Sunday, 25 June 2017

September INSET: What are we supposed to do when….?

The world is full of ideas and thoughts. We try to coexist in a society of differing ideas. Twitter is a sea of different thoughts and ideas. Some we like. Some we don’t like. For me, it is how you deal with new ideas that shows me your character and personality.

Generally, people don’t like to change. That’s why we have the same breakfast every day and park in the same place at work regularly. We feel safe with patterns of behaviour and repetition. That’s why people love a system in schools. This is what I should do in this situation. Repeat.

The more I work in schools, the more I feel that the success of any teacher, school and department is not random greatness, but systematic routines and refined processes. That’s why I am watching one school with interest. What if the systems in a school were so explicit and refined that there is no deviation from norm? In developing my department, we have looked at developing and refining existing systems. Made some explicit. Made some more streamlined. Made some disappear. The role of a team is to look, revise, change and amend the systems. What is the system for spelling? What is the system for promoting reading?

So when do most schools decide to make those changes in school? The first day back. Yep, across the land there are people deciding on the new initiatives and systems ready for introduction in September. There are new marking systems and codes being typed up. There are posters on the new behaviour policy being printed. In fact, Term 6 is the pinnacle of new initiatives. They are being primed for that INSET day in September. September is the time, for most, to ram the new idea down teacher’s throats.

Personally, September is possibly the worst time to introduce new things – well, apart from new staff and new students. September is the time when teachers are adjusting to the fact they have to work. They have to recall the systems they used last year. You add new ideas and new staff in the mix and you have a conflict of ideas. A conflict of old and new. What September usually ends up being is a confusing situation. Established staff adapt to flip between new systems and old systems. The new staff struggle to define what they should do because the systems are in flux.

You can’t suddenly switch to a new idea. You need to grow it in people’s minds. Prepare people mentally and physically for change. People will accept changes, but they need time to adjust to it. We owe it to our staff to be understanding of how people deal with change. Of course, people will reject ideas if you just switch things quickly. Of course, people will struggle to change when instantly they are expected to ditch one system for a new sparkly system.

Why do teachers see the profession are stressful? Could it be that the changes are made without a thought for the impact on the way teachers think? The recent GCSE in English and Maths highlighted that fact. We didn’t have appropriate time to adjust to the changes. The specs were completed and then then next month we were teaching the course.

Ideas need to grow in a person’s mind. The teacher needs time to adjust and explore the idea. Then the person is ready to follow that idea later.  We did just that this week. We introduced an idea this term in preparation for September. Then, we will just remind people of the idea.

We need to work hard at making teaching less stressful and demanding. Understand that the flow of new ideas in schools can be a huge source of stress.

I love Twitter, but I understand it come be stressful. There are tonnes and tonnes of new ideas out there. It can be a little bit overwhelming. That’s why some people are driven away by it. That is also why people get so angry on here; they feel the need to shout about their idea to be heard. It is also the reason why people can be so unpleasant sometimes; it is because they fear their idea will not be heard.

Twitter is a symposium of ideas. Ideas should be explored, discussed and then a person can make a judgement. Like the structure of a sonnet, there’s an idea and then an alternative view of the point and then one last issue to think about. Idea – but – however. But, more importantly, people need time to adjust to an idea.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 18 June 2017

Turning the indicators on

Exam marking season is finally upon us. As I type this at my own pace and inclination, I know that there are several hundred teachers waking up to marking. They are in the process of marking hundreds and hundreds of scripts and probably regretting the decision, when they look out of the window and see glorious sunshine.

I have no desire to mark.
You could try to persuade as much as you like, but this man is not for turning…yet! One job I’d happily do with glee is to write the indicative content for exam boards. I’d happily do that job. I’d do it with aplomb.

The new GCSEs has changed my way of presenting assessments to staff and students. To get my head round the new GCSE, I have created indicative content sheets for all the assessments students have sat and I have loved every minute of it. But, it has made me realise that we do undervalue indicative content in lessons in English.

For years, I have walked into a classroom armed with a blank text and mined it for interesting nuggets of information and language devices. I walk in armed with a few things to point out. Usually, we have my ideas and several ideas from the class mixed together. The pace of this can be slow. It is, however, an organic process. We layer one idea on top of another idea.  Things snowball and combine. And, at the end we have a text annotated in detail and some reasonable points.

What if we utilised indicative content more in lessons? What if it was a regular part of the teaching? What if we are more transparent about the range of ideas a student could provide for a question?

Take this question I am using with a class tomorrow. Students are going to be given the extract and the question. They will have 5 minutes to bullet-point ideas.

How does Shakespeare present Romeo’s love for Juliet in the extract?
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!  

Indicative Content

·         Beyond the physical realm

·         Perfect and  pure

·         Obsession

·         Glorification

·         Monomania

·         Opposite of everything else

·         Unique / special  

·         Sexual

Language Features

·         Metaphor – ‘light through yonder window’

·         Metaphor  ‘Juliet is the sun’

·         Contrast of ‘sun’ and ‘moon’

·         Contrast of  adjectives ‘fair’ and ‘envious’

·         Light and darkness imagery

·         Disease imagery

·         Repetition of ‘envious’

·         Repetition of ‘O’

·         Repetition of  ‘It is my …’

·         Repetition of pronoun ‘my’

·         Repetition of noun ‘maid’

·         Starts and end with exclamations

·         Use of imperatives

·         Structured with a question followed by an answer to the question

·         Sentences shorten when confident

·         Reference to Goddess Diana

·         Reference to sexuality – vestal livery

Of course, there will be more and I will add to them over day. When I have taken some of the students’ ideas, I will reveal these lists and develop their understanding and knowledge of the text.

Indicative content isn’t about making the student feel stupid because they didn’t find something. It is about branching out and opening the synaptic pathways, making them see things and the possibilities. The danger is that students see indicative content as a tick list, so that is why it is so important we stress that indicative content is about possibilities. To develop the range of points a student covers in their analysis, we need to develop their experience of points.

A student becomes a better reader by reading more. Therefore, providing student with more content will provide students with more content for their future analysis of texts. If I show students that they could refer to the repetition of a pronoun in one extract, they will recall it when they refer to another text.

Shakespeare is tough, but rewarding. So, it is important that we help students become better at analysing it. Yes, we could focus on one technique at a time and help them that way, but by the GCSE course they should be able to cope with multiple techniques and multiple ideas. We need them to see multiple aspects and have a knowledge of those multiple aspects. We need them to develop their knowledge.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 11 June 2017

I digress. A lesson on digression.

Phew! I am glad that election is over. The endless talks from politicians highlighted how very few of them get to the point. Many of them spend their whole time deflecting the question. How many ‘more important questions’ have been raised in response to an interviewer’s question? No wonder Paxman can’t stop bullying people to answer the question, when a person tries to actually answer the question.  

This is a lesson I did with a bright group of students on developing anecdotes. They told me some pretty woeful anecdotes. So, I thought hard about what they needed to do to improve. The problem for them wasn’t the story. The story was fine, but like all comedians tell you, the story is only part of the act. The problem wasn’t the delivery too. Actually, it was the sense of drama. They jumped to the narrative too quickly. There was no build up. There was no digression.  

To get the idea across, I used the idea of metaphor. Well, two actually.

1: Somebody pushing the camera away when something bad is unfolding whilst you, the reader, try to push the camera back to see what is happening.

2: A person walks before a TV screen as you watch it.

I then explained the following to students:

Digression – moving away from the main story

  1. Introduce an unrelated topic
  2. Describe something unnecessary in great detail
  3. Introduce another story
  4. Introduce something the reader might know

Together, we explored the purpose of digression and the benefits of using it.  

·         To create a sense of tension

·         To build us suspense

·         To make the story for interesting

·         To convey a sense of atmosphere

·         To add humour to a humourless situation

Then, I provided students with a dull, collective story. Every class has that story they can share with the teacher. The time Sophie spewed her lunch over the desk. The time Tom farted when laughing. The time the teacher actually said a word that added the letter ‘h’ when asking a student to sit down. Ours just happened to involve me trying to give an Ofsted inspector a set of books. You had to be there at the time – the students thought it was hilarious. On paper, it is pretty dull.

Version 1:

The day Ofsted visited.
The class were studying Macbeth and we had started the lesson by focusing on an aspect of a key scene.
I was keen to impress the inspector, so I offered him a set of assessment books.
He ignored my offer.
I then repeated the offer.
He refused.
I then tried again.
Then, he refused, again.
Finally, a look of panic appeared on his face: he was in the wrong room; he wasn’t supposed to be observing me.
He made his apologies and left.
I still had the books in my hands. 

I instructed students to add some digression on the page. Now, I laid it out with one sentence on each line so that students could see the different opportunities, places and chances for digression.  

One version.

The day Ofsted visited. The dreaded moment every teacher waits. In fact, I think I’d rather have to teach a whole class of Alans than have one simple inspector observe me.  

The class were studying Macbeth and we had started the lesson by focusing on an aspect of a key scene. We had just Jenny’s Oscar winning performance of Lady Macbeth shouting at her husband. Well, Oscar winning performance is probably an exaggeration. An exaggeration in the same way that a candle is a bright as the sun. In fact, acting probably, at that one moment, decided to pack its bag and spend a long vacation in a different country.    

I was keen to impress the inspector, so I offered him a set of assessment books. They were lovingly presented. Only a doily could have improved on the presentation.

He ignored my offer. Having regularly taught teenagers, I am used to being brushed off or ignored.

I then repeated the offer.

He refused. I then started to worry. This was my one way I thought I could prove

I then tried again.

Then, he refused, again.  Had he spotted Alan dozing asleep? Alan seemed able to sleep through wars. Surely, Alan could last a twenty minute visit from an inspector.

Finally, a look of panic appeared on his face: he was in the wrong room; he wasn’t supposed to be observing me. He hadn’t spotted Alan.

He made his apologies and left.

I still had the books in my hands. 

Because this was a collective anecdote, students were able to put little in-jokes and comical asides, which will be lost on you dear reader. But, the results of this generated some really interesting digression. One student went around the bushes and hills and mountains at one point explaining a point. One student gave us another anecdote within the main one that over shadowed it. Another student decided to digress by exploring the inner workings of my brain.

Finally, I got students to revise their own anecdotes.  All too often student think that writing more is the secret to making better stories. Yes, you could make the writing more interesting by adding figurative language. But, interestingly, a story can be made better with a healthy bit of digression.

Sorry, I digress: so the election. What an interesting result, don’t you think?

Thanks for reading,

Sunday, 21 May 2017

AQA Paper 1 Exam Hacks - focusing on effect

More exam hacks. This time I am looking at the language papers and paper 1.

I have written numerous sample answers, so I have sat scratching my head, working out what is needed. Until a cohort has sat a paper, I believe a lot of these ideas are experimental. So, take them with a ‘pinch of salt’. Some might be effective. Some might not be.  (That’s my disclaimer, folks)   

Two major structural hacks are for Question 2 / Question 3.

Question 2  


Paragraph 1: Analyse two words

Paragraph 2: Analyse two techniques

Paragraph 3: Analyse one thing about the use of sentences

Question 3

Paragraph 1: Explore narrative perspective by exploring the statement describing the text

Paragraph 2: Explore a structural change (mood /perspective) in the text

Paragraph 3: Explore the ending and how it links or contrasts to the start    

Paper 1: Reading Section Exam Hacks

1: Make sure you write one whole sentence in each point explaining the effect.

 We automatically sympathise and identify with him.

We as readers become clear about the cause of the noise.

2: Use one of these four things when talking about the effect.

Mood                    Atmosphere                      a sense of ….                      A feeling of

3: Mention the word ‘writer’ at least three times and the word ‘reader’ four times in questions 2, 3 and 4.

4: Use the royal ‘we’ (or ‘us’) when explaining when explaining the reader and the impact of the choices.

       We automatically sympathise and identify with him

       makes us trust his judgment even more.

       We’d be less likely to believe

       We as readers become clear

       We are in the same position as the start

5:  Think about what verb to use to describe the reader’s reaction

The reader sympathises / empathises / identifies / experiences   

6: The effect can also be a question.

What is behind the door?

What is making that noise?

Why is the narrator so interested in the letter?

7: Where does the writer position the reader? Is the writer trying to connect or repel the reader to events?

The writer puts the reader in the position of helpless (or active)  observer / confidant / participant / witness   

8:  What is the reader’s relationship with the character /narrator? Does the writer want you to like / dislike / hate the character? Or, does he want you to be suspicious?

The writer wants the reader to be suspicious about the man’s motives and so presents as a kind character who acts strangely.

9: Never forget power. The effect of a technique can often be linked to power. It can be used to make things seem inferior / superior or equal.

The violent verbs make the storm superior to the house and the people in it.

10: Readers have expectations too.

Readers will be expecting to see …

Readers expect ….

Readers will believe ….

11: Think about perspective and the effect of the perspective. Which perspective do you trust?  

       1st person – closer – understanding – relationship – connection

       3rd person – distant – mystery- revealing – helpless

Or tense:

Past – fixed – inevitable - predictable – helpless

Present – changeable – unpredictable- involved

12: Think about what is the normal way of presenting this kind of story.

Normally a writer would…

It is common for writers to…

Usually writers start by ….

A typical way to introduce a setting is to…  

13: The writer’s grand design! Address the idea that there is a masterplan under all the writing.

The writer intended … so

The writer designed it so ….

The writer planned for us to …. so  

The writer wanted the reader to …. so

14: If you are not convinced by the writer’s grand design, then say he/she is trying.

The writer is trying to make the reader curious about what is happening.

The writer is trying to make the reader sympathise with the narrator.

The writer is trying to make us feel like we are there.

15: Adverbs are your friends when writing question 4. They can go at the start or within a sentence.  

Typically, …. Realistically,…. Stereotypically, … Effectively, … Unusually, … Unrealistically, … Surprisingly, … Unsurprising, …

16: Explore alternative choices. If…, then….

If the narrator was a child, we’d be less likely to believe that there is something wrong going on.

Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Poetry Exam Hacks

I love quick simple hacks or cheats. The closer I get to the exam , the more I look for short simple strategies to get students to upscale their work. One such one is this one below.

The often get students to look at emotion / perspective / message as three separate entities. Students usually start sentences with - the reader feels / the poem's perspective is / the message of the poem is.
Getting students to think of three words, as revision,  for the poems helps them to be precise with their vocabulary. One word for emotion. One word for perspective. One word for the message.
It looks a bit like this:
Shelley’s sad, bleak and defeatist poem ‘Ozymandias’ attacks….

As a starting point, I gave students a quick list like this:

One word about the emotion – positive / angry / gentle / romantic / aggressive

One word about the perspective – distant / close / optimistic / pessimistic / male / female

One word about the message – anti-war / propaganda / biased / patriotic 

Obviously, there are many more words, but the combination is important.

More examples:
Blake's melancholy, distant, political poem 'London' challenges...
Tennyson's proud, public, propaganda 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' highlights....

Here are some more hacks. I am posting now, because of the time. There is no point saving it for the weekend, as time is running out.


15 Quick tips to improve your poetry analysis

1.       Use but or yet when explaining complex ideas.

The poem conveys how the experience is painful, yet important to the mother.

2.       Develop your interpretations by building up meaning with shows / suggests / symbolises.

The poem shows us a mother reflecting on a child going to war, which suggests how much this has had an impact on here. The poem symbolises the struggle families have in war.

3.       Use adverbs at the start of sentences – Literally…. Figuratively…. Symbolically….

Literally, the poem is about a mother’s loss. Symbolically, the poem is about how soldiers’ lives are ignored and taken for granted.
*Thanks to Caroline Spalding for this one.
4.       More adverbs – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritual, psychologically

Use these adverbs to help explain ideas in the poems.

‘Exposure’ explores how war affects people physically and mentally, but ‘Poppies’ focuses on how it affects people spiritually and psychologically.

5.       Lists are your friends. List emotions / techniques / ideas / phrases.

The poet challenges, explores and develop his fear, anger and frustration of war with lists and  rhetorical questions.

6.       Think about the verbs you use to describe what the poet is doing – challenges / reflects / embodies / attacks. The verb you use helps you explain how the poet is presenting his / her message.

The poet attacks the leaders of war – the poet is aggressive and angry

The poet reflects the loss a parent faces in war – the poet is calm

7.       Use adverbs to evaluate the poem – stereotypical / unusually / typically / realistically / unconventionally / surprisingly / convincingly / unconvincingly

8.       Combine techniques together – use ‘and’ and link word /techniques together

The poet uses lists and exaggeration to highlight how bad things were.

The poet uses the adjectives ‘small’ and ‘tiny’ to make the reader feel superior.

9.       Think about power. So use the words – inferior, superior, equal, inequality

My Last Duchess highlights male superiority and gender inequality in society.

10.   Put an adjective before a technical term 

The writer uses violent verbs and physical adjectives to ….

11.   Think about using one of these words to sum up the structure of the poem – a journey / a discovery / a realisation – then add some adverbs /adjectives 

The poem is a mental journey

The poem is an emotional realisation

12.    Use the phrase – it could also- to add another interpretation.

It could also be a study of the complexity of war.

13.   Use tentative statements – perhaps / maybe / possibly

Perhaps, the writer intends the reader to …

14.   Use lots of one word quotes

The writer uses ‘pain’ and ‘torture’ to highlight the endless ‘suffering’ experienced by the men.

15.   Show off with your emotions – avoid using simple emotions like happy, sad, angry. Use emotions like frustration, envy, dismay and many more.  

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Precision in writing – the Show Sentence  

This week I found a student standing outside one of the English classrooms. I asked my usual question: Why are you standing outside? The student, unfortunately for them, used the word ‘apparently’ in their response. I then proceeded to explain that one word ‘signified’ their guilt in the wrongdoing.  Most teachers know that ‘apparently’ used in story is often used to deflect blame and responsibility, by questioning the teacher. Apparently, I…..

The precise use of words is important and cannot be stressed to students enough, but that precision in writing can be quite hard. Recently,I have been using the Michaela ‘Show Sentence’. The principle is quite straightforward: you build a sentence by exploring synonyms and building it up in stages. See here for more details and examples. From a teaching point of view, I like it because it provides a great backbone to textual analysis.

The playwright unites alliteration, emotive language and a simile to underline the urgency of the matter.

The playwright blends anaphora, contrasts and an extended metaphor to suggest the complexity of the subject.

Now, the ‘Show Sentence’ has quite a lot of uses in the new GCSE. I have found it incredibly helpful in preparing students for Question 2, Paper 1 (AQA). Students have to identify a technique and comment on its effect. The show sentence is very helpful for working on this structure. But, it has been much more useful than that to me. There I was happily teaching the sentence and working with it when I came to the techniques and started thinking.  

The writer fuses the adjective ‘_______’  with the verb ‘_____’  to…

I then got students to think of adjectives to describe the adjective and the verb.

The writer fuses the unsettling adjective ‘_________’ with the violent verb ‘______’ to ….

This led to phrases like:

The playwright merges the subtly violent verb ‘drugg’d’…

The playwright combines the harsh verb ‘drugg’d’…

The playwright combines the insulting verb ‘mock’…

The playwright integrates the demanding verb ‘Hark’…

The playwright unites the unsettling noun ‘death’ and the peaceful noun ‘nature’…

What impressed me most with this, is that one little adjective, before the term, added so much meaning and precision to the analysis. Sometimes we are just happy for them to spot the technique. What if we made more of the type of technique used by the writer? We are forever looking at techniques and literary devices, but we don’t often explore 'the what' more. We are quick to move to the writer’s purpose and the reader’s feelings before we analyse the choice made.  

What kind of verb is used?

What kind of adjective is used?

What type of simile is used?

What type of contrast is used?

Students obsess on the identification and the translating of a device: the writer uses a smile of a cat to make us see he is sneaky. Students rarely classify the technique. In fact, in my experience, it is usually the most able students who do it and that is usually a natural thing.

Therefore, can we classify a simile?

The writer uses an animal simile

The writer uses an exaggerated simile

The writer uses an inappropriate simile

The writer uses a clichéd simile

The adjectives alone show a precise understanding of the simile used.

Animal – the content of the simile    

Exaggerated – effect of the simile

Inappropriate- effect of the simile

Clichéd - evaluating the choice of simile

One little word can add so much more meaning to the analysis. You don’t need the big guns of explores, suggests and implies to get to some meaningful and effective points of analysis.

Then there are the possible alternatives:

Animal / Landscape / Mechanical

Exaggerated / Subtle

Inappropriate / Relevant / Personal / Impersonal

Clichéd / Realistic / Powerful / Predictable / Unique / Unusual   

The great thing about this is that I didn’t spend ages making PowerPoints of loads of different words students could use; I simply tell students to put an adjective before the term. This is a list of words I got from my most recent lesson:

strong, deadly, soft, powerful, demanding, subtle, extreme, aggressive, indirect, violent, vague, possessive, unsettling, insulting, peaceful, harsh.

It will come as no surprise that the students were analysing the language of Lady Macbeth. One simple adjective can add so much more meaning to the analysis. The next stage would be to develop the adjectives and combine or link them creating longer noun phrases, but that’s probably another lesson.

So, when that student used that vague, tactical and predictable adverb ‘apparently’ they had little understanding of the significance it would have that week…apparently.  

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 29 April 2017

A pen licence? It is only just a stupid piece of plastic

I am a dad.

A wise teacher once told me that when you become a parent, your view on teaching changes. And, in truth, it does subtly. I feel I understand some parents better. I feel I understand children better. My experiences as a parent has put me in the situations that many students and parents deal with daily and weekly. I have seen bullying, friendship fallouts, a lack of confidence and many more things from the perspective of a parent. That’s not to say that a teacher must have a child to be a better teacher. My goodness, no - I don’t want to spark a quick increase in the national birth rate. Some teachers are naturally astute and empathic and can understand things far better than I could ever do. Having a child just jumped started those dormant empathic tendencies.  

I am a dad and as a dad I was put in a situation that made me think.

I have twins. This week, one twin got her pen licence.

A pen licence is a privilege for students. It allows them to write with a pen, if their handwriting is good enough. Students, in some primary schools, have to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in their handwriting before they get their licence. The purpose of it is to raise the standard of handwriting with a dash of healthy competition.

Being married to a primary teacher, I knew of the pen licence and thought nothing of it. I assumed it was a good idea. As a secondary teacher, I thought it okay and acceptable as it promoted legible handwriting. It must work if lots of teachers do it.
Then, only one twin got her pen licence. And then my thoughts and feelings changed. One child was happy. The other child was in absolute tears. I was faced with a situation I had never been through before. A child crying over a pen. Yep, a silly stupid pen. We have hundreds of the bleeding things at home. I have loads at work too. A pen. But, for a nine year old this pen meant so much more. To her, it was a badge of acceptance. To her, it was badge of her friendship group. To her, it was her social standing in the class. The absence of a lump of plastic had transformed her view of the classroom.

She cried and cried over this piece of plastic. My attempts, as a father, failed to console her. It is only a stupid pen? I just hadn’t got it. All her friends had one except her. She had worked so hard for one.
The use of a dunce hat had been rejected in society a long time ago, but the lack of pen is just another form of that hat for my daughter. She felt stupid, less and different. But, here is the rub. She had a visual cue to show that she was different. Her friends had pens; she had a pencil. For in the eyes of a nine year old, pencils are for babies and pens are for grownups. One simple handing out of a pen changed the social make-up of the class. People on the same level before are now on different levels. She felt stupid, less and different.

I am a dad and a father to twins. One twin got a pen licence. One twin did not. The twin that got the licence was able bodied. The twin that didn’t get the licence was not able bodied.

The daughter, who struggles mentally and emotionally to see herself as equal to her peers because she has a disability called Cerebral Palsy, felt stupid, less and different. My daughter walks and runs differently. She wears different clothes and different shoes to her peers. Now, added to those differences she has another visual sign of being different to others. It is just a stupid pen!
At times, I think is it just me. Am I just sensitive because I have a daughter with a disability? These are some of the following things people have shared with me.

A boy was teased in his class because all his friends had a pen licence and he was the only one in the friendship group that didn’t have one.
A girl would never get a pen licence because she had Cerebral Palsy and she used a laptop.
Dyslexic children never getting a pen licence.
A boy never getting his pen licence throughout his whole time in primary school.

The more I talked about it, the more it alarmed me as a parent. I keep thinking there must be another way to make students write better. My daughter’s world crumbled. Thankfully, she is better now, but it will have an impact on her time in school. But, she will return to the classroom and write with a pencil while her friends and her sister write with a pen. Students are not always of the same ability, but we don’t stick a badge on students that can’t read or write. Only when you look at a student’s work do we see that they struggle to spell, yet a pencil is a badge. A badge that says you are not grow up enough to hold a pen. So if the pen licence is such a good thing, let’s have other licences. For each one, give students a badge.
A badge for reading.
A badge for spelling.
A badge for counting up to ten. 
A badge for writing in sentences.
A badge for using commas.

My daughter might not be ready for the pen licence. That I can handle. However, I can’t handle the impact it has had on our lives. It has upset my daughter, my wife and me as a result of this lump of plastic. Becoming a parents makes you see the tiny ripples and the big waves they make. A pen licence is a tiny ripple but it makes huge waves, emotionally and mentally.
I love primary teachers (I have a ring on my finger to prove it), but I am asking a question as a dad now and not as a teacher: is a pen licence an effective way of improving handwriting?

Convince me, a parent, that a pen licence is worth it. I have only really seen the demoralising impact of it.

Thanks for reading,

Note: I am not questioning or judging any teacher using it in their lessons; I am questioning and challenging the idea and its use.

Friday, 21 April 2017

A novel approach

I was a little bit excited when the new GCSEs were being compiled by the different exam boards. There was a big sell. I recall being at one event where I had representatives from different exam boards telling me about how their course is the right one for me. There was the odd difference, but the main selling points were focused on support and resources. This exam board offered exam papers. This exam board offered online materials. This exam board offered KS3 assessments. I admit I was persuaded by the last one. Ooo. It suggested to me some thorough planning and thought. The sad reality is I got watered down GCSE papers. Should KS3 just be watered down GCSE work? Should we be getting Year 7s to start with the English GCSE papers? After all, five year’s practice will help.

I should imagine the summer will create a big thinking point for teachers, and leaders, to look at how the each year prepares students. The GCSEs are not the only measure for developing a curriculum, but they are unfortunately a measuring stick to judge whether your curriculum is robust, challenging and effective enough. That’s why I think just repeating the assessments in Years 7,8 and 9 will not make improvements. We need some big ideas behind the curriculum. Now, I could become obsessed with the assessment objectives, yawn, and bring them down to Year 7. Come on class. Repeat after me: Assessment Objective One is to… Or, I could get students to read ‘A Christmas Carol annually. Come on Year 7, this is the book you will be studying for your GCSEs; we are going to study it every year until you have fully understood it.

In my school, we have units of work each year covering Shakespeare and Victorian Literature.

Shakespeare goes roughly like this:

Year 7 – Look at the context of Shakespeare’s theatre and the opening scenes of various plays 

Year 8 – Look at Macbeth and the structure of a scene

Year 9 – Look at Much Ado About Nothing / Tempest / Julius Caesar and explore a theme across the whole play

Year 10 – Look at Romeo and Juliet and study every scene in detail 

Year 11 – Revise Romeo and Juliet

We are building up knowledge and experience and confidence with handling of texts. We match this with Victorian Literature over the years to include several different characters from various Dickens novels, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. Therefore, by the time students start GCSE they have covered Victorian attitudes towards childhood, education, class and poverty.

But, how do we plan for the language GCSEs? That’s a thought that is echoing and echoing in my head. How do we teach and prepare students for this new GCSE? The simple answer: get them to read lots and lots of fiction and non-fiction. But, surely, repeating the same questions again and again isn’t really developing students. Plus, it will make our curriculums dull and repetitive. That’s why this year I tried a different approach with teaching a novel.

This year, with my Year 7s, I am teaching ‘Treasure Island’. I am blooming loving it too. The last sentence of every chapter is a treat. Anyway, I decided to look at the big things:


Occasionally, I get this slide on and get students to explore the relationship between the two. And, we discuss and measure what we think….I think the chapter is mostly about the character. Nah, I think it is about the setting.

And, then, I raise the simple question: Why should the writer focus on this here?

The combination of the two aspects has produced some excellent discussions about the structuring of the story. It has made a group of Year 7s explore some clever structuring of the novel and created some interesting interpretations. They have been able to distinguish between chapters focusing on character and chapters on plot - and some that do both.  

We’ve had discussions on how the opening few chapters are mainly focused on mood and setting. Then, Stevenson introduces a series of chapters focusing on character. One character after another. We discussed how Stevenson presents us with a line-up of rogues, so when Long John Silver is introduced we are glad for somebody pleasant, friendly and not dull to enter Jim’s life. We also made interesting points about how setting is a massive component of the opening, yet the actual ‘Treasure Island’ is thrust to the side in favour of plot. Stevenson focuses so much on atmosphere in the opening chapters, but we get brief and glib descriptions in the middle of the book.

From this approach, I am starting think that we may need to look explicitly at how these elements interact. All too often we separate these elements of texts as separate components. We might zoom in on character. Or, we might focus on ideas or themes. We usually try to link these components at the end. So, how does the writer present the theme of deception? Surely, we need to have these components interacting continually. They are so reliant on each other.

What a writer is doing with setting, character, plot, mood and ideas at any one moment is important? The fact that one is more dominant than another at a specific moment is telling. However, students can’t see that unless we are discuss all at the same time. All too often, we helicopter from one aspect to another. Look at how Steinbeck uses character and setting in ‘Of Mice and Men’. Look at how Steinbeck uses character and ideas. Look at how Steinbeck uses all the components. All at the same time.

So rather than giving Year 7s watered down GCSE exam papers, we should give them GCSE thinking and ideas.

Teach the different types of characters and ways writers present characters.

Teach the way writers use settings for effect.

Teach the way writers create mood in a chapter.

Teach the different ways writers can develop the plot of a story.

Teach the way writers present events.

Teach the different ways writers present an idea.

But, while we are teaching these aspects, we should link them together. The writer has just introduced this character to us, but how does the character link to the setting? Does the character fit in or stand out with this setting? Is the setting important to the character? Will the character change the setting? Is the character affected by the setting? Why should the writer pick that setting?

The following GCSE questions should not be used to death.

How has the writer used language…?

How is the text structured for interest?

How far do you agree…. ?

Lesson 1 in Year 7 shouldn’t be about preparing for GCSEs. We should be focusing on the big ideas and not the small questions. The question might have a massive impact on lots of things in school, but we are simply narrowing the breadth of study if from Year 7 onwards we repeat the exam questions with different extracts from texts.

We have followed a fairly logical curriculum with prose study.

Year 7 - character

Year 8 -  setting

Year 9 -  themes  

Now, I am looking at what aspects I should interweave and explicitly teach over the different years. Teach explicitly aspects of character each year, developing the complexity as we go along. I am possibly looking at something like this:

Year 7 – Types of character / stock characters

Year 8 – Role of characters in narrative / minor or major characters / foils / symbolism   

Year 9 –Realism / development / character arcs / character journey

This is just my first thoughts, but I am sure I will change and reflect as things develop. At the same time, I will look at setting, plot, events, etc.   

I love a good story and English is the best subject for that: we create story tellers and consumers. We should be growing those lovers of story. Those little GCSE questions have the power to warp a big and vast curriculum. Think about your planning for next year. Think about the big ideas behind those questions and ignore those small questions. Teach character or setting and teach all aspects of it. We limit ourselves if we are driven by the question and the exam. How many times have students started an A-level course underprepared because the GCSE focus was so narrow? 
Thanks for reading,