the mark scheme for them by repeating key questions. Frequently reminding students of this will hopefully encourage them to reflect on using them in their own writing:

  • Structure (Have I explored the structure of the novel? Have I linked to how the characters/theme has developed?)
  • Chronological order (Have I worked through the novel in chronological order? Have I arrived at the extract in the order of the novel? Have I explored why this is important?)
  • Relate to context (Have I included relevant parts of context?)
  • Overview (Have I started my response with an overview about the character or theme?)
  • Oh Dickens (Have I used Dickens throughout my answer?)
  • Go to words and methods (Have I picked out the impact of language and words in my answer? Am I highlighting the techniques Dickens has used?)
  • Evidence (Have I built in quotations I have learnt throughout each paragraph?)

Each week I will remove some of the scaffolding for the task, until by the last couple of weeks they will have no support. This week we went through the extract in detail together, I shared this model paragraph which we deconstructed:

Scrooge is presented in the opening as a selfish, greedy and materialistic individual. In the opening of the extract this is clear in his argument with Bob Cratchit: “It is not convenient, said Scrooge, and it’s not fair”. This demonstrates Scrooge’s lack of compassion and understanding of others, the word “convenient” showing how he is reluctant to give his hard working clerk time off to be with his family. This lack of empathy is then further presented when he “walked out with a growl”. The verb “growl” further shows how much Scrooge dislikes anyone who he comes into contact with, his cold and unwelcoming nature.

I then set them up with the writing by having the following key sentences on the board to guide their writing:

  • Dickens presents Scrooge as…
  • This links to Victorian society because…
  • Scrooge is clearly a…
  • The use of the word…
  • Readers can see that…
  • Contextually this is important because…

The planning for the rest of the week is simple: we read the novel up until the extract, we do lots of mini quizzing and quotation learning and  work on writing practise paragraphs. Exploration of language will also be an important aspect, looking at building up their understanding of the challenging language. Hopefully they will also enjoy the terrifying journey Scrooge goes on!

There is something to be said in Henry Ford’s famous quotation:  “I would like to communicate with others the calmness that the long view of life gives us”. Having this sense of direction and clarity over the next few weeks with this group is reassuring, particularly when I know how challenging they are going to find the novel. Plus, if we are being honest, it is far too dark to go outside and engage with the world (although have no fear, as Liam would say: “Some might say we will find a brighter day..”)

Thanks for reading.

There are some excellent posts on teaching the novel out there:

  1. Chris Curtis has written lots of excellent posts on the novel, they can be accessed here 
  2. Susan Strachan has written an interesting post on religion in the novel.
  3. This from Alex Quigley is very useful in teaching vocabulary in the novel.


Tackling teacher insomnia: the sleep-easy teacher.

sleep better

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep” William Shakespeare ‘The Tempest’

In our relentlessly fast modern culture, there is one thing that is left tragically ignored. It is a spurred outsider, certainly not embracing our twenty four hour ‘always on’ lifestyle. Carl Honore in ‘In praise of Slow’ describes this incessant need for activity, pace and drive as: “the whole world is time-sick. We all belong to the same cult of speed”. This “cult” allows no time for the essential process that the humble sleep provides for us. As we shall see, this arrogant rejection is shattering all the qualities that are vital for our efficiency in the classroom: our memory skills, our capacity to manage emotions and our ability to present the most energetic and enthusiastic version of ourselves.

In a recent British wide survey, The Great British Sleep, 33 percent of respondents answered that they slept for less than six hours a night. When we consider the average recommended sleep for adults from the NHS is between seven and nine hours in order to remain fully functional, we see that we are coming up consistently short. As teachers we are arguably rather near the top of the sleep spurning pile. With the plethora of time guzzling demands on us, we go evening by evening rejecting the call of the pillow. We also survive in highly focussed, short bursts of term time, in which the amount we need to get through is intensive. This means we fluctuate from being intensely ‘on’ during term times to replenishing our sleep patterns during our much needed breaks.

I share what is without doubt a widespread teacher issue: I have a rather troublesome relationship with sleep. My slumber efficiency was never ideal, but it came to an ugly head in my late twenties and as I entered my thirties. A variety of reasons led to two years of a real sleep struggle. I know what a profoundly depressing and difficult thing it is to survive on very little sleep, and how it can lead to a vicious cycle of anxiety and poor functioning.

While sleep issues can, as we shall see, manifest in a variety of ways – mine was, and remains to a certain extent, the early morning awakening: with a five o’clock in the morning for a long time officially defined as a lie in. In the attempts to overcome this rather dejecting cycle, I have developed a rather obsessional archive of sleep related knowledge (I make spectacular dinner party company!) I haven’t quite reached the magnificent attempts of Charles Dickens, whose obsession with getting a good sleep led to him sleeping in the exact centre of a mattress and ensuring the bed was facing north. As you can imagine, this was woefully unsuccessful and he ended up spending the wee hours wondering around London (although on the positive that did inspire some rather magnificent writing!)

Problems with sleeping can feel like a hugely isolating experience, one that grows, ironically, the more we are anxious and the more we fixate on it. There is comfort and a normalising element to knowing that lots of people struggle with this aspect of life. To show that none of us suffer alone in our sleep vacuums, here are the typical sleep problems as listed in ‘Fast Asleep, Wide awake’ by Dr Nerina Ramlakhan. Take a deep breath:

“Difficulty getting to sleep or sleep initiation problems.

Difficulty staying asleep or sleep maintenance issues.

Sleeping but feeling as if you’re not sleeping (mentally busy, ‘tired but wired’ sleep) – this is called paradoxical insomnia.

Oversleeping or hypersomnia and still feeling exhausted

Restlessness and restless let syndrome (RLS)

Parasomnia such as sleepwalking, sleep talking, nightmares, night terrors or teeth griding (bruxism)

Delayed sleep phase syndrome – can’t get to sleep until late (midnight or 2 am.) Technology often plays a bit part here

Cicadian rhythm sleep disorder – typically due to shift working.”

Inevitably, the more holistic process of slowing down will have a significant impact on our ability to ‘switch off’ and fall gracefully into the arms of a pillow at the end of our long teaching days. The reality is that we bring the experience of our day to our pillows: even if we follow all the sleep easy tips below, if we fly through our days in a blur of cortisone and stress, our minds, clearly, will not drift into sleep. Yet there are some more ‘instant’ fixes, some strategies that we can arm ourselves with to make sure that we give our bodies the best chance to embrace serenity and sleep:


Consistency is a real winner when it comes to sleep. While the temptation is to use weekends to embrace a full sloth like 48 hours of sleep, it will merely serve to throw our fragile body clock’s completely off kilter. This means our sleep patterns are completely thrown for the next week. The best sleep hygiene includes regular sleep and wake schedules – even on weekends. As this article from sleep.org highlights: “our bodies crave consistency”. Setting  a sleeping structure and sticking to it, as far as is possible, will help us to get in a real pattern of sleep.


There is so much evidence to highlight the value of sleep that exercise should effectively become a teacher’s best friend. There is a range of evidence to suggest that exercise improves both sleep quality and sleep duration. This, from the national sleep foundation highlights: “a national representative sample of more than 2600 men and woman, ages 18-85 found that 150 minutes of moderate ages 18-85 found that 150 minutes of moderate vigorous exercise has a significant impact on the quality of sleep”. What is particularly effective is if we can embrace the earlier morning excercising – the natural sunlight immediately is particularly effective, setting up our body clocks for a day of activity and a night of sleep. Avoiding exercise after nine o’clock at night is also useful, it will leave us too wired to calm our mind’s before sleep.

Curb the electronic device

Our phones and laptops are ubiquitous and addictive villains in the sleep easy mission. Unbeknown to us they omit a sneaky blue light that can have a real impact on our ability to fall asleep. As Richard Wiseman notes in ‘Night School’:

“Although any type of light stops you feeling sleepy, research has shown that light towards the blue end of the spectrum is especially effective at keeping you awake. Unfortunately, computer screens, tablets, smartphones, flat-screen television and LED lighting all emit large amounts of blue light”.

The blue light from our mobiles and computers actually suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone that influences our sleep cycles (our circadian rhythm). They are also ruthlessly addictive: there is a flash of adrenaline every time we receive a message or a status update. This flash of adrenaline leaves us wired and unable to calm ourselves down appropriately to get to sleep.

The best approach to allow our brains to begin to switch off completely is to completely curb the electronic devices at least one hour before we go to sleep. That means all aspect: not even a cheeky check of our Twitter feed! This will allow us to calm down and begin the process of preparing ourselves physically and mentally for sleep.

Embrace a bath

In this process of allowing ourselves to drift away from the stress and strains of the day, embracing the comfort of a warm bath can help us drift into sleep. While advice abounds about cooling ourselves down before getting in to bed, as Jim Horne notes in  ‘Sleepfaring’, the bath will in fact cool us down and lead us comfortingly into sleep:

“Surely, then, a bath at bedtime will have the opposite effect and only make matters worse, especially for the individual with insomnia? No-not only is it relaxing, but better still, and more surprisingly, a warm bath helps cool us down even more”.

If you are feeling particularly dangerous, you can go one step further and try a cleansing bicarbonate bath. This will relax the mind and cleanse the muscles even more!

The bedroom as a haven of sleep

The bedroom ideally needs to feel like an oasis of sleep. It needs a serious approach: ridding anything else that might stimulate us that might lead us to consider it as a place for anything else. Trying to sneak those student books in with us, marking furious until the moment we put out the light will lead only to a broken sleep. Even worse, the mobile and laptops should be banished from the bedroom, never permitted entry!

What may also sound like very simplistic advice is, in fact, much under-appreciated: only go to bed when you feel tired. Forcing yourself to go to sleep earlier will result in an early morning rise. The beauty of letting  a good book switch off our wired mind’s is another vital ingredient in the passport to a good sleep!

Cut out the caffeine

Medical recommendations suggest we can cope with 400 milograms of cafeeine a day. Take (another) deep breath and cast your eyes on the amount of caffeine in each of the following:

Cup of instant coffee : 80 – 100 mg

Cup of homemade filter coffee: 150-200mg

Cup of commercial coffee

(Costa or Starbucks) – 350mg

Cup of tea – 40-80mg

Green tea: 20-30 mg

Can of coke: 30-50 mg

Can of energy drink: 80 mg

Now, to confound the shock, the half life (the time it takes to half the concentration in your blood of caffeine) is five hours. That means if you decide to have a early evening coffee at six, half of the caffeine is still floating around your system at eleven – just when you might be heading of to sleep. The consequence of this is a disrupted cycle.

As teachers we are fairly high up on the caffeine hit list. The issue is that we are giving ourselves energy that is manufactured and will inevitably lead to a caffeine slump – one of the reasons why we are often rendered mute at the end of the day. Having tried and failed miserably to completely cut out coffee for some time now, instead here are some practical and manageable tips:

  1. Try to half your caffeine intact and replace it with water. Instead, embracing the purifying value of water will help to make us feel less stressed and wired.
  2. Avoid caffeine after three o’clock – this will result in your system being completely purified by the time you go to bed. Considering also the impact of what you eat before you go to sleep will also impact your sleeping patterns.

Deal with worries 

In the Great British Sleep survey 82% of respondents said the main thing that kept them awake at night was “what happened today and what have I got on tomorrow”. Going to bed with our minds full of our many and widespread teacher woes will fuel another fractured night’s sleep. Being proactive and recognising that we are tired but ultimately wired is the first positive step. Next an excellent strategy is to write a list before going to bed of the things that we need to do the next day. Once we see this in written form it provides perspective for us and helps us to organise our thinking for the next day. Much better than swimming in the elevated feelings of panic that lying awake at night can generate.

Being thoughtful about how much and how well we are sleeping is an undervalued aspect of life in the teacher fast lane. Ultimately we have control over our sleep, we decide how much we are going to give ourselves and how effectively we are going to prepare for it. Being kind to ourselves and recognising that what will ultimately help our students is presenting the best version of ourselves in the classroom is clearly the best motto. Staying up till two in the morning marking books just won’t have the same impact. Thanks for reading, sleep well.

sleep is the best meditation

An edited extract from ‘Slow Teaching: A guide to calm, organisation and impact in the classroom’. Published by John Catt Education in early 2018.

The mystery of teaching narrative writing


“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become part of someone else’s story”

Terry Pratchett

Despite various posts grappling with the mystery of teaching narrative writing last year, I still feel that I haven’t quite grasped the best way to approach it. The issue confounds itself with the fact I am teaching two very different GCSE groups this year: a low set Year 10 group and a top set Year 11 group. There is also further confusion with the hammering that narrative writing has taken in both the AQA report on the exam and the WJEC eduqas report. Cast your eyes on this delightfully positive conclusion reached from WJEC:

“It has been several years since candidates in England have been asked to write creative prose in examinations and, although there were some who showed control and imagination in their narrative technique, the overall standard of narrative writing was disappointing.”

The purpose of this post is to share some of the best strategies that others have employed to take on the narrative challenge. Time to join forces to make sure students can conquer their narrative demons!


Making sure students are aware of the no-go areas of narrative writing will help them to avoid the numerous narrative pit falls. Some approaches to avoid (unless, of course, there is some fascinating twist to them:)

  1. Pre-planned narratives: tenuous links to a title are not going to be marked positively.
  2. Obsessions with wood based narratives.
  3. Exam hall based writing.
  4. Guns, explosions and horror chasing.
  5. Football narratives. If I read another narrative about visiting St James Park I will be the one exploding!


Clearly a significant amount of students have no conception of how to plan for writing a narrative piece of writing. Ensuing that they slow down and look at writing a plan to help give their writing coherence and direction is vital. It is so obvious when reading a narrative that hasn’t been planned, with arbitrary conclusions usually the give away sign. This post from Nick Wells is an excellent place to start to develop a structure to helping students gain direction in their writing.

Writing using personal experience 

The exam question for Edquas last year was ‘Write a narrative called ‘A Memorable Weekend’.  This week I asked my Year 10 to complete this for homework, and told them I would also spend forty five minutes writing my own. The only rules were it had to be past tense and based on their own experience.

I used my experience last weekend running the Glasgow half marathon, in typically Scottish weather conditions, for my own response: Great Scottish half. The purpose was to show them how to approach a first person past tense narrative using personal experience. The exam board highlight:

“It seems a fairly obvious thing to say but those who are not lucky enough to)be naturally imaginative storytellers might be better advised to write from personal experience and give their narratives some authenticity.”

I wanted to show them how you can use personal experience and add some artistic licence to build more reader engagement and interest. I think I may have taken a step too far, however, when I showed them the images of me in the running gear and the video you are sent showing your finish. The thought of me in anything but a suit was clearly rather nauseating!

I used for this the slow modelling approach that I employed with this narrative on a journey to Oxford Street:  A-walk-through-Oxford-Street-model-answer.The idea is that at different points students become agents of the narrative and continue it in the same style. This encourages them to develop an authentic voice and to consider how to structure the plot in a way that can interest readers.

We then looked through the various elements of the writing, unpicking the aspects that were true and what was exaggerated (ie the fictional Mr Fluffy, the buck fast incident on the train and the exaggeration of the weather conditions). This all helps in getting them to think like writers, tracking them through my own thought process of writing a narrative. I also built in a range of techniques and punctuation, in order to begin to get them thinking about how they can build this into their writing.

They then looked at improving aspects of their own memorable narratives by adding some more detail to develop the imaginative engagement. We discussed how you can use your own experience, keep it realistic and still build in some fictional points in order to engage readers.

For this group, who are not natural writers, for the most part we will be experimenting with using personal experience to base their writing on. Next week we will be forming a bank of experiences they have had and looking at how we can turn them into interesting narratives.

The benefits of modelling narrative writing are huge: it shows students how to approach characterisation, coherence and a clear direction. It removes some of the mystery of how to structure a piece of writing. I will be using lots of models with my low set this year to show them how to maintain tenses, another significant issue in narrative writing.

Model answers are also, as I highlight in this post on a swimming pool locker incident gone wrong, rather enjoyable for us teachers to write (they win the wrestle with marking for me every time!) Students also, despite their cringing, love gaining that glimpse into our wildly exciting lives beyond the classroom. While a pre-prepared model answer has its advantage, writing alongside students, as this post from Susan Strachan highlights, can also be very powerful.

Guided Writing

Elements of this excellent idea from Eleanor Mears are similar to David Didau’s slow writing concept: which breaks down writing for students to follow. As he highlights:

“Over the past few years I’ve been experimenting with what, for want of a better idea, I’m calling Slow Writing. The idea is to get students to slow the hell down and approach each word, sentence and paragraph with love and attention. Obviously they’ll write less but what they do write will be beautifully wrought and finely honed.”

In a similar approach, Eleanor uses this idea: “Provide students with a guided tour of a chosen place or character (resource below) with particular details omitted and questions in their place.” This post has some great examples that I will be experimenting with next week, an approach that will work best with lower band groups. Again this helps them in building coherent ideas and is a useful way to build their confidence. Dave Grimmett also has this excellent post on how to help students to write a convincing story in the forty five minutes, with some very useful tips from his experience examining the Eduqas paper.

Using stimulus

In supporting training students for the challenge that comes with writing a narrative based on a title in the examination, using images and other stimulus can help them to structure a story initially. There are some brilliant resources out there:

Rebecca Foster explores the narrative arc with students through using ‘John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat’ and some cracking short films to explore narrative direction in this post.

My own post on using Hopper’s paintings and short films to generate ideas for a narrative and create characters.

An excellent post with great examples from Sarah Barker on using images to springboard creative writing.

Tacking the cliches 

Reading the first narratives my Year 10 have written for me has been rather bleak: they are littered with cliches. The solution lies in this post from Mark Roberts: We need to talk about cliches part one and part two. 

Not constraining able pupils 

My issue is now to balance this more constrictive approach with my Year 10 group, which encourages them to focus on first person retrospective posts based on personal experience, with allowing my top set Year 11 group to fly and use their imagination. Some excellent reading out there:

Teaching allusion: from Matt Pinkett. An excellent post on how to teach students to use allusions (‘an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly’), resulting in quirky and interesting writing.

Art of Making Strange – Creative writing done differently:  Another Mark Roberts post that looks at defamiliarisation: “If employed skillfully, defamiliarization allows for a shift in perspective, a way of reframing the dull expectations of everyday objects.” Lots of great examples in this post and a way in to exploring it with students.

Building in techniques subtly and skilfully will also be a focus for more able students, Douglas Wise has an indispensable guide to a range of techniques in his literacy shorts collection of posts. This one on pathetic fallacy is very useful.

Tom Briars (@tombriars) shares some excellent ideas with his top set pupils for developing interesting structures in their writing: analepsis (flashback), cyclical structures, single sentence paragraphs; multi perspective narration. All are elements in will be exploring with my top set group this year.

Regular Writing 

When I asked on Twitter for some strategies for teaching narrative, a particularly sage response was about how students need the opportunity to regularly practise from Year 7 the art of writing in different styles. Chris Curtis’ brilliant two hundred word challenges are surely the bread and butter of this, encouraging students to write on a weekly basis will grow their confidence and enjoyment with writing. This post from Louisa Enstone on encouraging daily writing is also another means to get students writing more.

Thanks for reading, any more ideas about how to approach the narrative would be much appreciated.





Ten Questioning Strategies

Quesiton everything

“The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.” Claude Levi-Strauss

Einstein would be rather chuffed: I have spent the last two weeks questioning everything about my approach to questioning in the classroom. Having written about the questioning traps that I kept finding myself stumbling into with new groups, I have made developing questioning in the classroom my pedagogical mission for this year. To narrow this mission down, below are the ten strategies I will be focussing on:

1. Embracing the wait time:  This was initially coined by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972, where she identified the silence that teachers left at the end of questions as integral to improved learning. Her research (Slowing Down may be a way of speeding up) found that the periods of silence between teacher questions and student responses rarely lasted more than 1. 5 seconds. When she explored the impact of raising this to at least three seconds she found a range of benefits.  For students, the length and correctness of responses increased, the number of the dreaded phrase ‘I don’t know’ decreased and volunteered answers increased. She discovered that as teachers build more wait time they become more thoughtful about the level of challenge in their questions and tended to employ more variable questioning strategies. The wait time I will be seeking to build more into practice will be focussed on the following areas:

(a) Teacher question: Pose the question then pause. Wait for three to five seconds then hear feedback from students. Making it clear that you are waiting for students to enable thinking is important in this technique.

(b) During student responses: Often a student will pause to seek to clarify their thinking during responding to a question. We gasp in horror at the thought of a moment of silence in the lesson and interject. Enabling time will ensure the student can consider carefully without pressure – likely to improve the overall quality of the response.

(c) Post student response: Slowing down at this point enables the students to consider the response their classmate has given. This prevents us from leaping in to assess the quality of the answer, encouraging young people in the room to listen carefully and think about the answer. At this point we may consider asking students to reflect on the strengths and possible ways of developing the answer.

(d) General teacher wait time: At times we ourselves may need to take a moment to gather our thinking and consider how we want to explain something or move forward. This is vital in modelling to students that thinking requires time, patience and deliberation.

(e) Process wait time:  This builds time in for students to catch up on content.

Key phrases to help to ensure that students are actively thinking during wait time:

  • I want to give you some time to consider that question…
  • Think carefully about that idea for a moment…
  • Let’s give ourselves some time to consider that thought…
  • What are our thoughts on that response?
  • How could we build on that interesting idea?
  • Can I ask you to pause and reflect on that idea?

2. Hinge questions: Hinge questions can provide a vital pause moment in a lesson and is one of the more effective assessment for learning strategies. Ultimately, they involve pausing the lesson at a “hinge” point to provide students with a series of options on a topic. Often they can function as multiple choice questions with one correct answer, which ask students to justify their response. While this needs planning in advance, it is an excellent way to decide on the direction of a lesson. It allows any misconceptions to be addressed immediately and to check how well the class are progressing. If something needs re-teaching to ensure understanding it can them be immediately implemented. Harry Fletcher has a range of fascinating posts on hinge questions with examples for a range of subjects. The simple example I have used with Year 8 this week when teaching a lesson on poetic techniques is:

Which two are incorrect and why:

A: Sibilance: repetition of an S sound

B: Metaphor: a direct comparison

C. Alliteration: repetition of a sound at the start of a letter

D: Simile: when the line of a poem continues on

E: Enjambment: comparison using like or as. 

3. The pugnacious probe: Rather than accepting a student’s first answer (which often may be superficial in its depth) we seek to encourage them to re-phrase or to offer more to their answer, or perhaps we “bounce” an answer around the room to seek to develop other assessments of the answer. We might offer encouragement but not finality, there is always more that can be added to points. Even if the probe is in seeking to expand the language that the student has employed, broadening and developing a rich vocabulary classroom will benefit students immeasurably.   The pugnacious probe has an element of fun to it, but it is obviously used to seek to encourage students to expand on their answers.

That’s a good start, how could we build further?

What elements of that answer might we develop?

Why do you think that is?

Do we agree or disagree with this point?

Could we disagree or challenge that assumption?

Can you say more?

Can you explain that further?

This post from Mark Roberts ‘So What and Tell me More’ is an excellent example of the value of probing in building more sophisticated thinking.

4. Cold call: One of Doug Lemov’s excellent ‘Teach Like a Champion’ techniques that seeks to generate a classroom culture in which any student can be asked a question at any point. Given my dust bowl questions with Year 9 since the start of the year, I am trying to generate this culture with them in which they can be asked a question at any point. This blog from Doug Lemov explores the multitude of reasons why students may avoid raising their hands, highlighting why a number of our students are completely averse to nominating answers.  The book outlines how to ensure Cold Call is effective: keep it predictable and make sure students know it is a possibility; make it systematic; keep it positive and unbundle questions (break larger questions into smaller units).

5. No Opt Out: The curse of all responses to questioning is the glazed frown and ‘I don’t know’ (or in reality: “dunno”) Often, this inspires a speedy leap to another student to provide the answer we are looking for. Tackling the ‘I don’t know,’ however, is important is reiterating a climate of high expectations in the classroom and motivating students. Doug Lemov’s ‘No Opt Out’ strategy is a good starting point, where you ask another student then return to the first student to explain how the answer has been arrived. Alternatives are rephrasing the question, providing the answer and asking the student to explain it or providing two contrasting answers and asking the student to explain which answer they feel is correct. Either way, the ‘I don’t knower’ should not escape our high expectations! This field guide to this technique from ‘Teach Like a Champion’  has everything you need to know and more about this technique.

6. Ladder questioning: There is no right or wrong question to ask in the classroom, all are meaningful and useful in different degrees. Yet, it is important that we balance our closed and factual questions to assess understanding, with open questions that seek to challenge thinking. When we have established that the surface level knowledge has been secured, then we know we can embrace deeper and more conceptual questioning. The movement to asking more challenging questions requires subtle alterations in our language to seek to ensure students build on points. In ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby use the analogy of a planning ladder: “A ladder is a useful metaphor: each question acts as a rung leading towards the core idea or concept”. This ladder requires an investment of time as you plan out the concepts that will reach the top in terms of challenge.

7. Validate the effort: To take the step to share an answer requires confidence: confidence in sharing ideas and in how they will be received by the class and teacher. If we, as teachers, recognise this positively and sincerely, then we will find that other students in the group seek to share more of their answers. The converse is, as Guy Claxton highlights: “If children believe the teacher isn’t interested in what they have to say, they will stop saying anything at all.”  The danger is to slip into over-praising that exclaims “fantastic”, “outstanding” etc in response to any incoherent grunt. Instead, the focus here is to recognise and value the thinking and effort that has taken place in the room. While it might not all have been correct thinking, it is the act of effort itself that we are seeking to encourage young people to do more of. Some phrases:

Thank you to all of those who have volunteered answers and thinking.

Clearly there is some real thinking going on in the room.

Lots of thoughtful and interesting comments and ideas, thank you for sharing.

Sorry we didn’t hear from everyone in the room, keep going with thinking carefully.

8. Low stakes testing questions: A quick perusal of ‘Ten Benefits of Testing and their Applications to Educational Practice’ by Henry L.Roediger et all highlights: “Tests can serve other purposes in educational settings that greatly improve performance”. When we move away from a ‘test’ that concludes a unit of work we embrace a slow, repetitive, carefully planned structure of low stakes testing that removes the fear and stress factor. Herein lies the wonder of the low stakes testing questions method. This can be a splendid way to start a lesson to recap and test students’ knowledge. As I outlined on this post on teaching ‘Macbeth’, I have been starting lessons with ‘Sizzling Shakespearean Starter Questions’:

How is Macbeth presented to the audience at the start of Act one? What quotations are used?

What is the role of the witches in Act one? Which themes do they link to?

What is the significance of this quotation: “To full of the milk of human kindness”

How would you summarise Lady Macbeth in the act so far?

What is the significance of this Lady Macbeth quotation: “Act like the flower but be the serpent under it”

For more on this, Zoe Taylor has written an excellent overview of her practice using low stakes testing and teaching for retention on ‘Macbeth’ here.  The idea of repeating questions with students in order to secure knowledge is also explored in this fascinating post from Chris Curtis.

9. Advance questioning: The notion of slowly and thoughtfully planning out the questions we will ask in lessons may well feel alien to us: surely we should be designing an outlandish PowerPoint or writing streams of information? Yet, the time invested in preparing questions will be significant in assisting the learning of students in our rooms. While there has to be room for spontaneous questioning, pre-planned questions can provide a guide to what exactly needs to be explored in a lesson. It will again give us a sense of calm clarity about the direction of our lessons. This is also a powerful differentiation aid:

10. Question time: Based on the ‘Question Time’ BBC show, there is a period in every lesson in which students have to think of questions they have about the lesson or about the topic they are studying. They then have time to ask me (looking increasingly like David Dimbleby as the term wears on) or other students in the class their chosen questions. This has been working particularly well with Key Stage Three groups this year, interesting questions posed on war poetry by Year 8!

Undoubtedly there will be stumbling blocks and questioning failures along the way in this questioning mission. Yet this deliberate practice and desire to hone and develop our craft is part of the beauty of teaching. There is always so much more to learn, as this rather inspiring speech from Dylan Williams captures:

Keep on questioning. Thanks for reading. (Question to Year 11 today: Come up with an inspiring Macbeth related quotation to get me round the Glasgow half marathon this weekend. Best answer: “Act like the teacher but be the Mo Farah under it.”) 

Questioning Traps

Question mark heap on table concept for confusion, question or solution

“A prudent question is one half of wisdom” Frances Bacon.

There is always something slightly tentative about the first two weeks of term: students are eying us up carefully, deciding exactly how they are going to respond to our magnificent lessons (rather Machievalian I know!)   I have had an interesting week with a Year 9 group who at the moment are heroically quiet, eerily quiet in fact. I think my slightly austere initial (very Scottish) demeanour has rather thrown them, and the attempted light-hearted puns have failed miserably. There have been glimpses of personality, but so far there has been a number of teacher led moments that have reenacted this brilliant scene from ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’:

As I have been repeating my best “anyone, anyone” impression, I have been thinking about the number of questioning traps that I have unwittingly stumbled into through the course of the week with this group.

As teachers we fully embrace Albert Einstein’s “never stop questioning” philosophy: we question like the “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. It is a vital part of our teaching practice; we are likely to fire out hundreds of them in our working days, let alone the thousands we collate throughout the week (questions not rifles!) The automatic “rapid rattle” approach, unfortunately, often results in losing the significant learning power of the humble question. This week, I have clearly not been using it as effectively as I could be.

Now, clearly questioning is a vital teacher skill in so many ways. A quick perusal of Barack Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ validates why we ask so many:

“Questions allow a teacher to determine how well the material has been learned and whether there is a need for additional instruction. The most effective teachers also ask students to explain the process they used to answer the question, to explain how the answer was found. Less successful teachers ask fewer questions and almost no process questions.”

There is also the process that questioning encourages young people to go through. Richard W Paul and Linda Elder argue:

‘Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. Had no questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field, for example Physics or Biology, the field would never have developed in the first place… To think or rethink anything, one must ask questions that stimulate our thoughts”.

The question therefore becomes a significant ally in the mission to encourage thinking in the classroom: hijacking both the brains and engagement of the young people in our rooms. Research has suggested that the brain can focus only on one thing at a time; therefore the moment young people are in receipt of a question they automatically begin to engage with it. As neuroscientist John Medina puts it in his fascinating book ‘Brain Rules:’ “Research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.” By tapping into this with the power of a question, we are ensuring both the focus and thinking power of our students. Importantly there is also the motivation inspired by questioning: it gives our students active opportunities to participate and demonstrate their knowledge

For my own piece of mind as I endeavour to draw out more from this group next week, here is what I will be avoiding in this questioning mission:

Guess what is in the head. In our content rich curriculum we often feel the need to rush through material. We frequently ask questions that merely seek to reinforce the knowledge and content we have shared. Questioning in this vain is merely encouraging young people to parrot back the information we are looking for, it does not develop an enquiry based classroom. Those who know will volunteer and the rest of the students will switch off. Often this can form a teacher rhetorical question that does not require a student response, or even more tragically we begin to answer our own questions.

Closed questions dominating. A huge number of questions we ask in the classroom lead only to recall of facts and lower order skills. In ‘Questioning in the Secondary School’ by C Brown and E.C Wagg, the authors state that higher-level questions are used in the classroom only 10 to 20 percent of the time. Ultimately closed questions  lead to only a single word response or a short response; they do not require any real degree of expansion or further explanations. While all questions in the classroom have their place, the dominance of closed questions in classrooms is concerning, are we doing enough to extend and challenge thinking?

Time. Often we fly out questions and pounce immediately on the first student who shows the first sign of response. Research implies that on average we allow only one second for our students to reflect on questions. When we pause to consider the internal process that student’s must go through in order to generate a response this becomes even more troublesome. Researchers Winne and Marx (1983) note they must

“perceive the instructional stimuli, note their occurance, understand the cognitive processes that are required, use the processes to create or manipulate information to be stored as learned material and encode the information for later retrieval.”

In one second? Tough. The result is a significant number of students will give up and not go through this process, sitting back and waiting for their more enthusiastic chums to take the lead. Wait time, first coined by Mary Rowe in her journal ‘‘Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be A Way of Speeding Up’  from 1972 is one  way to address this issue:

“If teachers can increase the average length of the pauses at both points, namely, after a question and, even more importantly, after a student response to three seconds or more, there are pronounced changes in student use of language and logic.”

Any questions? At various points in a lesson we might be tempted to ask the students if anyone has any questions. We know that encouraging our students to ask questions will aid learning and motivation. The majority of young people, however, are usually unwilling to publically admit that they are unsure about the content. Would we as adults? Therefore there is the assumption that the knowledge is nestled beautifully inside their minds. An assumption that is untested and untried and likely to be false. We move on to quickly, leaving an unknown proportion of the class floundering and uncertain about the knowledge they require

Acceptance In our desire to seek to motivate our students we can often accept answers to questions that are overly simplistic or indeed wrong. We move on to quickly without probing or seeking to refine the quality of answers. Particularly at the start of the year with a quiet group there is the temptation to heroically herald the most incoherent of grunts. I have found myself doing this through the course of the week. It sends messages about the nature of my expectations to this group, missing out vital opportunities to them to signal the high expectations that I will want to define their lessons.

As with all aspects of teaching, awareness of these traps again gives us the clear upper hand, making us more thoughtful about how we employ the ubiquitous question. I will post a hopefully slightly more optimistic version of this with some practical ideas for developing  questioning in a few weeks. In the mean time, some excellent further reading:

Alex Quigley’s ‘The Questioning Collection’ 

Doug Lemov’s ‘On the Raising of Hands’ 

Shaun Allison’s ‘The Importance of Questioning’ 

James Durran’s ‘Asking real questions in the classroom’ 

Thanks for reading, any questions? Anyone, anyone?


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