Sunday, 6 November 2016

My Desert Island Books

Headteacher and blogger Chris Hildrew yesterday made me aware of the fact that this weekend is 'Love to Read' weekend, and in accordance with Simon Mayo's BBC R2 'Desert Island Books' feature, he has named the six books that made the biggest impact on him. I enjoyed the post, and felt that this would be an enjoyable procrastination activity. My choices below, like Chris's, are in alphabetical order of the authors' surnames - the difficulty of ranking them in any other order necessitates this!

1. The Regeneration Trilogy - Pat Barker

I only read these quite recently, but Barker's trilogy of WW1 historical fiction, centred around the lives of some of our best-known war poets (Owen, Sassoon et al.) illuminates superbly these men, their motivations and their inspirations behind their own works of literature. Having studied an anthology of Wilfred Owen's war poems during my own Literature A-Level, I wish that I had read these books alongside at the time, as the contextual understanding afforded, particularly the insights provided into Craiglockhart Hospital, are wonderfully revealing, yet certainly not always comfortable reading.

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2. Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë

I had to read Wuthering Heights several times before truly appreciating its multi-layered complexity and rugged beauty. Since then I have re-read Brontë's only novel many times, each time discovering additional details and treasures about the characters that were missed previously. The book is completely captivating and demands that the reader succumbs to its power, with the central relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff pulsating amongst the host of supporting characters, each with their own particular interests and nuances. The final passage, for me, is one of the most enduring in literature.

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3. The Monk - Matthew Lewis

As a huge fan of the Gothic tradition in literature, The Monk by Matthew Lewis stands as a seminal text, widely regarded as one of the finest products of the genre. Despite a fairly convoluted subplot, which forms much of the mid-section of the novel, the pace of the 19 year old Lewis's prose is relentless, the subject matter often shocking. Complete with all of the tropes and conventions that we have come to associate with later Gothic works, The Monk will grab you and keep you questioning your predictions and suppositions right up to the climactic finale. A perfect book for a cold winter night, though reading it on a roof-top terrace in Valencia in July, as I did this year, is not a terrible choice either.

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4. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

Arguably, Cloud Atlas does not quite match the literary merits of my three preceding choices, but for sheer enjoyment, satisfyingly twisty plots and Mitchell's typically irreverent voice, it is worthy of a place on the list. I admit that I did first encounter Mitchell's writing whilst at university when a film of this text was in production, but since then I have read, and loved, several others, including Ghostwritten, Number9Dream and The Bone Clocks. At some point I am going to need to fill in the gaps in my reading of this collection, and perhaps revisit them in order, as there are recurring characters and themes which vanish and reappear in different forms. However, as individual books in their own right, each is thoroughly enjoyable, and several have kept me happily occupied on long train journeys between Plymouth and Edinburgh which is endorsement enough in itself!

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1984 - George Orwell

Ok, I realise that this will appear to be a rather clichéd and predictable choice, but it would be remiss of me to omit it from a list of impactful books. George Orwell is a particular favourite writer of mine, with his life experiences alone providing rich and stimulating reading material - Down and Out in Paris and London features on my additional list at the end of this post, and Animal Farm is always one of my favourite texts to teach. As a visionary depiction of a dystopian future society, it never fails to amaze me quite how prescient Orwell managed to be in this text, and his image of a 'boot stamping on a human face - forever' is one which is indelibly imprinted on my mind.

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Jules Verne
The last offering on my list comes with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, as Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was for a very long time during my childhood one of my very favourite books, one which I read and re-read time and time again. The adventures of Captain Nemo (my first Latin lesson came from my father explaining how his name means 'nobody') and the Nautilus completely enthralled me, perhaps owing to the scope of the text being so much greater than anything I had encountered up to that point. There was something about this story that made such an impression on me, and has led to its being far more memorable to my particular mind than either of Verne's other notable works, Around the World in 80 Days and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

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This really is an impossible task, and so below are some other titles that could easily have made it onto this list:

A God in Ruins - Kate Atkinson
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
The Bloody Chamber (and other stories) - Angela Carter
Nothing to Envy - Barbara Demick
The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens
All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr
Crisis of Conscience - Raymond Franz
Tess of the d'Urbevilles - Thomas Hardy
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
The Magician's Nephew - C.S. Lewis
Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell

And the pile next to my bed currently consists of the following:

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara
The British Witch: The Biography - P. G. Maxwell-Stuart
The Reader on the 6.27 - Jean-Paul Diderlaurent
The Daemonology of King James I - Donald Tyson (ed.)
Catullus' Bedspread - The Life of Rome's Most Erotic Poet

What would be your Desert Island Books? Let me know!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


It is my firm belief that ‘those who CAN, teach’. Equally, I would argue that ‘those who teach, should DO’. For this reason, it is a central priority of mine to continue practising my subjects alongside teaching them – and so I found myself, continually espousing the joys and benefits of reading for pleasure as I do, at the 2015 Cheltenham Literature Festival, in the children’s tent, eagerly awaiting the appearances of Judith Kerr and Michael Morpurgo. I was there to boost my own enjoyment of children’s literature, and to hopefully come away with new recommendations for my classes.

However, what instead emerged were insights into Morpurgo’s creative processes in the run-up to his writing of new books. Somewhat surprisingly, I found that the author does not enjoy the act of writing (a feeling certainly relatable, in my experience, to some students) and that his real joy is to be found in the preparation phase of writing, a so-called ‘Dreamtime’, in which music, art, sketching, reading and other creative stimuli are used to facilitate imagination and to gather together musings which might find use in the final work of fiction.

The way that Morpurgo described this preparatory work appealed to me, and reinforced the fact that the fiction writing we try to engender in classrooms is very often completely artificially constructed, and devoid of the time required for a deep and mature formulation of ideas. ‘Real’ writers rarely work under such constraints of time and space, and it is surely unsurprising that student creative writing is sometimes disappointing. Notably, Morpurgo mentioned that to prepare for writing, he reads. It is of course true that voracious readers are exposed to numerous ideas for the style and content of their own writing, and this struck me as being a major disadvantage for my Year 11 class, featuring many proud and self-professed non-readers, at the time.

Having a very short amount of curriculum time available to improve a piece of GCSE writing coursework, I took inspiration from ‘Dreamtime’ and put together an hour-long session in which I hoped to bring my sixteen-year-olds back to their earlier childhoods, in which the joys of exploration, imagination and discovery were foregrounded to a greater degree. Students entered the room, with tables pushed to the side, and sat on the floor, immediately transforming the space into something unusual. Here, they heard a dramatic monologue read aloud. Next, we went around the circle, creating a story one word at a time. After this, we moved into a corner of the room lit only by desk lamps and read a short ghost story. There followed, during the hour, further short readings, video clips, and pieces of music. Crucially, there was time allowed after each episode for students to try a very short mini creative writing task. These fragments were retained for later use.

This was designed as a one-off lesson, a bit of an experiment and certainly not something that I would advocate without a very carefully planned structure. It is impossible to measure the impact that this session had on the students’ writing, but what is for certain is that the new piece of creative writing coursework produced in the subsequent lessons was of a far higher standard, and notably featured far more interesting and exciting content, than did their initial attempts. It is purely my sense that this session, so far removed as it was from my students’ usual experience of lessons, at the very least served to alter their perspective of the task, reminded them of the playful nature and freedom of writing, and gave them licence to express their imaginative ideas, temporarily liberated from the overwhelming strictures of technical accuracy – this would come later, and indeed did come, as part of the redrafting process.

From this point onwards, creative writing was tangibly approached with a more positive mindset and students asked often for a repeat of the session. It makes sense to me that if we aim to replicate a final product which is edging towards a professional standard (and if we’re not then what is the aim?), then we ought too to try to replicate the process which leads to that product. In this way, my glimpse into Michael Morpurgo’s creative process of ‘Dreamtime’, something which has been proven to achieve results for him, was the enabling process which led to improved final products for my students.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Reading for Pleasure

It's my second year, and I now feel sufficiently long in the tooth and grey in the beard, whilst retaining a modicum of youthful verve and vigour, to state emphatically that education is tough.

Not necessarily teaching. But certainly education. 

In the year and half-term since I qualified from my PGCE there have been huge changes on both a micro and macro scale. A brief precis of such will find, nationally, the abandonment of KS3 levels (ultimately a positive though a little uncomfortable to begin with), new GCSEs, new A-Levels, new grading systems, and a new Education Secretary. Indeed, this year I find myself teaching old A-Level to Year 13, new A-Level to Year 12, old GCSE (but not quite, rather newish iGCSE) with Year 11 and new GCSEs with Year 10. 

On a more local and personal level, this same time period has seen huge change in my school, both structurally and pedagogically on departmental and whole school levels. In English we have ripped up old KS3 schemes of learning and rewritten them to factor in much greater levels of challenge, integrated grammar, consideration of theories of sequencing and interleaving, and a depth and breadth of material to make English a subject of excitement, wonder and intellectual and creative worth. Simultaneously we have reconfigured our KS3 assessment frameworks and now, imminently ahead of their first implementation, look forward to discovering how they might contribute to driving stretch and challenge for our most able learners as well as in raising standards for all. I have been fortunate enough to have been granted some responsibility for contributing to this vital and thrilling work and have, albeit with a great deal of trepidation and justifiable wondering of 'why me', thrown myself into it whole-souled. Yet, undeniably the whole thing can often be just that little bit too all-encompassing. 

Having just gone through my first experience of 'appraisal', it is a time of year wherein colleagues and I are turning to discussion with line managers about targets for the forthcoming year (lexical field of business unintended but mournfully accurate). Whatever my personal target may turn out to be, I shall certainly be maintaining an appraisal-free target of my own, the same that I set for myself at the beginning of my NQT year in September 2014:

'To continue to pursue my own interests, to make time for friends and family, and to continue enjoying life in the world outside school'

There is much publicity on social media platforms about the impossibility of achieving such an aim for many education professionals. Certainly, there is enough work to be done that, if one allowed it, the job could dominate every minute of the day. However, I subscribe fully to the argument that children deserve, nay need, teachers who are themselves interesting and well-informed people with interests which range beyond the confines of the classroom. How can we be teachers if we are not ourselves 'do-ers'?

As a teacher of English, I have enjoyed the whole school focus on literacy which we are continuing with this academic year. In particular, the renewed attention given to 'reading for pleasure' has been reinvigorating on a personal level. It is so easy, in an already crammed day, to let the daily reading schedule slip away. Even as an avid reader myself, more than once have I found myself foregoing the bedtime chapter in favour of getting an extra twenty minutes of sleep!

However, I am making it a part of my over-arching 'enjoyment' target to throw myself back into a more regular habit of reading something of my own choosing (and by that I mean something which is completely separate from my daily diet of education blogs, Twitter newsfeeds, A-Level, GCSE and KS3 texts for teaching, academic journal articles etc.). To this end, and to fully immerse myself in reading, and to give myself an extra motivation for doing so, I have recently taken huge pleasure from making weekend trips to Bath and Cheltenham for their Children's Literature Festival and Literature Festival respectively.

In the beautifully picturesque city of Bath it was a real treat to hear Joe Abercrombie, Phillip Reeve, Darren Shan and Charlie Higson (train delays sadly conspired against my booking to hear Jacqueline Wilson) enthusing about their new books and about reading and writing in general. It was wonderful to be sharing an audience space with so many school-age children who listened in wide-eyed wonder at these authors sharing extracts of their writing. On more than one occasion I found myself wishing that I had been able to bring along some of my own students - it is exactly this sort of direct experience, and soaking in of atmosphere, that could really generate the excitement about reading that is so important as a motivator. 

Indeed, my feelings along this line were only strengthened when hearing the eclectic mix of literary voices comprising Michael Morpurgo, Judith Kerr, Salman Rushdie and Melvynn Bragg at the Cheltenham Lit. Fest. several weeks later. For very affordable prices I was given insight into these writers' processes, passions and ways of thinking that were not only interesting and illuminating but also sparked ideas for how I might develop my teaching of writing. Michael Morpurgo's revelation that he does not in fact enjoy writing (!) but far prefers the stage of idea generation, what he calls 'Dreamtime', has led to a series of lessons in which I sought to instigate in my students a sense of child-like curiosity and immersion in story which I hoped would benefit their previously stilted and rather unimaginative creative work. More to come on the thinking behind this soon. 

Overridingly, I felt my own appetite for reading greatly bolstered by the talks I attended. I was excited to delve into texts which I almost certainly would not have chosen for myself before the event. Indeed, I have subsequently bought Michael Morpurgo's 'The Eagle in the Snow' and Melvynn Bragg's 'Now is the Time' and am working frenziedly through my existing 'to-do' list of reading to get onto these new offerings. Perhaps more than even this, though, was the inspiration to write which I experienced during and after hearing such impassioned and genuinely interesting people. In terms of intrinsic motivation, I have been left in no doubt at all that the more we can expose students to 'real writers', the easier our job of encouraging them to write will be. This personal conviction was bolstered by looking around the various venues and seeing a considerable number of young teenagers held enraptured by the authors - the heaving queues for buying signed books afterwards added further testimony to this.

So what can we do? Clearly, well publicised and advertised literary festivals, such as those in Bath, Cheltenham and Edinburgh provide excellent opportunity for some young people to immerse themselves, for a time, in the joys of reading and writing. It is my feeling, though, that ultimately such a movement needs to be far more geographically wide-reaching. Yes, teachers can organise visits by authors in school, and this should be done more, but I can't help but feel that the pervasive problem of access to the arts is now also applicable to literature and books. Granted, anybody can go to a library, or even trawl the often underrated treasure troves that are charity shop book sections, but without the initial motivating flame to ignite such a desire, it is few underprivileged young people that will feel empowered or indeed driven to go to such places. It is my hope that the current spirit of fringe theatre, which is seeing non-traditional venues transformed into performance spaces all over the country, may rapidly spread to the world of literature so that, at the very least, every young person has the opportunity to be inspired by something so valued by so many, and so transformative in their impact - books,  

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Teach Meet Devon (The First)

Having attended several in-school mini-TeachMeet events during my second PGCE placement at Community College (incidentally a great format for whole staff CPD), this inaugural TeachMeet Devon (and yes, #TMDevon was indeed trending before the end of the evening!), hosted by Tavistock College and Gary King, was my first foray into such a gathering for teachers across a far wider geographical reach. And indeed, such was the quality of the presentations that I'm struggling to see how my notes from the two hour event are to be condensed into a manageable blog post...

The first speaker, and a treat for nerdy members of the educational Twitterati, was Mark Anderson (better known as +ICTEvangelist ) who set the tone for the event as being to, in line with the thinking of John Hattie, provide 'lessons that are worth turning up to'. How might this be achieved? Two possible solutions come in the form of (1) stimulating intrinsic curiosity - or a sense of 'awe and wonder' and (2) following @CristaHazell's exhortation to 'be brave and give [the students] a chance' in terms of leading their own learning. 

Students as Researchers

Tavistock Primary School has been undertaking research in the area of student leadership of learning and presented their findings to the question 'Will the development of student voice help to create a curriculum that will prepare students for the future?'. The very notion of student voice does seem to strike a divide in the edusphere - are the students themselves really best positioned to dictate, or indeed to know, what they need in order to best learn? In this study, the Primary students themselves were the researchers and investigated the development of a particular set of 'Skills for Success'. These skills, which chime nicely with our own school's 'Hele's Learning Habits', include
  • resilience
  • self-understanding
  • risk-taking
  • responsibility
  • co-operation
By giving students the opportunity to present a piece of work in a format of their own choosing, the study sought to establish a link between enjoyment, which was assumed to be an inherent consequence of student voice input to the curriculum, and associated development of the Skills for Success. Following a self-assessment against the skills following the project, the findings were that the students perceived each skill to have improved with the enjoyment that they experienced. Clearly, this research is a single, isolated investigation and in some ways portrays a predictable outcome - it is a fair assumption that students would like to enjoy themselves - and therefore made no apparent accounting for the bias which has invariably skewed the findings. However, in terms of student motivation, the notion of choice and of differentiated outcomes certainly provides food for thought.


It is one of my aims for next year to include more technology in my own classroom. The danger of course is to include technology for the sake of including it, but, done appropriately, I think that the benefits in terms of engagement and motivation - as well as for preparing students for a technology rich future - are apparent. Many ideas were provided during the TeachMeet - both by the afore-mentioned Mark Anderson but also by Phil Ruse (@WellsportsPhil). In order to avoid lengthy descriptions of each of these possibilities I seek only to list them here - with a brief description of how I have subsequently made an attempt at introducing one in my own practice. 

Mark Anderson (@ICTEvangelist) demonstrating EdTech.
First off, Mark shared which is a website for creating multiple choice quizzes which might be played by a whole class on their own personal internet-enabled devices. I do know of colleagues with whom I trained who have utilised this resource this year but this was the reminder, and proper explanation, that I needed. Certainly, though recall-style quizzing may seem to simply operate at a surface level of learning (and I wouldn't disagree entirely) in a brave new world of terminal assessments there seems to be a growing body of thought that intermittent testing of this sort may in fact be beneficial to longer term and deeper learning. This post by Alex Quigley is enlightening on this topic.

The audience was encouraged to participate in our very own in-house 'Kahoot' and immediately a spirit of competition ensued as we all attempted to reach the top of the leaderboard - points are awarded for accuracy and speed of response. The next day I had a go at creating my own Kahoot to test my class's knowledge of the first chapter of Animal Farm which we were to read together at the beginning of the lesson. The quiz was very easy for me to create, fairly easy for students to join, and the motivation to succeed in the room was visible. This will certainly be a resource which I will look to use more and more next year. The link to my quiz is here.

Most notably for me, and amongst other things, Mark also spoke about and demonstrated Post-it Note Plus (useful for organising seating plans) and Quivar (an intriguing and visually spectacular resource for animating text and pictures - perhaps a way of bringing creative writing to life?). Both are well worth further investigation.

Later on, Phil Ruse provided us with '6 Quick Lesson Hacks' - many of these also utilised EduTech and are as below:

  1. - provides short clips on careers and transferable skills
  2. plenary placemats - a different activity might be chosen to stimulate group talk at the end of lessons or at appropriate points
  3. Fakebook (from - for creating fictional social profiles
  4. explicit self-help strategies (i.e. literacy mats) - develops student independence
  5. ReviewIt Wheel (from +Amjad Ali (ASTSupportAAli)) - a range of formats for students to recap their learning in a particular lesson (see below)
  6. silent movies - stimulates the writing of internal dialogue/scripts

Questionless Questioning?

At these quickfire events, what I look for most eagerly are the ideas which are easy to incorporate into lessons almost immediately, whilst providing tangible benefits to the learning of my students. For this reason, Toby French's (@MrHistoire) presentation on Statements vs. Questions was one of my personal highlights. He began by expounding his perceived problems with classroom questions. In essence, they waste time, are inefficient, and are, too frequently, of poor quality, resulting in surface level yes/no responses rather than leading to deeper critical thought. 

Usefully, Toby provided a solution. Instead of spending time reformulating previously used questions, why not instead discuss and compare 'mutually compatible statements'? By evaluating the relative merits and drawbacks of each, we might hope to provoke more nuanced and considered responses. And indeed, the teacher is encouraged to stay in the margins of the discussion - 'all we need to do is garner opinions and justifications',

My first foray into questionless questioning relating to Animal Farm - discuss the extent to which you agree with the following statements.
My first experimenting with this technique a few days later proved fruitful, with my Year 9 class thriving on the opportunity to lead the discussion. I found them picking apart the wording of three statements related to rebellion, challenging each other, and time and again seeking to justify their own standpoint against rebuttals. In order to be most effective, Toby left us with six tips for maximising the potential of his approach:

  1. make the choices similar - don't allow too much difference 
  2. provide 3-5 choices
  3. as teacher, use gestures - try to stop questioning!
  4. perhaps start with more able students to begin the discussion
  5. encourage everyone to talk
  6. allow a certain degree of change in the process - don't feel overly fixed by the original statements
I know that this will be a technique I take forward regularly into my own practice - not bad for a ten minute presentation!

Understanding Memory 

A further practical idea, this time for improving memory retention, came from Cicely Alsbury (@CicelyAlsbury). Simply put, her suggestion was to represent a written text in a different form before having to re-explain the original text's contents using only the recreation as aide memoire. Presented with a text about the changing nature of educational policies, we had to use only images and numbers to convey as precisely as possible the information we had been given.

For me there were several associated advantages to this activity. First, the requirement for precision ensured that every single detail of the original text was definitely taken in during my initial reading. The stakes were high enough that I was motivated to include as much as possible. Also, by representing the information in a new, abstract form, I was having to move beyond the pre-, uni-, and multi-structural levels of SOLO taxonomy and thereby experienced, albeit for a very specialised topic, a deeper level of learning than might have been achieved by simply being required to repeat back the words of the original. 

If I were to use something similar myself I would limit the scope of the original text to being the absolutely key points of a particular topic. In the time allowed in this session I found myself struggling to recreate the entire text pictorially, and actually found that much of the second half of the text I was unable to recall in any detail at all.  However, in terms of summarising key points at regular intervals within a unit - or perhaps as a revision activity - I can certainly see the use. 

Creating Curricula

For this English teacher, currently embroiled in the redesign of a KS3 curriculum and system of assessment, Kate Lea's (@languagepigeon) slot on redesigning her school's English curriculum across the key stages stood out. 

She began by outlining a core problem. In previous years there has been too much 'chunking'. Such entities as APP, PEEL paragraphs (also read PEE, PEA, PEARL, PETAL etc. ad infinitum...) and the pervasive C/D borderline have created a system of learning in which students are fed 'easily digestible' chunks of knowledge which, though manageable to consume, are equally easily forgotten. Learning in English, as in other subjects, consists of the accumulation of an array of skills between which are many and varied connections which students need to make for themselves in order to be fully understanding of them and of the subject as a whole. 

In my own work I am incorporating research on interleaving, sequencing, and revisiting knowledge and skills in order to devise a three year Key Stage 3 programme which is inter-relational and allows students to form secure connections between taught units which are no longer mutually exclusive. In this regard, the presentation here was very reassuring. 

Kate continually emphasised that need for connections between topics to be made visible to students. She spoke of 'progress ladders' which chart movement through the full range of key stages. There is no shortcut to achieving this and necessarily involves mapping KS3 curriculum content up from KS2 coverage and down from even the dizzying heights of KS5. This philosophy was great to hear about in a climate where some schools will be turning to teaching the same texts across various key stages in order to seemingly maximise the preparedness of their students for the new terminal GCSE and A-Level exams. In South Dartmoor Community College's 'loosely spiralled curriculum' described here, it was made clear that key skills of the subject would be revisited throughout, but that this might well be achieved in very different contexts and units of content.

Further, and very importantly, the new curriculum builds in time for embedding deep learning and retaining new knowledge. At the end of each unit there are plans to provide a dedicated revision week - a great opportunity for solidifying concepts, for revisiting problem areas, or for providing further stretch for the most able. Again, this is certainly something which will be entering my own planning.

Whole School Literacy

Again, this section of the evening was of pertinence to my own context as we are currently in the midst of a whole school focus on literacy at Hele's. Here too the content was timely and reassuring! Karen Duxbury-Watkinson (@KDWScience) first outlined two common definitions of 'literacy as being 1) the ability to read and write and 2) competence in a particular area. This resonates with our own approach of defining literacy as being the ability to communicate like an expert in a particular field i.e. to be able to write like a scientist or to be able to read like a literary critic etc.

The starkest point made here was the improvement made by students following a literacy intervention. The example provided of a six mark question on a science test is encapsulated in the following word equation:

Test score before literacy scaffold (1 mark) + Literacy scaffold = Test score after literacy scaffold (5 or 6 marks)

Simply put, for questions in science which require an extended written answer, a high level of literacy is required for success. Clearly, time for reflection on one's own work (sometimes known by the somewhat clumsy acronym 'DIRT' time) after an initial attempt is a crucial part of the learning process here. Additionally, a focus on talk for learning was established with reference to PiXL's 'Walking Talking Mocks' in which test questions are read as a whole class, the questions are  openly discussed, and only at this stage are any answers written. For many students, the act of talking clearly about their learning will prove problematic and so Karen's school has sought to eradicate so-called 'sloppy speech' - importantly this is not a matter of squashing dialect but of encouraging Standard English at the appropriate times. Surely, being able to distinguish between modes of talk, and knowing when to use them, is one of the most empowering skills a child can develop in preparation for adult life. 

Something which I had not previously considered was the idea of a 'Literacy Morning' to which were invited parents for trailing students and taking part in lessons with a literacy focus. Further, parents have also been invited to workshops wherein strategies are provided for supporting students' literacy at home. As we know, as individual teachers we have a very limited amount of time with our students - if we can get parents onside then it is them who can make the real sustained difference to such a broad area as literacy.

'Our Tricky Brain'

Is there someone who ever cared about you? This was the question posed by Dr Mary Welford who works with people suffering from psychological problems. When asking her patients this question, the most common answer was 'school staff' (NB. all 'school staff' - not exclusively teachers!).

Due to this positive, long-lasting effect that so many education professionals can exert on young people for the rest of their lives, we were asked 'how can teachers prevent some psychological problems?' This appears to be a daunting question, and certainly far apart from the more explicitly teaching and learning based items previously covered during the meet. 

In order to communicate this complex idea concisely and relatively simply, Dr Mary shared with us three types of what are known as 'Affect Regulator Systems' as below:
  1. DRIVE (drive, excite, vitality)
  2. SOOTHING (content, safe, connect)
  3. THREAT (anger, anxiety, disgust)
System 1 is unlocked by the chemical dopamine and is the buzz associated with winning the lottery. System 2 is the state of mind most suitable for mentalising, empathising, creating and remembering - evidently the system most conducive to learning. System 3, detrimental as it is to creativity and learning, was suggested as being the dominant mode of Western society as evidenced by the current NHS and even the education system itself.

Dr Mary made clear that each system is necessary in its own situation and we need the ability to switch system depending on the conditions in which we find ourselves. However, as teachers it would be useful for us to consider how we might best facilitate the conditions for our students to operate securely within the second system. An awareness of the existence of these systems, combined with some investigation of 'mindfulness' techniques, might go some way to achieving this. 

One difficulty in the way of achieving this aim might be our tendency to 'default to the bad'. It was suggested that our brains are in some way wired to detect threat and generally focus upon a negative even if it is hidden amongst a whole host of positives. In our own pressurised situations it is perhaps crucial that we as teachers are able to counteract our own 'threats' before being in a position to help others.

An award - but sadly for the worst selfie... you're going some when the organisers are compelled to create an entirely new category...

All in all the first Teach Meet Devon was a resounding success. The subsequent Twitter buzz lasted for many days after - it was great to see the marvellous ideas presented being put into immediate implementation in classrooms across the region. Congratulations Gary King and Tavistock College and I very much look forward to next year!

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Staying Creative

Amidst the rigours and demands of full time teaching it can be difficult to maintain a balance between what you want to do and what you have to do. At the very beginning of this year I set myself one overarching target: to ensure that I still take the time to pursue my own interests and hobbies. I am glad to have, by and large, achieved this. 

Not only will setting this time aside contribute to a more balanced lifestyle than the alternative, but I would argue that it will likewise bring associated benefits to the classroom. A teacher who leads and enjoys a fulfilling life outside of the confines of the school walls must inevitably bring back to their teaching a renewed energy and enthusiasm. 

Though my own recreational pursuits focus predominantly on musical/dramatic and sporting endeavours, I have also this year completed the latest year of my MA Ed qualification. As part of this year's module I was required to submit a portfolio of my own creative writing. Having taken a module in playwriting as part of my first degree, I was looking forward to this challenge, though not a little anxious at the demands it would invariably place on my ever-decreasing time. 

I need not have worried. Yes - I was still writing right up until the deadline but, in the main, the process was enjoyable, therapeutic, and, most excitingly, illuminating in terms of the process of actually being a writer. Never again would I underestimate the challenges faced by my students required to produce a piece of writing in artificially imposed conditions. They are not afforded the luxury of thinking time in the shower or during a run, or of critical self-reflection and improvement in a twenty minute period. Nor are they often given the opportunity to write whatever they like! An imposed structure, or suggestions for content, can be useful as scaffolding, or indeed be a requirement for certain types of technical writing, yet if this is the only writing that students are faced with, surely their motivation will suffer. My module came with a completely open brief. I could be playful, experimental and daring, safe in the knowledge that I was permitted to submit, alongside three completed pieces, fragments, beginnings and extracts. 

The focus was on process rather than product.

A whole host of implications for my teaching of writing have arisen as a result of this work and I have been reminded of a poem I wrote during my PGCE year (reproduced below). This poem simply needed to use original words formed by blending two existing ones - the writing followed a brief consideration of Blake's language in The Tyger. Other than this one simple rule I was free to use my imagination (more difficult for some than others admittedly) and be playful with my own invented language.

If my original premise was to maintain an effective lifestyle balance in order to bring benefits into the classroom, should I not also be attempting to facilitate the conditions for playfulness and safe experimentation in my teaching in which my students, and their writing, might flourish? 


Toxious, angstsome, they caravalled
Flaisily through stromes of raylings.
So crimpsy proved the shadouettes
For those who stross from dayfings.

They go and still no traven found
'Neath night's new furléd mattressack.
Onwards press they, for mitric fray
Ensoaks their heartsome hack.

Never forget what sneeps revind
For loss of haith spells astion - 
And once gone doss there's no recourse...
Save superinduceration!

With novely garstered stroughts of strense
A goracious effempt instorts.
No more the mits of tripal froom
Will boldness insubort.

They change their course and back new brage,
The froathal foe to troynal.
There's one last chance: the final dance,
In this life's epsome entral.

Sunday, 21 June 2015


Over the past six months or so I have benefited profoundly from the plethora of educational blogs and Tweets that have been generously shared by professionals from all around the world. Although I have not yet been teaching for a long time, the CPD which has been afforded by these avenues has been among the best I have experienced. 

Around the turn of the year I was tasked with redesigning my school's KS3 English curriculum. This has proven to be, once getting past the undeniably daunting and overwhelming nature of the task, immensely rewarding and a challenge packed full of creativity and opportunity. My thanks to a host of voices from whom I have gleaned tips and advice throughout the process so far, including, amongst others, Rebecca Foster (@TLPMrsF), Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher), David Didau (@learningspy), Michael Tidd (@MichaelT1979) and Daisy Christodolou (@daisychristo). 

Adding to the challenge of allocating curriculum content across Years 7-9 has been the ubiquitous difficulty of designing new assessment frameworks to be operational for September as National Curriculum levels fade away. I hope to share my progress so far in an upcoming post. I am all too aware that what is being created is by no means the finished product, nor is it an example of a perfect assessment system, but what we are moving towards is something based upon best practice from around the country and something which will be flexible enough to be adapted after a period of reflection on its worth. 

Of full agreement in our department is that we have a rare opportunity to make real, tangible improvements to our KS3 provision (and indeed our beginnings have recently been backed by OFSTED). Underpinning the process of redesign has been a set of core principles which were outlined at the very earliest stage. By revisiting these guidelines at regular intervals we are ensuring that our changes are first and foremost based upon our own pedagogical values with support from a broader professional consensus.

In a draft form our values are as follows:

  • the teaching of writing must come out of reading and the study of existing examples
  • students should be immersed in rich and varied examples of language
  • grammar may be taught explicitly but always contextualised (i.e. draw out the effects of a text, identify the components causing the effect, and add meta-linguistic terminology to describe those techniques)
  • the teaching of spelling should be integrated throughout schemes of learning and come from an etymological and morphological perspective in accordance with David Crystal's views on rule-bound teaching (see 'Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling' - 2012)
  • students should be afforded regular opportunities for 'real-purpose' writing
  • speaking and listening should be re-prioritised and oracy for literacy promoted
  • text-internal inference should be taught explicitly from the earliest point (Williams, Jazz C, 2015)
  • learning is gradual; skills must be returned to at regular intervals in order to become embedded - topics should not be rushed.
It is our hope that our new curriculum and methods of assessment will set up our students for success in the subsequent phases of their education, but that it will also ignite in them an excitement for the subject and a love for learning more generally. These are, of course, lofty ambitions, but if we don't have the highest hopes for, and expectations of, our own practice and for the achievements of our students then is any of this really worth doing?