The Challenge of Challenge

How do we increase challenge for the classes that we teach? That was the starting point for yesterday’s first session with a diverse and talented group of colleagues at my school.

I put the session together using ideas from the the excellent Making Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby. We began by looking at a short video clip: The Pygmalion Effect and the Power of Positive Expectations Most people, I think, have heard of the Pygmalion effect – students will do better if you have high expectations of them.. There’s a “oh yes, we know that” reaction, and then it’s immediately dropped in the face of data stating expected progress, generally following a wry laugh. The intention to expect wonderful progress from them all withers in the blast of daily classroom reality. “Expectation” seems a weak and powerless word.

It reminds me of how we respond to the placebo effect. Everyone acknowledges that it exists, but hardly anyone takes their thinking to the next logical step, which is to say this: if our bodies can heal themselves when they “think” they’ve been given an effective drug and it’s only a sugar pill, then how can we train our minds to heal our own bodies? Because it must be possible, otherwise the placebo effect would simply not exist. With the Pygmalion effect, when teachers are told that certain students have high ability ( the Harvard study quoted in the video called them “late bloomers”) those students do indeed make better progress. What really  interests me is the next step – the analysis of what exact ingredients create that change. Like the placebo effect, it’s how to make the effect happen that’s the fascinating part. The four factors that emerged from Rosenthal’s study were:

– input

– climate

– response opportunity

– feedback

In our session we had some really interesting discussion about how to improve these for the classes we are focusing on. One thing to emerge, which really rang true for me, is the embarrassment factor. When working with low ability students, lots of us don’t want to embarrass them with questions that will make their low ability really obvious – and so we avoid challenging them with questions. Another interesting observation was how students become habituated to teachers’ questioning strategies. Lower ability students get used to being asked the easier, low challenge questions – from the lower end of Blooms’s taxonomy – and switch off as the focus of the questioning moves higher up the taxonomy and is targeted at the more able students. It’s an established pattern which shuts them off from being challenged. We don’t fine tune to the question that they will be able to struggle to get. The “struggle zone” is not a comfortable country, and so we play safe.

Which brings me to Grosz. For the last month or so I have been loving Brainpickings – an accessible, delightful, stimulating blog that just lights me up every time I read it. Yesterday, after our session, it caught my attention with a piece about Stephen Grosz. The message is spot on – the key is “presence”. When we teach really well – when we enable progress through high challenge and low stress, we do so by being “present” – very precisely attuned to the individual needs of our students and paying them serious attention. The Pygmalion study found teachers giving their “more able” students longer to answer, helping them frame their ideas better – in other words, paying them more attention.

Shaun and Andy’s example of the imaginary but ubiquitous”Evie” in their book really resonated with our group. She’s conscientious and hard working, from a disadvantaged and unsupportive background. She’s always been placed in the bottom sets – and no one expects anything much from her. Collectively, we took all our Evies to our hearts and began working on how we can pay them the attention – be “present” – in a way that’s going to break them out of the  cycle of low expectation and low achievement. Questioning, feedback, seating and classroom climate all featured strongly in our discussion. Evie is set for a big step forward.




Sing if you’re glad…

I did not expect this. I had no idea what would happen. I was putting the whole enterprise in that “I’ve-committed-to-this-let’s-not-think-about-it-too-much-because-it-is-completely-terrifying” box in my mind. It felt like taking a running jump at a chasm – knowing its’s necessary to get across but really not wanting to think AT ALL about just how far down it is to the bottom.

I am talking about leading our LGBT History Month assembly, each day this week. Did I expect the incredible quiet, the attention? Did I expect I would cry afterwards? Did I expect there would be students quietly, one by one, asking if they could have one of the rainbow badges, if they could just say something…if they could find a member of staff to talk to? Did I expect the tension to release visibly from young shoulders as they heard that they were valued, accorded their rights, safe and, most of all, not alone?

Did I expect the difference it would make to me? I mean, I’ve been out at work since 1995, for heaven’s sake. But not like this. Not – most importantly – in a school where I can be completely myself, secure in my own identity, validated and accepted by colleagues and the students in a way that I really never have experienced before. With the greatest respect to former schools and colleagues, my current school is way, way ahead. My students, my colleagues, are the best I could wish for.

I want to close with a mention for two especially amazing colleagues, @furloe,@krichardson136 without whom none of this would have happened. Time you wrote some Staffrm Stories, you two! We said, way back when we were planning and rehearsing – if we can make life at school better for just one LGBT pupil, it’s been worthwhile. We seem to have done rather more than that.

How to…Get a Kite off the Ground


English teachers love analogies, don’t we? I have thought of Poetry by Heart – the whole process – as being analogous to trying to get a rather unwieldy kite off the ground. It was cumbersome, there didn’t seem to be a lot of point and anyway, weren’t there so many more far more important things to be doing? I invited every type of student who might be remotely interested. Some Year 10s turned up once, but didn’t come back. Some Year 11s expressed an interest – but never came. But the Year 12s, bless them, hung in there. Wednesdays after school. Biscuits. Hot chocolate. Poetry.

Choosing the poems was the point where the kite started to catch the wind. Each of the contestants began the memorising. We held our school competition in January – hardly back from Christmas, on a dark, wet early evening – and the kite flew. The magic happened. Our winner was a worthy one – and every one of the performances had been really strong.

Now it was time to prepare for the county contest. More rehearsal – and brilliant support from the other competitors. They were absolutely NOT going to be left out of the whole enterprise; they’re were most definitely coming to the county contest.

We arrived in Brighton and met up at the Julbilee Library. Superb venue. It’s a building which really celebrates reading, and just feels so comfortable. We had no fewer than five staff from school there supporting our competitor, as well as the above mentioned Year 12s. What a team!

The afternoon got underway. The standard was astonishing. It was simply a delight to sit and listen to the poems performed so well – ones I knew, ones I didn’t. Some, delivered almost dead pan, others passionately acted – all, hugely powerful. Of course we thought our competitor was best.

An interval. Between the older and the newer poems, and three powerful performances from three very different contemporary poets – Kay Walton, Michael Parker and Tommy Sissons.

As the second half got underway, I thought, how privileged we were. Sitting there, enclosed within the quietly bustling space of the library. On the other side of the plate glass, people looked in on us – they were shopping, meeting friends; children tumbled and played. Inside, we were captivated. Memorising creates a relationship with a text that nothing else can do. If you haven’t done it, you can’t know, can’t get the pun on “by heart”. But if you have…you can hold an audience spellbound. You can then walk away with the magic locked in your mind, the images ready to roll every time you open the door of that first line. You have it for life.

We could not have been more proud of our winner.

We didn’t “win” overall – but we were there together. How could that ever not be enough?

A Visit to the Dentist

toy-668691_960_720I’d been putting it off. I am far  too good at putting things off. Someone once told me that it goes right back to the womb – I had to be extracted by Caesarian, having burrowed round to an impossible position before birth. The real world could wait – I was fine where I was, thank you. When our lovely dentist retired last year, I wasn’t rushing to find another one. I’d probably still not have done anything about it even now, left to my own devices.

Anyway, thanks to my solicitous, long-suffering partner, an appointment was made. I’m sitting here typing this evening with a fat face and slightly sore jaw. I’m infinitely grateful to have got the whole process done and the fears out of the way. My new dentist is absolutely wonderful. Why on earth was I so worried?

Thus the truth emerges. Deny it as we may, procrastination is pretty much always a manifestation of fear. Whether it’s a set of books or a trip to the dentist, there’s generally something lurking that we don’t want to confront. With me and dentists it goes back to the dentist I had as a child. My parents repeatedly told me how kind and lovely man he was – and he did certainly have a kind face. However, it wasn’t until long after I’d left home that I found out that other people had anaesthetics when they had a filling done. I never had. One one occasion he performed three fillings consecutively in one sitting.
Thanks are certainly due to the lovely friend in my second teaching post. She came with me after she’d persuaded me to visit her dentist; a fortunate thing, as my wisdom teeth were busy impacting at that point.
I’m still learning the lesson; procrastination is a vile thing. Every appointment made, every awkward email answered, is a victory for the spirit. Might need a paracetamol or two tonight, though.

Making Links and Developing Ideas

This is an activity I used with my Year 12 class today that they really enjoyed. I to want to use it again and develop it with them and other classes.
As with many classes, it can be very difficult to create teaching routines that ensure a full range of students get the chance to speak and express their ideas. I came up with this idea after reading Rob Chamber’s excellent “Word Bounce” post on Staffrm. I really like the idea of each student having to listen carefully to what another had said in order to formulate their own response.
Here’s what I did:
I took six phrases from the poem we had studied the previous lesson, “Never Go Back” by Carol Ann Duffy.
I put them into a table and cut out the rectangles to make a little deck of cards. The first student was dealt a card, face down. When she turned it over, she simply had to say something about that phrase. I then dealt the next student. They had to say something about their card, but they had to incorporate something the previous student had said. We continued like this until all six cards had been dealt. I was delighted with the way it worked for two reasons. Firstly, it enabled shy students to have a framework within which they could think and speak comfortably; secondly, it enabled ideas and links to develop really well. My selection of the phrases was important here, and I am glad I kept with the “less is more” approach and did not do more than six.
We then read, and discussed brief first impressions of, the second poem – the one we would be comparing with “Never Go Back”. I had chosen “The Grammar of Light” as it provides a strong contrast in terms of its atmosphere. I then paired students up. They now had a sheet with the original six phrases. I then dealt each pair a phrase from the comparison poem. Their task was to choose one of the first six phrases to compare with the one they had been dealt.
Some lovely discussion came out of this, and some very detailed readings. Working with key phrases seemed to focus minds and prompt deep thinking in a way that does not tend to happen when working with a whole text – certainly not this early in Year 12. The students said they would very much like to use this approach again.
The phrase cards can be found at:

Challenge: the students, the teacher

FullSizeRender-2This is my first post from Durrington High School’s “Making Every Lesson Count” teacher development programme.

A picture from the opening of Andy Tharby’s presentation yesterday has really stayed in my mind: that of a tightrope. Getting the balance right is difficult and risky. On one side panic, on the other comfort; neither is desirable. Teaching a demanding lesson, creating those contexts where students have to think hard, feels a lot like being a high wire walker: creating challenge for the students is challenging for the teacher.

I am going to focus on one Year Eleven class that I teach. For all sorts of reasons, they are no where near where they should be. Those reasons are irrelevant; they need the best teaching I can offer and that’s an end to it. I took them on two weeks ago, and feel I am still getting to know them. Their reading is painfully slow; their writing is full of inaccuracies, colloquialisms and haphazard spellings. They are an engaging, friendly group of young people with a delightful collective sense of humour. I believe they are concerned about their attainment, but they camouflage this anxiety remarkably well and can appear ridiculously laid-back. Their default mode is “unhurried”.

I need to create some routines that will quickly raise the pace and standard of their working. Firstly, homework. My school has initiated a powerful push on homework this year. Tom Sherrington writes, here, referencing the research of John Hattie, that “short, frequent homework closely monitored by teachers has more impact than their converse forms..teacher monitoring and involvement is key” and this is the sort of homework I want to set the class. I want them reading diverse and interesting non-fiction, so shall use articles from this lovely site which is a mine of interesting journalism, constantly refreshed. This is my first significant “challenge”- I know many teachers who would look at those articles, look at my class and simply say “No way. They won’t cope with that level of writing.” Well, they will. I just have to work out how. I’m also going to create proofing exercises and set short lists of spelling to learn.

Next, some tough, engaging starter activities – rounds of “missing vowels” (thank you, Only Connect) and short quizzes on the previous lesson’s learning. I need to set a really brisk pace with these folks as soon as they come in the room – and then maintain it.

All of Year 11 are taking their Pre-Public Exams this week, so I will be marking their papers this weekend. This will give me a very detailed picture of exactly what their needs are and I will spend considerable time analysing the marks. I’ll then have them back in lessons and the real work will begin…

“Not a drum was heard…”

Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna, 1809

As they come in, I’m speaking it, as they sit, I’m speaking it. The confident ones join in, then more do, picking up phrases here and there. I’m still repeating it, beating out the rhythm, walking the room. By the time the whole class has arrived, we are all speaking the poem, we are doing it from memory, and it’s the most wonderful feeling, the poem alive in our heads, not words on a page now, words in our mouths and out in the air of the classroom…

I’m not quite sure why I first chose it. Yes, it was on the Poetry by Heart website – that would have been how I was reminded of it. Then I thought how interesting it would be to pair it with Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” both poems being about the absence of a “real” funeral for those killed in war. It was “The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna” – a classic, but rather a forgotten one these days.

Experiencing poetry through learning it by heart seems to be becoming an established part of my practice. Having got the bug last year, I now can’t leave it alone. It’s a drug – seriously! There is a real high to be had through belting out a poem you know by heart with a class who are learning it too. There’s also an addiction in watching the faces of Year 8s as they struggle to remember, and then, suddenly, get it. I’m just dying for a teacher in a neighbouring room to complain about the noise we make thumping out Wolfe’s rhyme and rhythm.

The week began by clearing the desks and chairs to the walls so that groups of three could take a stanza each and do a freeze frame accompanied by a reading. We found that a school blazer made an excellent “martial cloak” but that plastic chairs really don’t work as a representation of a grave. Still, we had a sure grasp of the narrative and the visuals by the end of that lesson. Then, lots more learning, and questions, focusing on the emotions of the soldiers. Annotation of the poems in exercise books, and learning, learning all the time. By the end of the week, six stanzas of the eight had been learnt. Complete your learning of these six stanzas for homework.

Watching the class moving to analytical writing is fascinating, and there is absolutely no doubt that learning this poem by heart has helped with understanding. Their analysis is developed and thoughtful; they have a moving and humbling understanding of the soldiers’ emotions – from panic through to quiet sadness, respect, regret, pride and loyalty. They quote like never before; learning the poem has given them a sort of “random access” facility that brings up the key words and phrases exactly as they’re needed to support a point. But more than that, they’ve got to grips with the deep, grown-up heart of the poem. Hearing them debate why it was that the soldiers “spoke not a word of sorrow” was a revelation.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that there is a place for learning by heart in the KS3 curriculum. If something feels risky, fun, different and challenging – which this does – then it’s probably a good thing.