Starting an MA

I’ve finally bitten the bullet and decided to start an MA.  Although it was hard work qualifying as a ‘Teach Second’ straight off the back of my second maternity leave and completing my NQT year when my boys were two and four, I relished the return to studying then, and have been having itchy studying feet for the last couple of years to take it to the next level.

Having finished my degree in the 90s and spent a whirlwind fourteen years working in television production, travelling the world, interviewing people and making programmes from travel, arts and makeover shows (it was the 90s) to more serious documentaries, the carefree single life of my 20s was over. The arrival of my children naturally enough brought time for reflection and re-evaluation: bringing a new life into the world can do that to a person.  Making television has much in common with teaching: both are intense, challenging and high-octane, creative yet knowledge-based and require a balance of perfectionism and knowing when to say ‘that’ll do’. Both require constant updating of skills, necessitate split-second decision making, balancing the ever fluctuating chemistry of different groups of people and frequent adaptation to the whims of the policy-makers.  On reflection, though, gazing at my new-borns, hanging out the washing in between the pumping and the pureeing, television was too cynical ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, too throwaway – tomorrow’s chip paper, and while it could have purpose, it too often lacked legacy.  Making the decision to return to my studies and undertake an English PGCE felt invigorating and exciting, especially after the time out from the workplace on maternity leave. What would I prepare for my interview lesson? How would I handle a room of teenagers? Could I still be able to write an essay after fourteen years? What on earth did they mean ‘wait for silence’? Luckily under the guidance of Ross Cotter at Middlesex University and alongside a fantastic cohort of talented trainee teachers, I slowly grew in confidence and loved being in the classroom, planning lessons (obviously this took ages at first, as I was actually scripting lessons as if they were TV scripts) and labouring over card sorts and classroom displays (I have a little less time for that these days). Marking was always a struggle – still is, probably for most English teachers, but my co-head of department’s mantra ‘marking is planning’ still resonates when I need a boost.

Now eight years on from re-training, I have stayed at the same school I joined in my NQT year, an outer London comprehensive with a truly supportive staff and SLT, working my way slowly through from 3rd to 2nd in department, to joint Head of English and finally flying solo as HoD for the first time last year. I still feel like a novice in many ways, indebted to the knowledge and experience of those not only in my school environment and local area, but the generous #TeamEnglish community on twitter who share their ideas, research, reading material and resources.  I have always actively sought out further reading in the hopes of improving my teaching, being wary of the 3 – 5 year plateau as well as the risk of my classroom teaching suffering as I took on more responsibility. The reading recommendations from the twitter community have had a huge impact on my teaching practice, but I have recently increasingly felt the need for a more structured approach to my learning.  Taking on board the 10% braver WomenEd exhortation, I returned to the idea of further study once again.

Having looked into various MAs and MScs in the last few years, I have dithered somewhat in making a decision. My gut instinct was to pursue the passion and plump for the literature-based luxury of a course in a specialist area that would benefit my teaching, such as Shakespeare, Victorian or Gothic literature. I was hugely tempted by the postgraduate offer from the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, with the Shakespeare and Education MA on offer as a distance learning course (still might go back to that one…). Then I got distracted by the leadership and management type of Education MA, with flexible courses offered in Educational Leadership from the likes of UCL, but couldn’t shake my underlying cynicism about leadership training; and then went down a rabbit hole of specialised courses, such as those focusing on Assessment.  Status and prestige also played a part in my deliberations: having been encouraged by my A-Level teachers to apply for Oxford but not done so as I felt it wasn’t for me, I thought maybe now was the time to apply and put that one to rest, with the MSc in Learning and Teaching looking appealing, and a friend from work applying for another MSc there who might be my study buddy. With so much on offer and work as all-consuming as ever, I let it slide for a while.

It was in the throes of exhaustion and despair from PPE marking and needing to get my mojo back that I investigated an MA simply entitled ‘Expert Teaching’ because in all honesty, let’s strip it back here, that’s what I want to get better at, always: teaching so kids are learning as well as they can be.  While being sceptical of the somewhat corporate sounding ‘Ambition Institute’ and the MA not being university-based, but rather accredited by Plymouth Marjon University (somewhat far from the aforementioned hallowed spires still on the bucket list), the course design and focus was functionally and structurally what I was looking for. The structure of the modules appeared sound, with six modules exploring different aspects of evidence-based research and how they apply to classroom teaching, starting with Consolidation then Assessment, which is an area I really want to improve in the immediate future. The specific focus on improving opportunities for disadvantaged children, the school-centred approach with courses specifically designed for working teachers and the involvement of Peps Mccrea, Sam Twiselton and Christine Counsell among others also convinced me, along with meeting a current student at ResearchEd Rugby who enthused about the course content, structure and teaching. I guess Oxford can wait…

So far, all I’ve done is log on, navigate the very user friendly Canvas software, update my profile and complete the introductory module (complete with low stakes quizzes, I was pleased to observe! Obviously I went back and re-took them until I got 100%). My boys were laughing at me for being excited that I could access my MA on an app, but compare that to my degree in the 90s or even the technology in 2010 on my PGCE and the interfaces are all so much more accessible and streamlined. I’m hoping the course design and accessibility factor will all help to make it easier to balance with the workload of Head of Department.

So it remains to be seen whether the MA programme of study will be manageable and worth it to sharpen my practice and knowledge and keep my teaching mojo alive. I’ve just picked a course which seemed best suited to me at this point in my teaching life. I do plan to blog about the MA but am fully aware that when term starts I may not keep it up!  Wish me luck – it’s a leap I took to challenge myself to be as good as I can be in the classroom, test some of my beliefs about teaching, learn from people outside my comfort zone and to put myself where I ask my students to be: learning.

I’d be happy to hear from anyone else who has undertaken an MA alongside teaching and how that has gone, along with any advice!



New Year’s Q: Would I like to be taught by me?

I’m sure many of us will have embarked on a range of new year projects and missions and among us will be those who’ve signed up to learn a new skill or revisit and master an old one.  I must say that I find teachers the most open-minded of people: adventurous, up for new experiences and learning, learning, learning all the time.

After all, why else would we want to teach, if we didn’t love to learn?

At our school, we have staff writing pantos and plays, starting or continuing MAs, MScs and PhDs, pitching documentary ideas, blogging, making their own clothes, writing articles, creating poetry, painting murals, starting e-zines, finding wild new fitness classes, you name it. It’s a joy and an inspiration to be surrounded by staff who pursue the desire to learn, both in and out of school, in so many fields.

Apart from trying to ‘get my blog on’ again, I have returned to Pilates and have been reflecting on what makes me enjoy the classes. Ultimately, so much of it is down to my teacher. She has a genuine passion for what she does and conveys that in every sentence and action. She knows her job inside out and cares about sharing her knowledge with her students. She wants you to improve and achieve, without hurting or damaging yourself in the process.

When we arrive? A warm smile and greeting by name: ‘Hello Stephanie, how are you? And how are your boys? Lovely to see you again!’

When there is a new exercise we haven’t tried? ‘You’re going to love this one! It’s a great one, really it is! Let me show you.’

When the work is challenging? ‘Oh yes, I know, I know,  it’s hard, but it’s going to be soooo worth it!’

When we need resting or pushing? ‘If your muscle is shaking, then stop or you will over-extend. Otherwise keep going, it’s not for much longer. 5, 4, 3…’

When we think we’ve nearly finished? ‘That’s it! You’re done! Now again, but pulses, from 16, 15, 14…..’

When we really have finished? ‘Well done! You did it! Now, doesn’t that feel good? You did something you’ve never done before! See how you’re improving?’

When we leave? A warm farewell ‘Thank you so much for coming! Have a lovely evening, see you next time.’

My teacher is also always trying out new exercises and methods herself and sharing her experiences with us. She goes on courses, trains new teachers, tries different classes.  She lets us know that she found that exercise hard herself when she first tried it – it took her 70 times – but now look at her! She is a specialist in Pilates but also shares her wider knowledge about health and nutrition. She is always focused on the work in the lesson, but also finds time to give small compliments ‘I love your nails!’ or share little anecdotes, whether it’s a lovely recipe or news of her daughters.

I have the choice to be her student and while the exercise makes me feel good, ultimately I return to her classes because of her teaching style: I appreciate her personal warmth, her knowledge, her positive encouragement and her ability to know when to push me further. Which made me think. My students have no choice. They are stuck with me, like it or not! How would I like to be taught by me?

So if you are learning something new this year, take a moment to think what it’s like to be a student again. What do you like or dislike about your teacher? How do they help you to learn? What could you take from them back to your classroom to your own captive audience? How do you present new material or revisit the old? How do you know when to push harder or when to go back, be kind, help?

I have found that being a student again is a great way to reassess my own teaching style and methods. My new year’s resolution? To take a few leaves out of my Pilates’ teacher’s book!  What about you?



Using abstract nouns to access symbolic meaning

I’ve been meaning to write up this lesson as I love reading other English teachers’ blogs about how they teach, like @Mrs Spalding, @Xris32, @mr_englishteach, @englishlulu, @FKRitson and @fod3 among others. I shamelessly borrow ideas and resources from these fab teachers, sharing with my team and trying out different methods and ideas, but have always been time-poor or fought shy of sharing my own lessons as they always seem so obvious!

So this is a thought I had, which I trialled with a Year 9 mixed ability class late last term as a way of accessing symbolic meaning through the use of abstract nouns. It seemed to work really well. The identification and use of abstract nouns unlocked conceptual thinking and more thoughtful analysis.  It’s so simple that I’m sure many other English teachers out there are doing it already, but my team really liked it when I shared it, so I thought I would put it out there.

The lesson went something like this:

I started by defining the terms symbolism, concrete noun and abstract noun. Then students were given an extract from ‘Of Mice and Men’ (Crooks’ room) and asked to identify key concrete nouns in the extract.

We then translated the concrete to the abstract eg. Crooks’ spectacles = vision. It got them to the conceptual level quickly and once they were off, they got better and better!  I’ve included the slides from the lesson which we co-constructed as a class. We ended the lesson by creating a class paragraph. I deliberately asked some of the lower level students to start us off and kept it simple and accessible.  Students then went on to write two more of their own paragraphs independently next lesson using the same method, many of which were far more sophisticated than the rather basic class paragraph. They were also able to transfer their use of abstract nouns to future analysis and to understand and refer to symbolism as a technique, improving their end of unit assessment essays. This method also avoided the use of PEA or PETAL which can be restrictive for some students (though a useful scaffold for others).

I found it also linked well to the use of nouns for achieving academic register by using nominalisation (turning verbs into nouns) which I had also explored with this class.         See – Nominalisation for academic writing –  Examples given:

Crime was increasing rapidly and the police were becoming concerned = The rapid increase in crime was causing concern among the police.

Germany invaded Poland in 1939. This was the immediate cause of the Second World War breaking out.  = Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was the immediate cause of the outbreak of the Second World War.

Any feedback on this method would be more than welcome! I will be using this with other classes in future as it worked so well for my Year 9s. The lesson notes are below:

Symbolism in ‘Of Mice and Men’

Focusing on concrete nouns & abstract nouns to access symbolic meaning

Symbolism = the use of symbols or signs to represent ideas, qualities or themes eg. heart = love, animal = human, light = hope, cards = game of life, stars = dreams, chains = being trapped

noun = object, person, place, animal, thing, name – a noun tells you what a sentence is talking about

concrete noun = something your senses can perceive eg. table, concrete, pen, wall, lunch, cheeseburger, earrings, shark.

abstract noun = something intangible, that your senses cannot perceive – a thought or feeling eg. sadness, love, anger, disgust, happiness, misery, beauty, hope.

What Year 9 came up with …



  • Example of use of the ‘concrete to abstract nouns’ method in a subsequent essay from a mid-level student:

At the start of the novella, Steinbeck suggests there may be a mere glimmer of hope for Lennie, George and the other migrant workers: “the water is warm too […] it slipped twinkling over the yellow sand in the sunlight.” The use of alliteration and sibilance echoes the sound of the twinkling water, while the ‘yellow sand’ and ‘sunlight’ may represent hope and the warm water might reflect that this place could be peaceful and a safe haven. The water could represent their life at this point when they stop in the brush as it is simple, calm and flowing, although it may also be ‘slipping’ away from them like water, representing the inevitable cycle of life.

I will try and update with more examples as I mark more of their assessments!



‘Typical boy’

I’ve neglected my dear blog for too long, perhaps because I keep thinking I need to write something ‘proper’ and feeling the pressure of delivering a meticulous, well-researched and polished piece. So to get over myself and get back into it, I’m jumping back in with a ‘so this happened’. In fact it’s more of a ‘did that just happen?’

Being a teacher and a parent means that every interaction with your child’s teacher is painfully laden with all the ways in which you want to show your respect for what they do, yet check they have the same values as you. You approach any teacher chat with trepidation, bending over backwards not to offend them in any way, while leaning forwards intently to listen for every clue that shows they know what they’re doing. Not wanting to come across as a precious parent, molycoddling mum, helicopter parent or tiger mother, you approach with a supportive smile and open mind.

Still, you want to raise a question about your child’s progress, ask how he is getting on, particularly in Maths. You know, because of the last two years with all the supply teaching, nothing to do with this year… Feeling slightly disloyal, you nevertheless share the secret that perhaps as your son is confident, articulate and adept at looking like he’s doing something productive when he may not be, and because he doesn’t like to lose face by asking for help, he can sometimes avoid work without it being noticed and could be likely to cruise in class and fall behind if this is not picked up on.

And having shared this knowledge about your son to help the teacher pick up on the signs in class, what response do you get?

‘Typical boy.’

My smile freezes on my face. I say nothing. I turn and walk away. Inside bubbles up a mixture of disappointment and slow burning anger. I didn’t expect my boys to be victims of sexism and low expectation: they’re boys, right? Masters of the universe. Everything on a plate for them. It’s the girls who have to put up with sexism and low expectations, isn’t it? That’s what I always thought.

That phrase ‘typical boy’, so small, so throwaway, betrayed so many assumptions and low expectations that hours later I wanted to run back and tell the teacher all the million tiny ways my boy is not typical.

Did you know? He’s thoughtful and sensitive, creative and artistic. He draws amazingly detailed Viking warriors, werewolves and war scenes. He lays the table with little notes saying ‘enjoy your dinner’.  He’s funny and witty, sharp and sarcastic, destroying me with a snappy retort in seconds. He puts flowers in the letterbox to greet me when I get home. He laughs so much sometimes he can’t breathe and then he cries because he can’t breathe and then he laughs again all over again when he can breathe. He’s amazing at Lego and creates things in 3D I couldn’t even imagine. He’s a fanatical goalkeeper. He loves Match of the Day: he loves Strictly Come Dancing. He dances and sings and wrestles and fights and he sometimes he finds fractions hard but he doesn’t want to ask for help because he’s proud.

Of course, I would say all this. I’m his parent and you’re his teacher. You don’t need to know or care about all the personal details which fill my heart with equal measures of joy and frustration daily. You don’t have time to know every member of the class as well as a parent can.

But you should know this: he’s not a ‘typical boy’.

Each child is an individual student, whose mums can give you some useful information and short cuts about how to notice and support them. When this is offered, it should not be brushed off with a sexist generalisation.

It’s so disappointing to hear this from a fellow-teacher; to internalise the weight of the assumptions and low expectations that go with it for my son and all the boys in that class. What is a ‘typical boy’ like? Not expected to sit still, work hard, stop talking, pay attention, ask for help, write rather than talk, concentrate hard, or improve at the subject they struggle with?

So no, he’s not a typical boy.

And nor should any boy – or girl – in any classroom be seen as typical of a gender stereotype. To do so underestimates the individuality and potential of every child. Please don’t do that to your students.

What do Year 8s think about studying 19th-century literature?

We have been introducing Year 8 to a range of 19th century fiction through our Gothic unit, Christmas holiday reading of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and currently our ‘London Through the Pages’ unit which explores a range of texts chronologically, from Fanny Burney and Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. These units were already in place before the changes to GCSE, but we have boosted the 19th century content in response to those changes. 

As I introduced the unit, some students asked about the choice of texts, so we discussed this. I explained why we chose the texts originally and how government changes can influence the curriculum. We discussed the balance between teacher choice and political regulation, the concept of a literary canon and the enjoyment of an accessible read versus the struggle of a harder read. Typing up their ideas live on the whiteboard as we summarised our class discussion, I was struck by how balanced, thoughtful and reflective the students were and felt their ideas were worth sharing.

After the recent ‘scripting’ debate I also reflected that this was an unplanned lesson – it was not on the scheme and prevented us starting on ‘Evelina’ – but student questioning evolved into an interesting and valid debate,  which I now intend to plan properly and include as an introductory lesson to the unit next time, perhaps to be revisited at the end of the year to see if opinions have changed. I wondered, if my lessons were planned for me, would a more expert planner already have included this debate lesson, or would they have deemed it irrelevant to the delivery of content? 

So here’s what the Year 8s had to say about studying 19th-century texts:

Arguments for studying 19th-century literature

  • historical reasons – knowing more about our history is good general knowledge and it helps us understand the present
  • it’s interesting to compare the present day to Victorian times, especially London as we live there 
  • improving our vocabulary and sentence structures, making us more adventurous
  • we don’t speak or write as well these days, it could help us use more formal, sophisticated language and address the slang issue
  • having knowledge of more complex language and texts helps us to be more creative ourselves in our writing
  • being able to read these texts for pleasure in the future – if no-one teaches us how to read them we would never have the chance and could miss out 

Arguments against studying 19th-century literature

  • Society has moved on, so the views of the writers or characters may be difficult or offensive (eg. racism, sexism, homophobia)
  • the vocabulary and sentence structures can prevent understanding and enjoyment
  • The English language moves on: why don’t we drop old language?
  • Why not learn about the modern world rather than repeating the same history & texts otherwise nothing will change. There are so many modern authors to explore who are equally talented
  • Why learn words we will never use? eg. ‘beguiled by the time’ 
  • We would like to hear more different writers from different groups or places.. These texts are written by a very small section of society. We would like to be able to relate to the writers and characters more.



Here’s to the ‘twisteners’

Twitter can be a roistering, boisterous place to be for a newbie; when I first walked into the party I did not do it at all like I was walking onto a yacht, unless I had tripped up on the way in and spilled my drink over @oldandrewuk.

Yet what initially seemed a cacophony soon calmed as I tuned in. Like many new arrivals to twitter, I lurked, awed by these educational connoisseurs swiftly positing and counterpoising, embodying in just 140 characters the perfect blend of wit, steel and whimsy. Imagining Twitter as the online version of Versailles portrayed in ‘Ridicule’, I was too terrified to tweet at first, but soon blithely blundered into numerous conversations uninvited – and in some cases, felt I got to know people I had never met before. While straw men, ad hominems and false dichotomies flew around wildly, I tried to duck the dead-ends, no-wins and no-brainers and sought out the informed, the thoughtful, the reflective, the wise. The ‘twisteners’.

For many of us do twitter on, but how many listen well? Are we after the cheap thrills of a retweet or loveheart  (I still miss the stars…) or have we got the time to truly engage? Twitter offers us the chance to take on board a far wider range of knowledge, experience and ideas than we could hope to encounter within the walls of our own schools – and people are there to share! We can boldly introduce ourselves to those whose ideas intrigue us, whose thinking we admire, whose experience we wish to learn from.

I feel like I am still ‘warming up’ on twitter, but the twitter education community has been encouraging and challenging in equal measure: long may it continue. It has doubtless challenged my thinking, improved my teaching and given me evidence and arguments, some of which attacked my sacred cows, many of which I still hold in tension. Over the last few months, it has even led to a few articles in the TES, which I can show my mum and which never would have happened without the ‘twisteners’.

So I would like to thank some of my early encouragers and ‘twisteners’ who are fittingly drawn from a wide spectrum of expertise and opinion. It is very hard to narrow it down as there are so many generous people from #TeamEnglish and beyond, but thank you to @jillberry102, @joeybagstock, @shinpad @nancygedge @sue_cowley @HeadofEnglish @ieshasmall @Lisa7Pettifer @ImSporticus  @kevbartle @hgaldinoshea  @fod3  @MissJLud  @Xris32 @englishlulu @MissAllenEnglis @jo_facer @benniekara @Miss_Wilsey @KerryPulleyn @miss_mcinerney @carlhendrick @jamestheo @HuntingEnglish @oldandrewuk @jon_severs . Whether through quality blogging themselves, to show the way; polite, generous engagement;  responding to my comments or DMs; commenting on my blog posts; inviting me to contribute; thanking me for contributing; ‘echochambering’ me; editing my waffle,  or talking to me in person when I met them (!) all gave me the confidence to join the discussion.

I chose the title ‘Blogger, interrupted’ because life (rightly) gets in the way of twitter and blogging, and I am somewhat sporadic in my attempts, but I wanted to take time to thank the ‘twisteners’ and say that I hope to emulate their generosity, humility and integrity.  I am so glad I left Facebook for twitter!

TES articles so far – the links

Behaviour – ‘There’s always one – but they can be tamed.’

How to … use film and TV adaptations in the classroom


Only Disconnect: Pre-Christmas Techy Cold Turkey

Having agreed to a week of no-tech in the classroom as an experiment for the TES, I hover on the brink of my tech-free week with a precipitous sense of exhilaration and abandonment. It feels somehow deliciously irresponsible, almost rebellious to wilfully disconnect. Take that, E.M. Forster.

I did ponder whether digital connection is a sign of social conformity, whether my sense of impending liberation suggested a digital dependence or some kind of yoke of connectivity, under which I needlessly toil.  But then I remembered: pondering is for Winnie the Pooh.

Mostly I just think I use digital connection to learn more useful stuff; the things I didn’t know I didn’t know.  Anything I can’t find out from the intelligent, learned people I already know in real life, but may be able to glean from the vast, international pool of intelligent, learned edu-twitter dwellers. Knowledge is addictive, opinions are engaging – and both are available 24/7. This I will miss. Although I’m planning to replace it fairly swiftly with talking to  real friends in real life, in real places. If I can get a babysitter.

So here’s the deal: I am not allowed to use technology from Monday 00:01 to Friday 15:30, meaning no technology for teaching, planning, conversing with staff, research – in short, anything to do with school, education, teachers or teaching must be offline.

I may be in denial about how difficult it will be, but last time our IT system went down at school I rather enjoyed it, so I’m hoping this experience will be equally positive in its distilled simplicity; in a ‘walk around with a book, discuss it, write about it’ kind of way.  Overall, I anticipate that planning lessons will be simpler and teaching lessons will be more ‘live’ and invigorating. Staff communication (verrrry email-dependent) will be tricky. My out of hours addiction to edu-twitter is likely to be the hardest challenge, but I’ll just have to deal with the FOMO.  Or the FOMOKO (knowledge & opinions? I know for the hardcore that stops at FOMOK).

Being an essentially optimistic soul, these are the positive outcomes I hope the week will bring…

  1. Books, books, books – Stepping away from the smartboard (though I do love it for modelling and joint construction) and the photocopied extract (though I do love it for annotation and analysis), we will be holding books in our hands, feeling the weight of the whole text, flipping pages backwards and forwards for the precise quotation we seek, sensing textual construction between our fingers. I already have library lessons, long on the waiting list behind curriculum coverage, booked.
  2. Focus – Being blissfully unaware of the gazillion emails exploding into my inbox will focus my attention entirely on the lesson being taught and the intent, ready-to-learn faces before me, rather than the imminent admin pile-up, most of which can usually wait, and at least 15% of which can be ignored altogether (yes, all staff ‘where’s my mug’ emails, I mean you). It won’t stop the door-knockers wanting scissors, exercise books or work for errant/absent pupils, mind.
  3. Reconnection – Without email, I will be forced to leave my classroom, staffroom, office, corridor, faculty stomping ground, to find people. Walking round the school always leads to serendipitous moments and conversations, meetings and greetings with students and staff, even before you get to the person you’re looking for (I’m quite the Bob Hoskins in that respect).  One face-to-face conversation can achieve so much more than the equivalent in email tennis. And you get real smiles 🙂   I know this, but I still email people too much. But not this week.
  4. Looking up – Being banned from twitter means I will not be glued to my screen at any potentially dull moment, hoovering knowledge and opinions from the world of education. Who knows how exciting that potentially dull moment could be?I am resolved to be more present, observing the fleeting snowflakes of existence. These moments, memories and experiences with the people we love are simultaneously so transient and yet so utterly, truthfully all that remains.

Capturing transient moments in perpetuity.  Well, I said I was optimistic. Maybe the road away from technology leads to poetry (though preferably not mine).  I’ll let you know how it goes. But not for a week. Over and out 🙂    *in 8 minutes that will be a real smile*

How did we do?

Boiling kettles, murmuring voices, loaded glances. It’s early. The school, usually abuzz with a thousand voices, is today populated by the few. Their squeaking footsteps echoing down lonely corridors, they are the few who need to know, who want to see, are here to hug, cheer or commiserate. Here to discuss options for those who didn’t make the grade this time, to pore over data, agonise over the question-by-question analysis.  Here to create celebratory results displays. Here to reflect, soul-search, brow-beat.  Here to plan how to do it all again – but better.

We’ve had the results since 6:00 am. Despite the electronic immediacy of our age, the ritual opening of the envelope still prevails. The desks are out, envelopes ready. Families gather outside the doors.

On results day, the rational teacher’s brain tells you that, from experience, most of your students will do as expected, a few will surprise you positively and a few negatively.  So far, so simple.   But which ones will surprise you? Ay, there’s the rub.

The tension and anticipation before devouring the results takes a variety of forms. Having recently enjoyed Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ this summer holiday with my own children, I can’t help imagining my teacher brain as veering demonically between the following:

  • Abject fear of failure (closely related to despair): the results are a disaster. You have failed every student, yourself, the school, your family… yes, everyone.
  • Cold, terrifying fear of error on an unimaginable scale: you have taught the wrong syllabus, exam, question, text
  • Self-doubt: did I do everything I could to help my students?
  • Euphoric success fantasy: see those happy faces, every one’s a winner! We did it!
  • Except the ones who aren’t. See Abject Fear of Failure (and Dr Seuss ‘Oh The Places You’ll Go’)

Awaiting the results, my mind spools through each and every student*, weighing up the likelihood of success and how it will affect them (all right, and me).

There’s Charlie, the class entertainer, more invested in reinterpreting Ali G for a new generation than spending any time working. Would do anything rather than work in class, yet would come to seek out help after school. Told me he didn’t write anything at all in one Literature paper: will his coursework and other literature paper make up for it?

Peter, the young carer, always so tired, crippled with anxiety and lack of confidence, needing reassurance up until the very last moment before every exam.  Timing was his issue: will he have pulled it out the bag under pressure?

Naomi, whose overwhelming anger and sadness about her parents splitting up nearly led to her giving up on her GCSEs altogether. Did she get back on track in time to turn it around?

Ahmed, the sensitive, creative and talented student whose ideas can surprise and amaze even the most jaded teacher: will he have played it safe or blown the examiner away with something truly original?

Emma, the tangential thinker, who despite years of practising planning in every possible way, desperately struggles to link ideas together in a logical fashion. Is there any hope the exam will have been the long-awaited moment of clarity?

Viktor, the long-term absentee: hardly there, but when he is, he wants to succeed. Will the hours spent with him after school on Controlled Assessments and extra revision have paid off?

Ciaran, whose dad’s a plumber and he wants to be a plumber and although he could have got a B or even an A, he only wants a C to get to college, so would never put in any extra effort… has he got his C? Or is it a B… or a D?

After all the hours of lessons, of after-school catch up and revision, of holiday sessions, of home contact, of specially developed resources sent home, of revision packs, of mocks, of quizzes, of online resources prepared and shared on the school website, after all the hard work and the waiting and the wondering, the results bring the security of knowledge. This is what they got.

At this point, all the hard work and the caring for each individual student is polarised into one grade. On one hand, this is a highly emotional moment, where we celebrate successes or mourn failures with students and their families. It has a practical aspect, as we discuss options and next steps.

Yet on the other, it is a moment of dehumanisation. It is the moment where students become data.

It’s a very strange feeling to go from wondering how a student did, from thinking about them as a whole person you have taught for (at least) two years, to seeing them as a statistic on your teacher’s ‘Value Added’ table.

And however much you care about the individual, there will be a moment where the one or two who didn’t make the grade will be the blip on the graph, the ones who ruined the table, destroyed your VA, who stopped you getting a pay rise. It feels selfish and wrong, it’s fleeting, but it happens. It’s the land of the spreadsheet, the reduction of the human to the alphabetical or numerical, the place where teacher is compared to teacher, school to school, league table to league table. It’s the place where individual students get forgotten, because teachers are judged on data alone.

The only answer is to use the data quickly and purposefully to help you to analyse what went well and what went wrong, to explore what you could have done differently. The ‘data goggles’ can help you to zoom in on teaching specifics. Could you have taught Question 4 differently? Should you have spent longer teaching Paper 2?  But don’t dwell too long in the land of the spreadsheet. Take the ‘data goggles’ off so that you can see the whole student again. They are Jetinder and Jake, not +1.5 or -2.0.   And whether or not your performance-related pay slip recognises it, you know those students beyond the spreadsheet. You know whether you could you have done anything more about your students’ home situation, career aspirations or lack of intrinsic motivation.

The school is empty again. You walk into the wide world outside its doors. The successes and failures still feel like they are racing round your bloodstream. Gingerly removing the goggles now, you remind yourself that, although a large part of your life is dedicated to them, there is more to life than exam results, that it’s never too late for students to return to education and try again, and that there are many happy and successful people out there who didn’t get the perfect exam results first time or (whisper it) at all.  After all the teaching, revision and advice on options, hopefully we have taught our students above all to have the independence, agency and motivation to carve their own path in the world:

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”  Dr Seuss ‘Oh the Places You’ll Go’.

*These students are all composite characters with different names, based on the many students I have taught.

Knowledge organisers: why just knowledge?

I have been pondering on knowledge organisers since reading this:

What I like about these knowledge organisers:

  • The clarity and specificity
  • The ability to pre-plan
  • The testability
  • The cultural capital

What I am unsure about:

  • What knowledge is selected as important vs what is left out
  • The rigidity
  • The apparent lack of student agency
  • Why only knowledge?
  • The potential lack of multicultural capital

I discovered that Anthony Radice @AnthonyRadice1 is developing a knowledge organiser approach using Q&As, which he kindly shared early versions of and which appealed as a format to me more than the ‘here are the answers’ lists. So I thought I’d have a go.

When I started writing some draft knowledge organisers based on Anthony’s Q&A approach, I found that I naturally drifted towards the progression that would happen in my class questioning, from factual, through process-based questions, to metacognition questions and those linking to real life outcomes or applications.

In other words, if you can learn knowledge in this way, why can’t you learn processes (note – in discussion with @JamesTheo he described these as ‘procedural knowledge’ which I liked) or metacognitive approaches?

I thought, rather than provide the completed Q&As for pre-learning, why not set the Qs as research HW for the students themselves? We can then check and correct  the answers in DIRT weekly, throw in starter Qs at random every lesson from the Qs already researched and have mid / end of unit tests comprising answers from the research HW across the term. The final week’s HW could even be the students themselves setting their own research Qs based on areas of interest from the unit.

This ‘flipped learning’ then enables more focus in class on perfecting the key processes in reading, writing and oracy, as long as the accuracy of factual knowledge is checked.

I realise there may be disadvantages in moving away from the clarity and simplicity of the knowledge organiser, but this is my first draft of what something along the lines of ‘knowledge, research, process and metacognition’ organiser might look like.. Hmmm. So maybe it isn’t really a knowledge organiser any more?

I would really appreciate constructive feedback, bearing in mind this is all a work in progress as I approach the re-planning of KS3, not anything like a definitive or final answer. Hopefully the transparency of process may be useful for some and I have found twitter feedback to be incredibly valuable so far.

Here’s the link:

I would also like to link to Kris Boulton’s Knowledge Frameworks blog, which has fed in to my thinking:


Work in progress … working out the process. With thanks and credit to Alex Quigley.

I thought I would share thoughts after attending an illuminating session with Alex Quigley yesterday at the English and Media Centre on applying research in the English classroom.  For some unknown, hyperbolic reason, I initially wanted to entitle my post ‘QuigleyMania!’ but as it was a calm, well-mannered and thoughtful occasion throughout, it would have been most unrepresentative of me to do so. However, the ideas discussed did induce some manic planning action for me later in the evening as, like every other school in the land, our department is re-planning with gusto* to stay abreast of* the latest curriculum changes.

*I have an ongoing challenge running with my Head of Faculty to slip the phrases ‘with gusto’ and ‘stay abreast of’ into everyday discourse wherever possible.  

Alex’s introduction was an informative balance of recent research findings, his own experience of ‘what works’ in English and how to approach research (with caution and always looking for studies from the opposing view).  His blog is linked below along with links to the sources he referred to as part of the presentation, and sources I’ve mentioned here when making my own connections: mainly for me to find them easily in one place, but now also for you to explore further.  Be forgiving: this post will be impressionistic as I am recording my initial thoughts on what Alex had to say. I am also asking for help and feedback!  But if I bore you, you can always just skip to the end and click on the links.

My takeaway headlines from the session below are not a Quigley recommended checklist (though he does like a checklist, we gather!) but what I have taken away from the session, which I’m afraid will align to my own cognitive biases, current planning agenda and magpie mindset. It’s My Takeaway (as I have been known to shout of a Friday evening). So with that in mind, I have given a headline and summarised my / our current faculty thinking below in response:

  1. Agreement on a departmental process for how to teach writing and reading – we are in the process of doing this through discussion and building consensus as a faculty, coming to agreement on preferred methods shown to be effective and which can be used as scaffolding (with the intention to ultimately withdraw the scaffolding). Any ‘method’ is combined with other teaching methods eg. modelling, joint construction, not an ‘off the peg’ solution. But for starters, we like PETAL as an ‘early doors’ paragraph structure for structuring analysis (point, evidence, technique, analysis, link). Focuses on ideas before techniques and encourages further analysis through ‘link’ – to alternative interpretation, context, the question, the next point… Be interested to hear what others use, Lindsay Skinner presented at PixL on ‘SCITTLES’,  we have used ‘Iceberg analysis’ before, I saw some ‘rainbow word analysis’ via Mrs C Spalding on twitter.. lots out there. Some will hate any forced paragraph scaffolding at all, finding it limits ideas and creativity, or would baulk at the notion of departmental processes … Open to views!
  1. Movement from teacher dependency through interdependency towards independence – sounds obvious! But at times we bemoan the lack of independence in some of our higher key stage students yet must face up to our own role here.  For me it’s encouraging more of what we already do in our department, eg metacognition strategies as used in our Let’s Think lessons, establishing more secure processes for teaching, modelling, scaffolding, having consistent methods for structured peer assessment, developing independent wider reading schemes and EPQ style research projects, developing oracy. Alex stressed the need for training students thoroughly in self and peer assessment and structuring paired work solidly. He also shared his own class processes and structures for feedback: eg. always peer assess, self assess before handing work in for teacher assessment – encourages independence, shortens marking process, what’s not to like?
  1. Joint construction / live modelling with feedback – demonstrating the writing and editing process, with the class, live on the board or using visualisers, sharing and critiquing work a la Austin’s butterfly, Didau’s ‘making the implicit explicit’ and the National Literacy trust’s Transforming Writing report. I remember feeling the fear about doing this in my PGCE year, my fantastic mentor Nicola encouraging me to start the process and I’ve never looked back. This will be a key element to encourage when mentoring our new trainees: is it ‘THE thing’ ( © Quigley ) P’raps one of the main ones.
  1. Teaching reading strategies explicitly – this is controversial apparently. To me it fits in with the ‘making the implicit explicit’ as mentioned earlier as in sharing how expert readers (us) read. We have previously used a faculty agreed list of strategies such as ‘skim and scan’, ‘predict’, ‘infer’, ‘find evidence’ etc, which could be revived, this is up for discussion… Would be interested in reading those who have research which is anti-reading strategies?
  1. Doing fewer schemes of learning, better – this makes me feel relieved as I am always the one in the faculty who has never finished the scheme of learning before half term! Term lengths, text complexity and level of mastery all determine when we progress to the next scheme. Bodil’s blog on ‘lessons: the wrong unit of time’ also chimed with my instincts on this (alert – my instincts are not research-based!). Despite the temptation to squeeze loads in, we have focused on processes and concepts as well as content and knowledge in our new KS3 planning.
  1. Explicit vocabulary teaching – again a range of research and writing available (Isabel Beck’s Bringing Words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction is interesting) – interested in more. Alex discussed pre-planning vocabulary teaching based on texts to be encountered. The Huntington model is to kick off a knowledge of etymology with a Year 7 ‘History of Language’ unit which is used as the first unit in Year 7.  We currently teach vocabulary on an ‘as it arises from the text basis’ which may be too ad hoc. Help with how to approach this needed… ideas of learning lists of higher Tier words? Sophisticated vocab lists?
  1. Curriculum models. Alex kindly shared his KS3 overview with us which is on his blog below. I found it interesting to compare it with that again kindly shared by Swindon Academy further to their work with David Didau and Martin Robinson (link also below). Big challenges for us all as we face the new closed-book GCSEs with more 19th century fiction and non-fiction. The English dropbox run by @fod3 will be a great resource for #teamEnglish to share long term plans and schemes of work during this time of flux.

Having discussed these and other models in faculty, and taking into account more pragmatic issues like text availability and planning time, along with the school context, our current KS3 work in progress LTP does not take such a pure chronological approach, though I can see the benefits.

For each unit we have discussed / included so far:

  • Key texts
  • the ‘process’ – the reading or writing processes we want students to develop (master) –  this may link to David Didau’s discussion of threshold concepts or be called ‘skills’ although the term ‘skills’ is somewhat pooh-poohed by some… I like Alex’s term: ‘processes’
  • form and genre
  • knowledge – what we want students to take away / forward
  • Wider reading (WR) – building a wider reading list for weekly reading HW on the VLE
  • Let’s Think – we teach fortnightly Let’s Think (Cognitive Acceleration) lessons so selecting which may fit best with the unit
  • Real Life experiences – how to make English connect with the real world

Thinking is still ongoing on planning for SPAG. We prefer teaching literacy / grammar in the context of the texts we read and write rather than teaching discrete literacy lessons but need to plan a departmental way of doing so, specific to the texts we plan to use.  KS3 plans still in progress, need mapping with KS4 and 5 too, I will share soon and would appreciate any feedback.

Those links I mentioned: