Sunday, 29 October 2017

A question of pace and differentiation

In all my time in teaching, there are words that are bounded about in meetings, discussions and lesson observations and those are ‘pace’ and ‘differentiation’. There is, however, much more to pace than a timer on a PowerPoint and there is more to differentiation than a selection of multi-coloured sheets all will varying levels of complexity. Personally, for me, the secret to the two is questioning.

Questioning makes a lesson pacey.

Questioning is a form of differentiation.

The problem with questioning is that we get so loaded with the types of question, we simply forget the function of a question in any given context. Yes, knowing a closed and open is helpful. So too is blooming ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ handy. Oh and you mustn’t forget your high-order questioning. But, understanding why you are using questions is vital.

A question can be used to check, remind, push, challenge and many more things. Take these following questions.  What is their function?
Jamie, what did we say last lesson was the way to approach this question?

Polly, what are we supposed to be doing now?

Zoe, why am I asking you a question now instead of Victoria?

Liz, how does this approach used by the writer link to ‘Great Expectation’ we studied in Year 8?

Jo, how much is Mr Curtis’ expecting from you?

Sarah-Jane, what is the mistake you need to keep avoiding?

Harry, do you think there would be a better approach to answering this question?

Leela, what have you done in RE that links to this aspect?

Romana, that answer’s fine for the class, but how would you rephrase that for the exam?

Adric, what’s a more formal way of saying ‘bloke’?

Tegan, what did I say was really important for you to remember?

We all know that ‘no hands up’ approach is favoured in some circumstances, because it stops some students from being passive in lessons. It is occasionally not helpful when you are exploring existing knowledge of a topic or for quick recall of knowledge. However, the teacher has an integral role in the classroom and that is to orchestrate the learning. The delivery of the task alone is not learning alone. You have to point your baton at the wind instruments. Tell the percussion instruments to quieten it down. Ultimately, the teacher is responsible for the learning and, like music, its flow in the classroom. So, what does each of those questions do? What is its function as side for improving learning, duh?

Jamie, what did we say last lesson was the way to approach this question?

Recalling knowledge from a previous lesson.

Polly, what are we supposed to be doing now?

Putting a student back on track or making a student start the task who usually takes time to get started.

Zoe, why am I asking you a question now instead of Victoria?

Modelling go behaviour and addressing students not following expectations

Liz, how does this approach used by the writer link to ‘Great Expectation’ we studied in Year 8?

Generating links across the subject and knowledge recall over time

Jo, how much is Mr Curtis’ expecting from you?

Reminding the class of expectations and reasserting a student isn’t or hasn’t been meeting my expectations

Sarah-Jane, what is the mistake you need to keep avoiding?

Ensuring the student doesn’t forget the changes she needs to do to her work

Harry, do you think there would be a better approach to answering this question?

Getting an able student to explore alternatives and developing their thoughts

Leela, what have you done in RE that links to this aspect?

Developing cross-curricular connections and extending their thinking   

Romana, that answer’s fine for the class, but how would you rephrase that for the exam?

Identifying mistakes and errors and promoting self-correction

Adric, what’s a more formal way of saying ‘bloke’?

Exploring language choices and promoting self-correction

Tegan, what did I say was really important for you to remember?

Recalling knowledge from a previous lesson and building in differentiation

Each question is a specific level of differentiation and identifies the level of needs and intervention the teacher needs to give.

There might be Nyssa who will need some support from the TA and Turlough will need me to support him with some of the writing, but the majority of the class are addressed in terms of differentiation and needs. Of course, some students might need more differentiation, but the lesson has been tailored to the students’ needs.

Whether you see the classroom as ‘whack-a-mole’ or ‘plate spinning’, you still have to address what each and every student is doing. You can’t look at thirty students books in a short space of time, but you can select a wide spread and address some of the things about the learning.

·         Questions about expectations

·         Questions about behaviour

·         Questions about knowledge on the topic or task

·         Questions about knowledge from previous lessons / topics  

·         Questions about knowledge in other subject areas

·         Questions about feedback given

·         Questions about recurring errors

Some of these questions might be rhetorical. We both know the answer. Some of them might need an answer, so they whole class or a specific groups of students need reminding. The questions form the narrative of the lesson. All too often, our focus of questions tends to focus on the content and learning – usually what we want them to learn. Rarely, do we look at the questions to develop how they learn.

Repeat these types of questions again and again and you’ll find that the classroom environment has momentum.

Question, question and question and leave no stone unturned. We assume far too much in the classroom. That’s why a teacher should be asking lots of small questions throughout a whole lesson. A teacher that doesn’t ask questions is assuming too much.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 22 October 2017

One painting per poem with my stiff upper lip

There’s been a long standing relationship between English lessons and art. We have used paintings to inspire writing, to explore ideas and to explore the meanings of text. This year, I have linked each poem we teach to a painting. A piece of art.

I cannot say how much I have been influenced by Jeremy Paxman’s ‘The Victorians’. An exploration of the Victorians told through art. A thoroughly interesting book.

The book drew my attention to the story behind these paintings.

The Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava by William Simpson (1854)

 The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton-Woodville (1895)

Lord Cardigan Leading the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava  by Henry Payne  (1854)

The Roll Call by Elizabeth Thompson / Lady Butler (1874)

The Battle of Balaclava  by  Lady Butler (1876)

Now aside from the obvious history behind the events depicted behind the paintings, I was interested to hear how they were received. In particular, I was interested to hear how Lady Butler’s paintings were received. She explained: ‘I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism.’ Her painting the ‘Roll Call’ was very popular but also shocking at the time it was displayed. According to Jeremy Paxman, a guard was needed for the picture when displayed.  But for me, it makes a great counterpoint to the poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. The painting is a stark contrast to the strength, might, courage and determination of the soldiers of the other pictures. But also it points to a shift in attitude. The ‘British stiff upper lip’ disappears in Elizabeth Thompson’s work. We see the real emotion behind the events rather than patriotic bravado.

The above collection of paintings made a great point of discussion in lessons on the poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’.  Then, I decided to use a painting per poem. I searched for a painting that I thought linked to the bigger issues in the poem.

(War Photographer, Exposure, Charge of the Light Brigade, Remains, Bayonet Charge)

The idea behind each picture was explored by the class and myself, after reading and studying all the poems.  

This picture links to ‘Exposure’ and the class came up with some of these ideas linked to the picture / poem.

*Purgatory – gap in the clouds links to Heaven

*Collectivism – shared experience of war – the onlooker is sharing the experience the soldiers have   

*Lack of depth – everything is united in war as the clouds, tree, people, landscape are all the same colour

The great thing I enjoyed was the ‘toing and froing’ between poem, idea and painting. The linking between the three aspects was a joy. Students making connections between painting and picture. After we discussed the ideas behind the painting, we explored the style of the painting. Was it realistic? Was it impressionistic? Was it abstract? Was it photorealistic? Was it an example of expressionism? Was it romanticised? How does the painter treat its subject? Are the colours warm or cold?

For students it was easier to comment on the style of a painting than a poem. However, starting with the painting first helped the students to comment on the style of a poem. A chose a photorealistic painting for ‘Remains’. Students then linked the photorealism to the fact that he poem is features very sparse description and brutal and direct expressions.    

I think art needs a stronger place in the English classroom and I think English teachers need to be trained up in art. My Henrik Ibsen books at university all had a painting by Edvard Much on the front cover. Both artists were expressing psychological themes. They complemented each other. Art and literature are never far away from each other, but maybe they have grown further apart recently. Great CPD for an English department would be time talking about.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 15 October 2017

Let’s get touchy feely about genre - AQA Paper 1

Recently, I have returned to teaching Paper 1 for the AQA, and, with each time I teach it, I try something different and attempt to get better. This year I am making a conscious effort to look at effect and developing that further in explanations.

A bit ago somebody, probably Mark Roberts, shared a paper ‘War of the Worlds’. This week I am using it with a class, but this time I am going to focus on genre, and, more importantly the effect of the genre. What are we meant to think when we read a science fiction story? What are we meant to feel when we read a science fiction story?
You might think that that isn’t important, because they are focusing on the story, but I’d disagree.

Here’s the type of introduction the paper would have:

An unnamed narrator has witnessed a meteor land in a field near his home. He is one of the first people to discover the meteor. 

When you read the extract, you’ll see that it is a piece of science fiction.
Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth--above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes--were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

But, I think students need some complex understanding of the emotional impact of the science fiction genre to fully comment on the effect of the piece.
The genre of course is science fiction, but the subgenre is invasion. So, what is a reader meant to feel and think when they read a science fiction invasion story?

What are we supposed to feel?
fear / dread  / anxiety / nervousness / confusion / unsettle / a lack of safety  / unpredictable / disgust / horror

What ideas are we supposed to think?
The fear of outsiders – xenophobia

Question our safety and security 
When a student understands the idea that invasion stories utilises a fear of outsiders, they understand then how the level of disgust is typical of a person in this situation.  Then, students have an idea of the primary effect of the text. This then allows us to explore the secondary effects of the text.

The adjective ‘tumultuous ‘creates a sense of inferiority and abnormality of the creature in the way that this creature breathes differently to him, highlighting how unalike they are. This in turn makes the reader feel helpless as the narrator is inferior and possibly weaker than this creature.

Once a student understands the effect of a genre they can build an understanding of how the genre affects the writer’s choices and how that is complexly linked to effect.

What is the reader’s connection to the story?
Helpless observer  

Which one is more important to the genre - character or setting?

What is the most important thing that the writer must describe?
Alien aspect

What are the story rules for a science fiction story?
·         Must involve a discovery
·         Should contain a clash between human and inhuman aspects
·         Science should feature at some point
·         Must be some sort of prophecy  

A complex understanding of the genre is needed to fully understand the effect of any text. It is not enough for a student to spot a genre. No two texts and alike and so students cannot link every extract they read to a generic story telling structure of introduction, complication, crisis and resolution. After all, introduction, complication, crisis and resolution is so… emotionless. The introduction of thriller is different to a horror. The emotions are different too.
Back to ‘War of the Worlds’. When we have a better understanding of the genre, we can then look at the structure of the extract. Oh, look at the next question: it is about the structure of a text. And with a science fiction invasion story, the emotional structure of the story usual goes fear, shock, disgust and happy – after the defeat of the said creature. Looking at the extract from ‘War of the World’ above, we can see that the extract covers the transformation from fear to shock. Students can then be asked about where this extract fits in the story and the rules of the story. What are the storytelling rules after this extract? What should the writer do?

Across the land, there are schools teaching a dystopian unit or a horror unit. They will probably talk about the stock features and elements of the genre, but will they talk about the emotional content of a genre? Will they talk about the emotional structure of a genre?
I think with Paper 1 it is important to know the genre and its effect on the emotions of the reader. Students need to know the overall effect as well as the specific effect created by literary devices. That’s why with each paper I am doing with Paper 1 I am spending 10 minutes exploring the genre and thinking about its effect on the reader. They need to be better at spotting the different genres and subgenres and how those impact on the reader.

Thanks for reading,

More links to writing about effect: 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Daft drafting in the classroom

I think the concept of ‘drafting’ is possibly one of the most dangerous concepts in secondary schools. It is used with aplomb and glee abandon in the classroom. Today, we are going to draft a story. We are going to draft our assessments. Let’s draft our answers to this question.

We like to think drafting is a vital and integral part of the writing process, but time and time again drafting amounts to nothing much. Take the drafting process of coursework. I have read endless numbers of drafts and final versions. Every single one tends to carbon copy of the original one. In fact, drafting in some cases should be called human photocopying. The students just write up the previous version and change one or two things.

We have this romantic version of writing and drafting is right at the front of the writing process. Drafting does have its place in the world – I just don’t think it is necessarily in the classroom. You’d need a high level of sophistication and a good few months, or even years, to perfect a text. Writers draft over time and long periods of time. How long does it technically take to write a book? Hint – more than one hour’s lesson.

My main problem with drafting is that is focused on the end product. It is all about producing something and then thinking how it can be improved. The thoughts and thinking, we like to think, are post mortem. Once the text is written the student has a chance to think of improvements and ways forward. The issue for me is the thinking process. When would it help students to understand when they are doing things wrong? Is it so helpful to tell them after the car crash piece of work? Not really. We need to intervene some time before the crash.

Because writing is a process, it isn’t helpful to make changes to that process after the process has been completed. Take lesson observations. We give guidance and support to teachers after an observation, but at that point it is too late. The process has finished. It is gone. Wouldn’t it be better if we helped the teacher change course during the observation? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if the teacher made the changes and saw (felt) how the changes improved things?

Driving lessons are another good example to prove this point. Did the instructor tell you where you went wrong at the end of the session? No. They did it during the process, so you’d learn and avoid making the mistake again. You were in the process of driving and it was relevant and pressing. At the end of the lesson, the process has finished.

The 200 Word Challenge has made me see the benefits of ‘course changing’ during the writing process. Every week, I speak to fifteen or so students about their writing. We discuss what they have done in previous lessons and their writing that lesson. I correct them in the process, when they need my input most. They need me to tell them they are doing it wrong. They need me to guide them.  I am in the moment with them. But, I am also doing something else. I am showing them how good writers work. They think in the middle of writing and change their course. They self-correct. They modify. They improve, during the writing. We seem to spend so much time getting students to plan, proofread and draft writing that we have missed the important part of writing – the thinking process, while they are writing.

My marking of books during the 200 Word Challenge session has had a bigger impact on work than 10 years of marking. Why? Well, I think it is because I am in the process. I am working with them side by side, but I am also thinking with them about improvements. I am modelling the correct behaviour. It is also a time where I can clarify things. What do you mean that my paragraphs are weakly constructed, sir? We assume that a written mark on work is understood and retained by the students.

Progress happens more often now than before because of the immediacy of the improvements. We want students to self-correct work, and, for this to be part of their writing process, they need to feel the benefits of the course correction. They need to see and feel the benefits of the changes. That is probably why drafting has failed for so long. They don’t feel and see the benefits immediately. When the instructor tells you that you need to go up a gear, you experience the benefits of the change. The distance between the process and the advice is paramount. If the advice isn’t immediate, they fail to see the benefits of a changes. I say ‘see’ but the word should be ‘feel. They need to feel a positive experience to enable them to adapt their behaviour.

So stop drafting this week. When students are writing, get them to sit next to you and give them feedback. See how giving students immediate feedback changes things for you and them. 

Thanks for reading,


Twinkl Resources

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

Resources for lessons is a tricky subject for me, because where people want a full standalone lesson lovingly crafted by someone else, I want a task or resource to use in a lesson. If I wanted something done for me, I’d still be living with my parents and they’d write this blog for me. Therefore, I am going to pick several resources, which I think are useful for parts of a lesson.

Fronted Adverbial Word Mat

I am a big fan of using primary school approaches in the classroom. A simple, yet effective way of ensuring transition without the need for a big label. This resources is particularly useful with creative writing. My Year 8s are currently writing horror stories and they are guilty of writing pedestrian sentence openings. I am going to use this when drafting. I particularly like the fronted adverbials related to degree for developing some sophisticated expressions.

Paragraph Cohesion

Paragraphs are the bane of my life and I always like an extract where the use of paragraphs is explored. This resource uses an extract from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and gets students to uses the appropriate conjunction or adverbial. Nice for 5 minute activity before you start looking at paragraph construction in more detail.  

An Inspector Calls Mini Exam Pack

I am always on the lookout for ways to support the department and I found this pack quite an easy hack. I have photocopied the pack and I am giving it to staff so that they can set them as homework. With the questions photocopied as a booklet, students can plan a question after each lesson and start the following lesson with sharing their plan.

Phase 2 Captions Handwriting Activity Sheet

Sometimes differentiating work can be hard. I have found this activity, along with others, on handwriting quite helpful when you have a student who struggles with writing and writing prose. This helps, with a TA, them to work on their control of their pen / pencil.

All resources can be found here: