An English (Department’s) Journey PART 2: Teaching Hard Stuff

In this blog post, another member of the Kings College (Guildford) English department explains one of the factors in this year’s amazing GCSE results. This time, we’re talking about teaching hard stuff.

Consistency and high expectations and two things that are consistently expected of just about anybody who works in a school. But is this necessarily true of the type of work we expect the kids to do? I’ve been teaching for 17 years with 4 of those in SLT and I’ll openly admit that it has been something that I am guilty of. A classic case of ‘Oh these kids won’t be able to do that, they’ll find it too hard and will give up!’ Thankfully over the past 2 and a half years, since stepping down from SLT and going back into the classroom, this egregious error has been well and truly removed from my practice.

I’ve only taught English for two years and this was due to my aforementioned move from SLT back to a classroom practitioner. I was asked to take on a ‘challenging’ group and try and get them to engage in English and achieve a modicum of ‘success’ (whatever that looks like!) – this was a group who were used to a low bar and consequently believed that this was all they could do.

As @Mulligan already highlighted in a previous blog the KS3 curriculum has been developed to push the students right from the word go. Focusing on learning key terminology and themes and mastering them before they get to Year 10. When discussing how a total English novice should approach his group, the same principle applied – consistently make it hard, consistently make it challenging and consistently expect the students to give their best. As someone who had used the ‘can’t do it’ excuse in the past in his own specialist subject I was bloody nervous. Turns out I shouldn’t have been.

By focusing on teaching hard concepts and content this ‘challenging’ group became more and more motivated. The focus on literacy and learning 4 words a week saw the students desperate to use a newly learnt word in their work. Students who previously would use the word ‘nice’ as their go to adjective used ‘diaphonous’ to describe a dress or ‘mellifluous’ to describe a sound. They wanted to know the difference between omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotence and they wanted to use them in their work.

This was also reflected in their approach to key texts. Yes, my group found Macbeth hard but they all wanted to produce great answers and had the vast majority knew the main plot points Act by Act. An Inspector Call was no different – the discussions we had based around class bias and has Britain really changed were amazing. A Christmas Carol saw us looking at the similarities between Scrooge and the Birlings.

By teaching ‘hard stuff’ and acknowledging it was hard the vast majority of students wanted to prove to everybody that they could do English. And do it well.

The result of pushing and teaching difficult stuff? 41% of the students gained a grade 4 or higher. From a group where 8% were predicted to achieve it (which shows the value of predicting anything!) And a teacher with radically changed perceptions on what can be achieved – if you make it hard enough!

– @edgarbrun


An English (Department’s) Journey PART 1: Prioritising KS3

Two months after I joined Kings College (Guildford) in September 2016, Ofsted came in and judged the school to be ‘Inadequate’. It wasn’t long before the school (43% PP, largely white working class) was voted by one local, very widely read, newspaper, ‘The Worst School in Surrey’, and a national tabloid published our name on a list of the worst schools in England. By December 2018 the school became one of the first schools in England to jump two Ofsted ratings, from ‘Inadequate’ to ‘Good’ in such a short space of time. That August, English results in the school had risen from 43% to 53%. A year later, in August 2019, the English department- a rag-tag group of five, made up of two specialists, two non-specialists, and a trainee, found out that they had helped students secure the best results the English department had ever had, with 76% of students achieving a pass in either Lit or Lang and 53% achieving a good pass (5+). This achievement, combined with other departments’ sterling efforts meant that this year, 3 years after being declared the worst school in Surrey, Kings College secured it’s best ever GCSE results.

On results day, despite me moaning about teachers doing this in the past,I couldn’t help but show off about the English department’s achievements. 43 to 76% in just two years. I know there will be people reading this right now, saying that it’s remiss for us, as teachers, to take any credit for the results achieved by our students. If you think this, you are wrong. Of course students are hugely responsible for their success- and failure. But to deny or ignore teacher’s impact would be folly. After all, a class doesn’t get a 100% pass rate if the teacher doesn’t teach them what they’re meant to learn.

In this series of blogs, I’m going to do my best to explain, with the help of my colleagues at Kings, to explain how we helped the students to do what they did. As Head of Department, I recognise 6 factors (listed in no particular order):

  1. Prioritising KS3 over KS4
  2. A supportive headteacher
  3. Teaching hard stuff
  4. Making curriculum the thing
  5. Great teaching
  6. Relentless Modelling.

The first part of this series is written by English Teacher extraordinaire, @MissJMulligan and looks at the way greater focus on KS3 leads to greater success at KS4.

1. Prioritising KS3 over KS4

Our Key Stage Three curriculum is relentlessly challenging. We teach each core text over a term, with other key areas woven in. The texts are highly challenging not only in content, but in the discussions their themes provoke. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ ‘The Speckled Band’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ all feature in Year 8, and The Iliad is Year 7’s first introduction to English at Kings. In year 9 kids read either Frankenstein (yes- the full, unabridged version) or The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Shakespeare, too, features highly, with ‘The Tempest’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ all studied during the three year course. 

Grammar, Vocabulary, Creative Writing, Poetry, Rhetoric and Non-Fiction are all interspersed with these literary works. This is coupled with the use of Direct Instruction; the overt teaching of four words a week designed to give students a better general vocabulary. 

Knowledge is power. Power breeds confidence. Teachers in our department have two or three core literary concepts/terms only that students must understand by the end of each text or topic. This has two advantages, but the first is that students build up thorough knowledge of core literary terms and their usage. A typical Year 7, for example, will be able to explain and identify simile, metaphor, verse, prose and soliloquy by Christmas.

Students are empowered by this knowledge. They communicate with big brothers about why “solitary as an oyster” is a simile and not a metaphor. They explain with nonchalance to guardians why verse indicates higher status than prose. They question the ordering of classical rhetoric and move the refutation where they fancy, because they speak with authority.

Put simply – they know they know stuff.

The second advantage of this knowledge-rich curriculum is that, without warning, feeling powerful starts feeling fun. Competence breeds a thirst for further competence and as confidence improves, students seek more for themselves.

This curiosity filters upwards. By GCSE, students have already grappled with key terms and texts others may first encounter only partway through Year 10 and have the confidence to articulate what they feel and know about a text.  They believe in their teachers and value their knowledge, and understand that sometimes, you need to just listen. They fear pen-to-paper less, because they have the words to show themselves.

But there’s a secret here. The best thing about KS3 in our school is that I love teaching it. I love that once I spent a month of our creative writing lessons slow-writing a short story with a class because the kids wanted to, and that’s OK with the boss. I love that I will never againdrag an eleven-year-old through a GCSE language paper as if that’s somehow useful. I love that when others cover my classes, they’re pulled up for misspelling learned vocabulary.

We give our students voices of their own so they do not shy away from challenge. By the time they reach GCSE, they have the words – and the love – they need to succeed. 

ME, ME, ME: The Spotlight Effect and Teaching.

Yesterday I shaved my beard off.

It was joyous, for me, to behold the Adonis that looked back at me from the mirror, all smooth chinned and liberated lip. “This will make me feel better,” I thought. I care a lot about what other people think of my appearance (*Yes- I know I need to love myself but it’s difficult when you’re a 33 year old man with a head like a pachycephalosaurus, and ears resembling the handles of a certain domestic football trophy) and so, a few compliments about my new, more chiselled, less scruffy appearance would do nicely to help get me through the tiring last few days of term.

Nobody said a thing.

Now, I’m sure the people I work with ain’t horrible bastards; it wasn’t necessarily that they noticed my freedom from fuzz and just chose not to say anything. Rather, they just failed to realise an essential truth; that everything I do should be a huge deal for them.

Apparently, my egocentric tendencies aren’t that unusual. The Spotlight Effect, a term coined by psychologists Gilovich, Medvec, and Savitsky in their paper, The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance (2000), refers to the way in which, ‘people tend to believe that the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does.’ Basically, our whole experience of the world is framed through our own perspective and experiences. So, we naturally assume that other people see the world as we do: through our lens. Because of this, we tend to overestimate the extent to which people notice changes in our appearance, our mishaps, and our accomplishments.

Gilovich and his colleagues asked participants to wear a t-shirt with someone’s face on it, and enter a room with other students in it. Once the participants left the room, they were asked how many people they thought had noticed or could remember the face on the t-shirt. Each time, participants drastically over-estimated the extent to which people had noticed the face. What’s more, if the student was wearing a face they were embarrassed to wear (in this case the face was that of Barry Manilow –sorry Baz), then they over-estimated even further the extent to which people had registered the great man’s face, on their t-shirt. This has quite pleasing implications because it means that when we are embarrassed, we’re likely to have a more severely skewed idea of just how many students notice the gargantuan sweat stain emanating from our left armpit as we give assembly.

So, what does this mean for teachers? A few things.


It means you can wear that new ‘zany’ tie, sport that new haircut, or try out that new neon yellow dress, without fear of ridicule from students and staff alike. So go on, if you think it will make you feel good, embrace the skinny tie your Mum said looked good on you at Nana’s wedding.


If you’re new to the classroom, or you’re having to present to some god awful panel, or you’re delivering CPD after school on a Friday, and you feel nervous, the chances and despite what you think, your whole audience hasn’t noticed your shaky hands, the tremble in your voice, or the sweat patches.


Perhaps many of us resort to overly slidey PowerPoint slides as a means of distracting from something about ourselves that we consider to be embarrassing: A bad haircut, a pimple on the nose, or a tightly-fitting shirt that reveals just a little too much of last night’s six-pack. Your students need more of you and less smoke-screen. Give them it.


Often teachers avoid live modelling in class because they become hyper aware of things their audience probably won’t notice, or care about: the odd typo, wonky handwriting, a bit of thinking time from the teacher before committing thoughts to the board. A seven second pause as you try to remember how to spell ‘excruciating’ might seem like eternity to you, but for your audience it might seem like…er…7 seconds.


Your students will fall victims to the spotlight effect too. They will over-estimate the extent to which people might react badly to their answering questions in class. Make your students feel less self-conscious by telling them about The Spotlight Effect, and building a culture where it’s safe-even desirable- to get things wrong every now and again.

Mental Health Awareness Week: An excerpt from ‘Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools.’

Our book, Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools contains a whole chapter looking at boys’ mental health. In the chapter we offer a range of suggestions as to how we can improve boys’ mental health. In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week, here are two of these suggestions, taken directly from the book.

Talk with boys using their language

Despite the dominant narrative of male emotional mutism, often men and boys are talking about mental health, but we’re failing to notice that they are because they’re not using the language of mental health we’re listening out for. Men, encouraged to stifle any emotional outpourings from a young age, lack the vocabulary of mental health: so, whilst it wouldn’t seem unusual for a female to say, ‘I’ve been feeling really anxious,’ or, ‘I’m worried I might be depressed,’ the opposite is true for a male, who has been encouraged from birth, to display stoic fortitude and strength at all times. Male use of clinical words such as ‘anxious’, and ‘depressed’, which directly refer to mental health, are not part of the male lexicon because to speak those words would be to speak of weakness. There is a further issue, as Robertson and Baker note, that even phrases like ‘I’m feeling unloved,’ or ‘I have butterflies in my stomach all the time’, which avoid medical terminology, are still feminised and therefore less likely to be used by men. An Australian study, conducted by Fiona Shand et al, surveyed men on the language they used to express suicidal thoughts and depression. The top 5 words or phrases men used to describe feeling suicidal were:

The top 5 words or phrases men used to describe feeling depressed were:

Whilst you won’t get many teenage boys using the phrase, ‘down in the dumps’, what we do see here is the use of acceptably male words (‘stressed’ and ‘tired’ is what you should feel after a day of all that manly work) used euphemistically to express feelings associated with a serious mental health issue.

As teachers we need to be mindful of the language boys use and the very real possibility that when a boy tells us he’s ‘tired’, it might not be because he’s had too much late night X-Box – it might be that he feels he’s had too much life; when he tells us he’s ‘stressed’ it might not be that he’s fed up with revision, it might be that he’s fed up with living. As teachers we need to ensure we take note of the frequency with which boys use these terms, and take note of the contexts in which they are used: I’m tired because I stayed up late is very different to I keep falling out with my friends and I just feel tired of it all.

Provide men to talk to

Whilst students ascribe very little importance to a teacher’s gender in terms of learning, a study in Australia found that where personal matters are concerned, students would prefer to talk to someone of their own gender. In my previous school, the pastoral team – that is, the body of teachers responsible for helping and supporting students with issues not directly related to their subject learning – was largely female. Noticing that this was also the case with pastoral teams on a number of school-based television documentaries, I took to Twitter to see if this reflected a wider trend. Here are the results of a poll, in which 413 people responded:

Overwhelmingly, the staff whose job it is to counsel and console children tends to be female. It’s important that school leaders make a concerted effort to ensure boys know that in their schools, on their pastoral teams there is a man with a kind smile and a sympathetic ear. A boy who is anxious about his penis size, or confused with his sexuality, or fuming at the fact that Lucy in 9B told her friends about the love letter he wrote her, may be desperate for a man to discuss this with. If the shoulders to cry on are always female, we could be doing some boys a huge disservice.

You can order your copy of Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools here:


Robertson, S. & Baker, P. (2016) ‘Men and health promotion in the United Kingdom: 20 years forward?’ Health Education Journal, 76, pp. 102-113

Shand FL., Proudfoot J., Player MJ., et al. (2015) ‘What might interrupt men’s suicide? Results from an online survey of men’. BMJ Open. Available at: (Accessed: 14th August 2018)

Martin, A. J. & Marsh, H. (2005) ‘Motivating boys and motivating girls: does teacher gender really make a difference?’ Australian Journal of Education, 49:3, pp 320–334.

An English Journey through ‘An Inspector Calls’.

Published in 1934, English Journey details JB Priestley’s 1933 tour of England, a trip commissioned by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz (who would later commission Orwell’s copycat travelogue, The Road to Wigan Pier), who was eager to expose the grim realities of working-class post-war Britain. Perhaps to Gollancz’s alarm, English Journey begins optimistically: it is with childish awe and excitement that Priestley observes the Ocean Liners at Southampton, comparing them to Medieval Cathedrals in the way that they are testament to the ambition and accomplishments of mankind.

But, as the days and miles pass, and as Priestley heads further North, away from the private clubs and champagne dinners of London, towards the industrial communities of the North, what begins as a seemingly sentimental jaunt around the country, quickly descends into a record of decimated neighbourhoods, impoverished individuals, and futures devoid of hope and comfort.

Thirteen years later, An Inspector Calls is performed on the London stage for the first time. English Journey, the experiences related in it, and the biographical insight it provides into the thoughts, motives, and political beliefs of its writer, bolster any contextual interrogation of An Inspector Calls and for those studying it at GCSE, I outline the following essential takeaways.

1.Priestley’s experience of the First World War informs his contempt for Mr Birling

In EJ, Priestley visits his hometown of Bradford for a reunion battalion dinner. The occasion prompts Priestley to remark that

The men who were boys when I was a boy are dead. Indeed, they never even grew to be men. They were slaughtered in their youth; and the parents of them have gone lonely, the girls they would have married have grown grey in spinsterhood, and the work they would have done has remained undone.

Priestley goes on to say that his childhood friends, victims of the war that killed so many, were ‘killed by greed…by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs.’ It’s tempting to think that Priestley’s relentless efforts to present Birling as an arsehole stem purely from a contempt for the ruling classes on an economic and political basis, but this suggests that Priestley’s contempt goes far beyond that. One gets the sense that for Priestley, men like Birling are not only responsible for the poverty and deprivation endured by the working classes in post-war Britain, but are also responsible for the slaughter of so many working class men in the first world war.

Priestley’s musings also invite us to look at the younger Birling male in a different light. Will Eric’s ‘public-school-and-Varsity-life’ protect him from the fate suffered by Priestley’s childhood pals? Or is the deplorable behaviour he exhibits in the play, a desperate attempt by Priestley to justify the inevitable fate that Eric will inevitably suffer, as a young man of Britain, in the ‘Great War’ that will begin two years after the play’s action ends.

2. Priestley knew the Midlands and he knew factories

Priestley’s decision to set the play in an ‘Industrial City in the North Midlands’ was based on an in-depth knowledge of the area and the processes of the factories within it. In EJ he describes how the landscape of the Midlands ‘unrolled before you like a smouldering carpet. You looked into an immense hollow of smoke and blurred buildings and factory chimneys. There seemed to be no end to it.’ Interestingly, considering the way they are presented in AIC, the factories that intruded upon the landscape of the Midlands and beyond impressed Priestley. He dedicates substantial amounts of ink to marvelling over the way factories produce typewriters, hosiery, and even chocolate. And yet, for all this, he is distinctly aware of the differing impacts of mechanisation on the lives of those who ran factories, like Birling, and factory workers, like Eva:

[there is] a great distinction between the fortunate few who are outside the machine and are capable of making changes in it, and the great mass of ordinary workpeople, mostly women, who are inside the machine, simply part of it. This distinction is so great that you feel that there two sets of people ought to belong to two different races.

Mr Birling (and the class for which he is a metonym) are outside the machine: he can raise prices and drop wages. He can forgive disruption and punish it. Eva, however, is someone inside the machine: a vital, but easily replaceable-and dispensable-cog. His observation that factory workers and factory owners are like people from ‘two different races’ explains the motivation behind Mrs Birling’s attempts to distance herself from Eva when she talks about ‘girls of that class.’

3. Priestley is an obsessive dramatist

AIC abounds in Stage Directions. In fact, Priestley’s fastidiousness in outlining exactly how he wants the play to look, the characters to talk, and the lines to be delivered may explain why productions of An Inspector Calls are so uniform in appearance and delivery. In the past, I have always theorised that Priestley’s meticulous approach is an indicator of his absolute determination to convey his message. But actually, EJ suggests that political motive isn’t the only thing driving force behind Priestley’s pedantic insistence on exactly how each line of the play should be delivered:

The theatre gets you. The play binds you, body and soul. There seems to be nothing else worth talking about…The whole life of the city, except so far as it touches your theatre, is nothing. You and your colleagues might be members of a secret society, working feverishly to strike a sudden blow at authority…The real questions are: “Will Bert manage that five seconds fade out all right?” and “Is Miss So-and-so going to get that move right at the end of Act Two?”

Priestley’s maddening technical attention to detail isn’t just about striking a blow against authority; it’s also inextricably linked to that ‘tide of excitement, sometimes roaming into hysteria, which inevitably rises when a play is being produced.” Priestley just wants to be perfect at something he loves. What’s clear in EJ is just how dependent he is on theatre as a means of escape. With every visit to a new town he discusses with verve and enthusiasm, the state of theatre in that particular location. It’s worth baring in mind this enthusiasm, when discussing AIC’s stage directions. They are the product of a political man, but also a political man with a hobby.


Priestley, JB (2018) English Journey, Great Northern: Bradford

A Thought Experiment Gone Horribly Wrong…

This week I’ve been arguing quite passionately that there is no need for classroom teachers to know which of their pupils are in receipt of the Pupil Premium fund. The rationale behind this belief is that such knowledge might trigger an unconscious bias that leads classroom teachers to view students from lower socio-economic backgrounds as academically or behaviourally deficient. Of course, no teacher wants to admit that they might be biased against anybody, particularly any students they teach. Teachers should be saints, after all.

This morning, I thought about how I might get teachers to examine any unconscious bias they might hold against students from low-income backgrounds and so this tweet was born:

I gave no information about distances, or safety, or street lighting; only the fact that one route goes through an estate, and the other doesn’t. For me, choosing the second option was a potential indicator of a class bias because only a negative view of council estates could lead one to instinctively choose the second option.

Note: I’m not so stupid as to realise that this thought experiment could be hugely flawed in any number of ways – I did appeal for help to make the thought experiment ‘tighter’:

I didn’t actually want answers to the question. Confronting biases is uncomfortable, and I would never expect or ask teachers to share such information online. For what it’s worth, I’d always take the second option. This is in spite of the fact that my house is on a council estate, which means I am burdened (or empowered?) with the uncomfortable knowledge that I too could be class-biased.

When I used the pronoun ‘you’ in the original question, I meant it: I wanted people to consider their instinctive response to the question in the context of their gender, beliefs, religion and experiences, because these are all things that impact on the way we form our individual biases. So, if you are a woman who carries a rape alarm at night, keys sticking out of a clenched fist in preparation for an attack, then I wanted the question answered as a woman who carries a rape alarm at night, keys sticking out of a clenched fist in preparation for an attack. Similarly, if you are a man, who never has to worry about being raped when walking at night, then I wanted you to answer as a man who never has to worry about being raped when walking at night.

My tweet was met with a large number of caveats, on my timeline and via DM, which I soon dismissed as ‘boring’:

• Which route is safer?

• Which route is quickest?

• Who am I with?

• I wouldn’t walk either because I’m a woman

• Are statistics available on crimes that have taken place in each route?

I shouldn’t have called these caveats boring, but I did because I felt that people were intentionally detracting from my original point.

The adjective was also borne out of frustration because I felt utterly patronised, when it came to people’s comments relating to gender. Many people, mostly by DM, and some publicly, explained to me that women couldn’t answer the question because they would never even consider walking alone at night.

I didn’t just feel patronised – I was boiling with anger. I know it’s not safe for women to walk alone at night. I really, really know this.

Of course, I will never fully ‘know’, because I am a man. But I feel that I try very hard to understand: I go all over the country talking about gender and the way negative aspects of masculinity impacts women so appallingly. During the research for the ‘Sex and Sexism’ chapter of my book, I interviewed many, many women who have suffered vile abuse, in an attempt to better understand the female perspective on this. I felt that people were suggesting I was unthinking and uncaring, and that was frustrating for me.

I was wrong though.

My question, although well meaning, was male-centric. It didn’t take into account that many women never have walked alone at night because of the threat of male violence, and even those women who have walked alone at night, the negative emotions invoked by such an experience made answering the question impossible, because it’s entirely impossible to separate gender from the hypothetical scenario. The question excluded women and so I am sorry for posing it as I did.

But being sorry does not mean I am any less angry or frustrated. I am human. And it’s human to feel infuriated when you mess up particularly when you mess up in an area to which you devote a lot of time, money, and emotion.

Also, I still think that people need to realise that despite how I come across on Twitter: despite the selfies, and the baseball caps and the hastily written tweets that are posted without proper thought, I’m not stupid. I don’t need to be told that it’s unsafe for women to walk alone at night. I’m not an idiot.

So what have I learnt? I’ve learnt that still, I see things through the male lens. I can never take for granted what being a man grants me. Even something as trivial as this morning’s tweet was loaded with gender privilege that excluded women.

On a positive note, whilst I’m upset by all this, I realise that this is a learning curve. And I will learn from it. So thanks to all those who have engaged without deliberately patronising, and I’m sorry to all those my tweet offended.

N.B – Here’s a (hopefully) improved version of my original thought experiment:

It’s the daytime and you are walking home. There are two possible routes to take, both of equal distance. Do you take…

1. The route through the council estate?

2. The route through the street with an average house price of £500k

Try not to think too hard about it. Go with your immediate, instinctive answer. This could indicate a class bias. Couldn’t it?

Messy Planning: Part Three

If you don’t use PowerPoint, what do your lessons look like?

In this final blog post on Messy Planning I want to convey a sense of what my lessons look like. The best way to do this, I think, is to take you through a typical lesson from start to finish, segueing into deeper explanation if I deem it necessary to do so.

Recently, a student told me, “It looks like you just decide what to teach on the day.” This disappointed me, because it’s not true. (I’ve talked about that here.) But, nevertheless, it worries me that the way my lessons ‘look’ leads students to think this way, given that student perception of a teacher’s capabilities goes some way to building those all-important relationships necessary for optimum learning. (Andy Tharby covers this in some detail, in Chapter Two of his new book, How to explain absolutely anything to absolutely anyone: The Art and Science of Teacher Explanation.) As such, what follows should not be read as an example of ‘How to do it’, but rather as simply an honest reflection of what a typical lesson looks like if you are a student in one of my classes.

1. Start of the lesson

Students will walk into the lesson and more often than not, there will not be a pre-prepared worksheet on the desk in front of them. Instead, students stand until I tell them so sit and then I’ll declare firmly, “Back of your books.” Students know right from the off that what’s about to take place is a low-stakes quiz. This means:

• They’re going to be asked to remember something they’ve been taught previously

• They’re going to be asked difficult questions

• I will not ask them for their answers

• I will not mark their answers

• I will not look at what they write

At the start of every year I talk to students about low-stakes quizzing and the importance of retrieval practice, and because they know what’s going on, they’ll carry out the quiz honestly. Typically, I’ll ask them a few questions about content learned in the previous lesson, with a few questions about something they did the previous, week, month, year etc. Sometimes, I won’t do this, but will just ask them to write down as many quotations as they can remember from a text we’ve been studying.

I’ll always give feedback on the quizzes and tell kids the answers to the questions. More often than not, this means re-teaching something. For example, if none of the students remember that ‘Look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under’t’ is an example of antithesis, I’ll have to teach them the definition of antithesis, using examples and non-examples (from memory – I can do this because of how I spend my Planning and Preparation Time), again. I’ll make a mental note to question them on antithesis again later in the week. 9 times out of 10 I’ll remember to do this.

2. The Lesson

I give out the books and start reading. If we come to a section of the text that I think worthy of deeper analysis, I’ll put my own copy of the text under the visualiser. I use a relatively cheap one from Ipevo. I’ll question kids on the extract and I’ll annotate it on the board for them to see. If I’m asking them to annotate, I’ll encourage students to write annotations in their own words if at all possible.

Sometimes, it becomes necessary to use images. I rarely rely on pre-prepared images (unless I’m teaching something new for the first time). Often, a student will ask a question that will require an answer that uses images for elucidation and I’ll have to do a ‘live search’ there and then. For example, in a recent lesson with Year 11, as we were analysing some post-war poetry, many students had an uncertain grasp on the concept of Modernism. Thinking on my feet, I googled an image of the Mona Lisa and then another of a Picasso. I explained to students that the De Vinci represented a traditional view of the world, whilst the Picasso could be said to be modernist. I then went onto explain Modernism in more detail.

This sort of ‘live searching’ occurs often. It’s not perfect, and I’m sure it can be one of the reasons some students may think I’ve not ‘planned’ a lesson. For many students a planned lesson is a PowerPoint lesson. However, the fact is, I simply cannot anticipate every single question or misconception that all the individuals in any one lesson might present. Nor can I anticipate which extracts or texts from my long term memory will be necessary to draw upon to make clear these misconceptions up and so, often, students will see me darting to my office to come back with a dusty book to whack under the visualiser to aid learning or understanding.

Generally, I talk lots. My talking is great at times – I think I can stretch kids pretty far and I think over the years I’ve developed some pretty good explanations. At other times, I talk too much and I rely on humour too much. As I get older I think it seems a little desperate. I need to work on this.

I’m pretty handy at drawing so I like to occasionally draw on the white board to aid kids’ understanding. For example, I’ll draw Ozymandias as I’m teaching it. That looks like this.

Once I’ve done my talking I’ll ask kids to do a written task. Generally, before they get on with it, I’ll model a live example on the board. Live modelling is important. After all:

When kids get to work I’ll try and be silent, but again, I need to get better at this. As kids are working I’ll keep an eye on who’s struggling and I’ll talk to kids about their work as they do it, asking questions to prompt students to think about mistakes they may have committed. I’ll always find the time to stop the class and read out examples of good work.

Ideally, everytime students conduct written work, I’ll take the time to see each kids work individually, and I’ll give verbal feedback to the whole class, before setting them DIRT tasks aimed at rectifying common errors. But this doesn’t always happen. It happens, but not always.

At the end of the lesson a bell will go and I’ll realise I haven’t set homework so I’ll ask kids to finish off what they didn’t do during class, or, as is usually the case, I’ll set them a question that they need to answer, based on what’s been learnt in lessons. Today, me and Year 8 read and watched Act 1 Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Their homework was:

‘Harold Bloom said that “Bottom is Shakespeare’s Everyman.” What do you think this means? Tell me why you agree or disagree.’

I hadn’t planned this homework before the lesson, but it seemed the right thing to set based on what we got covered in class.

Told you it was messy.