Monday, 31 October 2011

Secondary English - Halloween Word Origins

Samhain: the seeds of fear
Hallowe'en has been and gone. Afraid? You should be. I'm standing right behind you. Not really (I'm under your bed).

These days (in the UK, at least), the main fear response triggered by Hallowe'en is parental anxiety over excessive snacking contributing to childhood obesity. However, to be fair, Hallowe'en's historical roots were not as a festival of fear, but as a celebration of the end of the year and the beginning of the new. In the Old Celtic calendar the new year began in November, and the end of October was a night of celebration incorporating some traditions to honour the dead. There were good spirits to be wished safe passage to the afterlife, and evil spirits to be dodged, discouraged, or downright confused by disguising oneself as them. If the last point seems like an odd strategy, try to put yourself in the evil spirits' shoes: can you predict how would you react if you went to a party only to find everyone else had come dressed as you?

The Celtic festival most chronologically aligned with Hallowe'en is Samhain (pronounced sow-inn) which means 'summer's end'. Historically, pagan and Christian festivals have often blended, and as November 1st was designated All Saints' Day or All Hallows' Day, so October 31st became All Hallows' Eve, or All-Hallow-Even (hallow is derived from the Old English hālgian, which is related to hālig, meaning holy, and even is a short form of evening). Thus the word Hallowe'en came to exist in the 1800s as a contracted form. Somewhere along the way its apostrophe was lost, and the generally accepted current form is Halloween.

The trick or treat tradition of children demanding sweets (sorry, candy) was popularized in the US in the 1940s, where Hallowe'en is a national institution. Householders may decorate their front porches with carved pumpkin jack-o'-lanterns, but woe betide those who don't stump up with the treats. This practice was originally known as guising in Scotland and Ireland, where it is still popular, and still involves going from door to door in costume asking for candy (sorry, sweets) but without the added threat of retribution as an incentive. Turnips tend to be used rather than pumpkins (as they were in Celtic tradition) and eager participants go dooking rather than bobbing for apples.

The festival of Hallowe'en would be a good deal less colourful without its associated assortment of gruesome creatures of myth, such as ghosts, goblins, and ghouls. The constituent parts of this alliterative triple threat have their etymological origins in a variety of languages. For example, ghost comes from the Old English gāst, which is related to Old Frisian jēst, the Old High German geist meaning 'spirit', and the Sanskrit hēda, meaning 'fury' or 'anger'. Goblin comes from Old French and from the Middle High German kobolt, whereas ghouls (evil demons thought to eat human bodies, either stolen corpses or children) come from the Arabic ghūl (from ghāla, meaning 'he seized'). And the much-maligned word witch is derived from the Old English wicca, which is related to the Middle Low German wicken (meaning 'to conjure') and the Swedish vicka (to move to and fro).

Hope you had a happy Hallowe'en, whether you chose to apostrophize or otherwise. And don’t have nightmares.

Duncan Black - Editor

All A Level - Independent Learning

‘The Sixth Form Catch-22’:
A Logical Paradox at A Level

Pascal’s Wager is a familiar staple of A Level reasoning, but it seems I have entered my own wager with another Catch-22 type situation, not such an ultimate existential problem, granted, but one which is very real in the experience of teaching Sixth Form today!

A Level teaching is certainly what keeps me going week to week, as my subject(s) is my passion, but it isn’t really what I imagined it to be (or certainly what I remember it being back in the day – 12 whole years ago!). My technique has always been ‘do what you’d do with lower school’, as I was advised in my NQT year – thus far this has worked in producing excellent results. However, I question whether, this leads to a GCSE style spoon-feed at times. True, there is a structure to exam answers, required content and buzz words, but surely we need to be bridging the gap between school and higher education? Here, the A Level teacher finds themselves in an unending cycle of reasoning - we need results, need them to ‘know’ how to answer the question with all the key content, yet we want to challenge, stretch and prepare them for the next step - which for many is a degree.

Having taught the ‘new’ specifications for RS and Sociology for four years, it is time to re-vamp, re-think and give a new lease of life to my A Level schemes of work. It dawned on me last year that one of the key areas where my students seem to be lacking is independent learning. They seem to have latched on well to Kagan style strategies for collaboration, AfL and so on, but Mike Hughes’ ‘Red to Blue’ ideas of moving towards a student-focussed style of learning (‘Blue’) seems to leave many of them stumped.

Last year I began a small experiment with my Year 12 RS class (mixed ability). If work wasn’t on the PowerPoint they weren’t writing it down, so I began to drop in key hints and phrases every lesson for key points. For example, “great idea Claire, that is REALLY important, excellent idea,” “that would be an IDEAL point for an AO2 essay, REALLY a high level link,” and so on. This got no results, no matter how many times I said the words ‘really’ and ‘important’ together not one pen was put to paper. In the end I asked them, and got the answer I was expecting, “we only write down what’s on the board.” This is disastrous in a subject which lends itself to discussion and bouncing ideas around. Sadly, they still aren’t doing it now in Year 13!

So, what does work? I have trialled a few more, slightly more successful, ideas lately too. Plenty of self assessment seems effective, in some lessons students then took ownership and devised their own piece of homework for the week – I was intrigued as to whether they would complete this work, or if the value would be lost because I hadn’t ‘set it’. Interestingly the majority did complete it, bar the usual suspects. The same suspects also failed my ‘test’ to see if, when given free reign over half the lesson, they would choose to do the set work, use resources and study spaces, or to go home…

In our department I am leading a ‘Tweaking Humanities’ project (based on Hughes' ‘Tweak to Transform’) with a focus on moving from ‘red to blue’ and the 4 part lesson structure. I hope that by increasing ‘blue’ focussed lessons gradually, there may be improvement. It is impossible to create a total culture shift in one lesson, so my strategy now is to do it gradually. By implementing this throughout the year groups, perhaps we will see more progress. I believe this may be the only way; as otherwise we are sending hundreds of students to undergraduate courses who are unprepared, and sadly without the skills to learn.

Esther Zarifi
Religious Studies, Philosophy & Ethics Teacher
Prudhoe Community High School

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Secondary RE - Introducing Spirituality

Spirituality can be difficult to define and explain, so where can you start when trying to introduce the topic in a meaningful way to a class of 13 year olds?

An approach that has been successful for the students I teach is one that encourages students to reflect upon the evidence of their own experiences, which can then give them the empathy needed to truly understand what spirituality means to other people.

I start by encouraging the students to consider ‘things that make their spirits soar’. I give them my own accounts, (e.g. lying down on the grass on a sunny day with my friends and identifying the shapes in the clouds, or sitting on the cool sand on a cold autumn day snuggled into my hoody with a hot chocolate) and then students make a list of their own examples and experiences. The students always come up with great examples, from the feelings that they have when they wake up on Christmas morning, to the feeling of comfort and happiness hanging out with their best friends, not even having to say anything at all to each other. The more descriptive their examples are the better. The key is to get students to identify the feelings or emotions and to get them to share their ideas with others. There is always one student in the class who writes ‘sleeping’ which I don’t allow them to have, as you are not aware of feelings and emotions when you are sleeping. The example that I am still most impressed with is the response from a Year 8 boy who struggles both behaviourally and academically, who told the class about going ferreting on a cold, snowy day when he can’t feel his fingers or toes anymore and he has had no luck and is getting tired, and then he sees a rabbit dart from its warren, it makes him feel all warm inside to the point that he doesn’t feel cold anymore and his hope has been lifted.

This is what spirituality is about: exploring the feelings, emotions and effects of these simple events. By doing this, my students have come to understand that everybody experiences spirituality in different ways and that the feelings and emotions are a significant part of this. It can be very difficult to put these thoughts and feelings into words, but it allows students to gain an understanding which can help them through the rest of the unit, exploring how religious people express their spirituality through art or music or acts of worship. The teaching of spirituality should be separated from external and objective facts and observations, and instead should start with students' own experiences, then they can have true empathy and understanding when learning about and learning from religions.

Teresa Langler
Head of Beliefs and Values
Clyst Vale Community College

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Secondary Geography - Geographical Enquiry

Always Asking Questions: Introducing Geographical Enquiry

One of the most useful tools in the teachers’ toolkit is the work of Margaret Roberts and her ‘cycle of geographical enquiry’. The cycle is powered by children’s curiosity. The question ‘Why?’ is asked early, and repeatedly, by children before they even start school. Hopefully that spirit of enquiry is encouraged and nurtured once they start school, so that they don’t get out of the habit of questioning.

The starting point for a lesson sequence should be a series of questions. ‘Why’ can be joined by ‘When’, ‘Where’, ‘What’ and ‘Who’. You may also be able to think of others. Questions could come from negotiation with students, who must also develop strategies for answering them appropriately. Remember that students don’t necessarily “know what they don’t know”, so there is still a need for subject specialists such as yourselves to choose the key questions to ensure that the learning has breadth as well as depth.

In geography there is a whole world of questions to select of course. Questions should create a ‘need to know’ and have what Liz Taylor, author of ‘Representing Geography’ has called ‘pith and rigour’. They might ask what can be seen in an image or consider what might happen in the future. They should be ‘open’, and offer chances for analysis.

Rachel Lofthouse of Newcastle University describes the use of what she calls BGQ’s (Big Geographical Questions) These might include a question like “Why do people live where they do?”, which will still be asked in twenty years time. Alternatively, they might be more intriguing, such as “Where does London end?”

Copyright: Geographical Association

Further questions will then arise from the use of geographical skills that follows. The selection of supportive geo-media such as images to help answer the questions will involve discussions and generate further questions. For example, “How much of Rio de Janeiro is made up of slum housing?”, or “Will the World Cup in 2014 change Rio for the better?”.

For Tom Biebrach, who teaches at Howells School in Wales, these explorations are "the framework that geographers use to understand the complex world”. Enquiry must involve fieldwork where possible, and provide opportunities for pupils to communicate their ideas and findings in creative ways.

Using enquiry enables teachers to ‘tick the PLTS box’, and is at the heart of the Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme (TEEP) which is run by the School’s Network and is being introduced into some schools. Tony Cassidy, who teaches at Kirk Hallam in Derbyshire suggests that questions enable students to ‘travel through the lesson’, and also offer opportunities to validate sources and ultimately participate in practical action. He uses his personal experience of a teacher exchange to Japan to ask “Would we students enjoy schooling Japanese style?”, followed by the creation of questions which are e-mailed to Japanese students for them to answer.

Researchers Morgan and Saxton (1991) reckoned a typical teacher asked between 300 and 400 questions a day. Maybe it is time to ask fewer, smarter questions? Why not ask a student to monitor how many you ask in the first half hour of the lesson? Once those initial questions have been carefully chosen, geographical enquiry, carried out thoroughly, offers a framework for the production of another new narrative in geography’s ongoing aim of ‘writing the Earth’.

You might find these two books really helpful:
‘Geography inside the Black Box’ - Paul Weeden & David Lambert (nferNelson, 2006)
‘Learning through Enquiry’ - Margaret Roberts (Geographical Association, 2003)

This resource on the GA website provides more useful background on enquiry and questions...

Alan Parkinson
Secondary Curriculum Development Leader of the Geographical Association

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Secondary English - Market Place Persuasion

"Roll up, Roll up!" 
Teaching persuasive writing through role play

Teaching persuasive writing can be tricky. You can show your pupils emotive speeches, give examples of devices and look at leaflets but ultimately you tend to find the odd pupil who just hasn’t got it or uses devices in a tokenistic way. This is understandable; you have to really believe in something to be truly persuasive and engaging and those pupils who tend to ‘bob along’ can miss the mark. After three lessons of feeling like I was force feeding knowledge into a fairly unwilling but polite class who nodded along at the right times, I decided to revamp the scheme of work and start again, cue ‘Market Place Persuasion’.

The pupils' assessment was a leaflet welcoming people to an Island they created. On large pieces of sugar paper I had them write down all the positive elements of their Island and why we would want to visit. They then set their expenses for a week’s holiday and started to practise their ‘hard sell’ - this included terms they came up with, as well as the whiteboard covered in terms that would help them raise a level, (such as ‘rule of 3’, ‘alliteration’ ‘hyperbole’ and ‘metaphor’). To clarify further we did some role play demonstrations for this first, with me being the pushy promoter trying to extract money out of not-so-willing and sceptical volunteers. This took a lesson and was the preparation for our ‘Market Place’ lesson.

Next lesson the pupils poured in full of high spirits and with arms full of props (some had sweets to bribe people, others had buckets and spades, one boy had a baseball cap and shades to help him ‘impress the ladies’). I handed out Monopoly money (if you don’t have this – and have checked with your maths department - make blank cheques) to half of the class, the other half ‘set up their stalls’ by rearranging tables, eye-balling friends and revising their ‘hard sell’ vocabulary. The ‘customers’ had 20 minutes to buy a holiday to the Island of their dreams.

I am not going to lie, it was loud and busy BUT it was fantastic to watch. Not only did I hear the devices we had discussed being used, but also wonderful bartering skills and some suspect sale methods! After 20 minutes I asked the customers to stand next to the Island they chose. I was pleased to see that they hadn’t just stuck with their friends and we had a clear winner judging the wedge of ‘cash’ he was waving around.

After a round of applause the customers sat back down and filled in a Post It with the things they liked about the Island they had picked and a suggestion for one way the Island could be improved. We then repeated the exercise so the customers became vendors. Jamie was the overall winner as he had the best vocabulary, best deals and most exciting ideas… he also bribed pupils with mini Mars bars but the pupils earnestly assured me he would have won anyway.

The following lesson pupils had their Post Its back and used them to improve their ideas and vocabulary, I also noticed that they discussed how to improve with classmates and asked the more successful vendors for advice. 92% of this class had a writing level of 5b, after this task and careful drafting 71% of the class proudly produced work at level 6. I honestly think it was due to this activity and have since used the model when teaching transitional writing and persuasive writing at GCSE. It also works brilliantly in Media lessons if pupils have made products such as CD covers or magazines. It is best to try this after the first draft so pupils have the time to amend their work before the final draft is due. It makes the pupils more passionate about their subject and lifts it from the page into a real life situation and environment.

This task can also be turned into a Speaking and Listening Activity or marked for Speaking and Listening whilst the activity is taking place.

Joanna Fliski
Teacher of English, Media and Drama, Lliswerry High School

Monday, 24 October 2011

All A Level - AS to A2 essays

AS to A2… Making the leap

Around this time of year I am marking the first couple of A2 essays from my Year 13 students who have negotiated the first hurdle of AS level successfully. It is rare to find a student who produces an A2 mark on a par with their AS grade this early on into the year. This can make students demoralised.

To write longer essays in an AS style is insufficient, the evaluation needs to be more developed.

I try to address this issue by using the last 10 minutes of a lesson to do activities I’ve named as ‘The Perfect Paragraph’ and ‘Last Man Talking’

The Perfect Paragraph
All you need to do for this is present a series of paragraph stems and get them choose one from the list to develop further. Making the stems increasingly more difficult gives gifted students a chance to challenge themselves.

An example of a stem in A2 Psychology would be:
It can be argued that schizophrenia is at least partly due to genetics because…

You can then check the paragraphs and choose good examples to read out in class.

Last Man Talking
‘Last Man Talking’ can use the same stems but involves getting the students to work in pairs. I ask them, as a plenary, to take it in turns in developing the stem, so they compile a good in depth evaluation point between them. The point of the activity is for students to be the last person to speak before they finish on that particular point.

Using the previous stem as an example, the conversation might go:

Arthur:…research by Gottesman showed that identical twins had a higher level of concordance, indicating a genetic influence…
Betty:…however the rate was not 100% which suggests that environment also plays a part…
Arthur:…using twin studies to support the argument is seen by some to be a problem as it is thought that identical twins are treated more similarly than non identical, so the difference in concordance rates could be due to treatment rather than genetics.’
Betty:… I give up!

(Note - I’ve edited all the 'Umm's and 'Ahh's from this, also many students wouldn’t remember Gottesman’s name! Arthur has the memory of an elephant.)
You’ll know which activity will work better with your students. It should build their confidence and raise their marks.

Bring on the January exams…

Eleanor Hills
Subject Leader Psychology and Sociology
Roundhay School

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Secondary Economics and Business - Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Steve Jobs 1955-2011:
A lesson in entrepreneurship, leadership and culture

"Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me.. Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful... that's what matters to me."
– Steve Jobs, Wall Street Journal (1993)

The concepts of entrepreneurship, leadership and culture are prevalent in most specifications across a variety of exam boards such as AQA and Edexcel and we all know that the use of real examples exemplifies the theory behind these concepts. Most, if not all students are aware of Apple, but possibly not of Steve Jobs to any great degree of depth.

As I write this Apple Inc. are to celebrate the life of their co-founder Steve Jobs at their Cupertino headquarters, California. Upon news of his death Twitter exploded with sentiment and Time magazine stopped their presses, tearing up its scheduled edition to celebrate the life of possibly one of the most influential showmen in any industry.

Using Jobs as a focus for the personal qualities that lead entrepreneurs to succeed really touches on why people set up a business in the first place.  Across the Economics and Business syllabi we see these qualities described over and over again. Jobs had the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur such as resilience, perseverance, and self-actualisation.

Though charismatic on stage, it is well known that Steve Jobs was an incredible example of an autocratic leader. He had a top-down one-way system of communication within the organisation. He was also an incredible micro-manager. I recently read an article where Jobs called Google’s Vic Gundotra on a Sunday to complain that the second 'O' on the Google App for iPhone didn’t have the right yellow gradient. A visionary in his markets, but driven by a dictatorial attitude within his organisation and an eye for extreme detail.
Investor Warren Buffet once said that, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to destroy it”. Apple and its corporate culture are now at a milestone. Steve Jobs was a ‘culture carrier’ at the core of the brand. Will the company be able to continue to foster the same culture of innovation and product orientation that made the company a market leader? Will the fervour that its employees had for its corporate mission die with that of one of its founders, simply becoming one more technology company?

There is an absolute wealth of materials suited to both Key Stages on Jobs that can be used throughout a lesson to highlight and add value to key theory. I have attached a PDF here with some of the most useful resources. I think that using Jobs as the sole backbone for a refresher lesson on enterprise, strategy, management, leadership, culture and empowerment makes for an interesting end of term lesson.

A possible essay question:
With reference to the videos, articles seen and your own knowledge, to what extent do you agree that Steve Jobs leadership guaranteed the company’s success prior his death.’ (20)

Key essay hooks:

  1. Is there a difference between management and leadership?
  2. Key features of authoritarian/autocratic leadership. Compare and contrast with Paternalistic and Democratic forms. (See F.W Taylor Principles of Scientific Management.)
  3. What is success? How is a business deemed to be successful?
  4. What other internal/external influences might be just as important?

Daniel Baker
Teacher of Business and Economics
Trinity Catholic High School

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Secondary History - Interpreting Sources

Who am I?

Students always have problems getting their head around the idea of Interpretations. They look for certainty, and find it hard to grasp that most history is a construct, it is someone’s opinion, put together by carefully selecting the evidence used to support a [usually preconceived] argument. Even when given two completely contrasting interpretations of someone they are still likely, even after highlighting the differences and carrying out the activity carefully designed by you to show the different interpretations, to sidle up to you at the end of the lesson and say, as happened to me, "That was really interesting, Sir, I now understand this idea of interpretations, but, tell me, what is the right answer?"

One simple way to help them realise an interpretation is just someone’s carefully argued view is to play the ‘Who am I?’ game. Choose a character from history, but present them in a series of bullet points, highlighting just one side of their achievements. I like to start with Adolf Hitler, because you can easily present him in a way that seems, to us, a very positive light.

Try this series of statements, one by one, and see if your students can guess who you are talking about:

  1. I am a vegetarian
  2. I don’t smoke
  3. I don’t drink alcohol
  4. I was named ‘Man of the Year’ by Time Magazine in 1938

    ………. all these are generally regarded as a ‘good thing.’

  5. I wanted to make my country strong
  6. I was very popular in elections
  7. I gave everybody a job
  8. Many people could get free or very cheap holidays

    …….. these are the positive aspects of Nazi rule in the 1930s. 

Where you go from here depends on the responses. You could leave them guessing, and do a similar ‘bad things’ list – you probably won’t have to go beyond ‘I killed 6 million Jews’ for them to realise who you are talking about. Or you could ask them to choose someone they have studied and produce a similar, very one-sided, list of bullet points to share with the rest of the class. It doesn’t take long for them to realise that their interpretation, like mine of Hitler, is a very misleading one, but is valid, as it is based on carefully selected evidence. And it is a very effective way to help students understand where interpretations come from, and how important it is to carefully select the evidence you use to construct them!

Alf Wilkinson

CPD Manager for the Historical Association and previously National Strategist for Key Stage 3 History. Alf has over 30 years history teaching experience and was lead author for Collins Key Stage 3 History resources.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Secondary Sociology - Marxism, Education and Music!

Using a music video to illustrate key concepts

Penned as a critique of the rigid education system of the 1950s, I find that Pink Floyd’s 1979 hit “Another Brick in the Wall” (Part Two) serves as a useful illustration of Marxist concepts. You can see the music video on YouTube here:

After teaching Marxist theories of education, I usually show the music video to the class in the following lesson to recap their previous learning as follows:

  1. Ask the students to get into pairs. Label as 'A' and 'B' 
  2. Inform the 'A's that their role is to observe the imagery in the video and note down anything which relates to Marxist concepts. The 'B's will focus on the lyrics.
  3. After showing the video, students discuss their ideas with their partner while trying to make as many references to Marxism as they can.
  4. Share feedback as a whole class.

In my experience, students enjoy this activity. Most will not have heard of Pink Floyd, but they do recognise the song and like that it is subversive!

Suggested links to Marxist theory:

  1. Ideological Control - At the start of the video, 'Pink' is ridiculed by a strict disciplinarian teacher for reading poetry. The class are encouraged to laugh at 'Pink'. The teacher therefore acts as an agent of capitalism, using ideological control to discourage creativity.  The lyric “thought control” also suggests this.
  2. Social Reproduction – Althusser argues that the role of education is to reproduce a submissive and obedient workforce – the pupils in the video march to the same beat, wear the same masks, and are pushed into a meat grinder (the school) coming out the other end identical to each other. 
  3. Correspondence principle – Bowles and Gintis claim that there is a close correspondence between the relationships in the classroom and the workplace. It is at school where children learn to ‘know their place’ – this idea links to the dominant lyric; “just another brick in the wall”. 
  4. The school resembles the means of production – students sit at their desks on a factory-like conveyor belt. 
  5. Resistance – 'Pink' daydreams that the pupils revolt against the teachers and destroy the school.

Emily Painter
Sociology Teacher, Cadbury Sixth Form College

Monday, 17 October 2011

Secondary Geography - A Level Essays

Tackling 'A' level Essay Writing

The start of Year 13 for me always begins with trying to teach A Level students how to write a successful essay. We do AQA and there is a lot of emphasis in terms of marks on the one essay they have to write for the Geog3 paper. Although students are usually used to writing essays in other subjects, I find that they often struggle to ‘get going’ on writing that first geography essay and the resulting quality is often poor.  

Last year I decided to have a department focus on essay writing. The marks on the essays that summer had been quite low and there were no Level 4 marks despite there being several A grade students. I spent one lesson going through examples of Level 4 essays and the mark schemes. In order to boost their confidence and get them working together as a team I decided to do the first essay as a whole class exercise. I chose a title that covered the work we had been doing in the first few weeks on plate tectonics – “Compare and contrast two plate margins and evaluate which is the most hazardous”. I felt that this covered three command words which we could explore and also covered the concept of ‘hazard’. The powerpoint I used through the lesson is attached here.

We began the exercise by using thinking maps (we are a thinking school and students are familiar with using them in lessons). We used a double bubble map to compare and contrast two margins (as a class the students chose Mid Atlantic Ridge and the North American subduction zone). This allowed them to focus on 'compare and contrast' and to develop their initial thoughts. 

We then used the circle map to define ‘hazard’ in terms of the two margins. A class discussion took place to plan out the structure of the essay. 6 paragraphs were then agreed on. As they were going to complete the conclusion at a later stage I took this out and then randomly selected five groups (I use Super Teacher Tools for random group making) and gave each group a large piece of sugar paper and some resources. Each piece had one of the paragraphs written as a heading. A café style exercise then took place – each group was given 3 minutes to write their ideas for the paragraph before moving onto the next table. In this manner every student had the chance to contribute an idea to each paragraph. 

Each group was then given one of the pieces of sugar paper to review. They crossed out ideas that they thought they wouldn’t use – I visited each group and asked them to justify their decision. A class discussion then ensued to ensure continuity and establish successful use of examples. Following this they were then given the task of writing the paragraph for the essay in their groups. They did this on laptops so that they could email me the finished version. Each group had a ‘runner’ who visited other groups to check that there was continuity between the paragraphs and each group had a check list of what to include in a successful paragraph (attached here)

The resulting paragraphs were of a very high standard. I collated them together and they then wrote their conclusion as an individual homework. These then allowed me assess their individual progress but it also demonstrated the importance of reading through your essay before you write the conclusion to ensure that you are supporting the essay as a whole. It also allowed them to explore the concept of ‘hazard’ and be synoptic in their approach.

The whole exercise was a huge success - student feedback indicated that they enjoyed the lessons (it took 2 lessons to complete in total) and it gave them confidence. The next essay I gave them to write individually was of a much higher standard than I had seen the previous year. I also had one third of students achieve Level 4 in the essay question in the summer exams.

Tania Grigg
Head of Humanities at Clyst Vale Community College and Senior Examiner for AQA (GCSE and A level)

Secondary Science - The Nobel Prize for Chemistry

The “impossible” crystals -  The 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

This year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to Prof. Daniel Shechtman of Israel.

The Story

In 1982, forty-one year old Daniel Shechtman was spending  a couple of years in the USA, on sabbatical from his post in the Materials Science Department at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology.  He was using electron diffraction to investigate the structure of crystals of some alloys of aluminium..  The results gave a surprising pattern.  Shechtman checked and re-checked his results but they still seemed to show that the arrangement of the atoms in the crystal was what had previously been thought to be impossible.  His American colleagues thought his results were ridiculous and a journal refused to publish them. 

Shechtman returned to Israel and with help from friends succeeded in getting his results published. Many scientists criticised his work but others found other examples of the impossible crystals.

At the same time as Shechtman’s discovery, scientist Alan Mackay was building models using unusual patterns devised by the mathematician Roger Penrose.  Mackay’s models matched Shechtman’s results – the crystals were not impossible after all. Now the study of quasicrystals is growing and uses are being found for the strange materials.  Daniel Shechtman is still Professor of Materials Science at Technion.

The Science
It had always been thought that the arrangement of particles in crystals must be orderly, repetitive and symmetrical.  This means that only a limited number of patterns were allowed.  If we use 2-D patterns as an example, triangles, squares or hexagons can fit together with no gaps and the pattern repeated time after time.  Pentagons will not fit.  However Roger Penrose showed that patterns made up of rhombuses or other repeated simple shapes could be built up into patterns containing pentagons, but each part of the pattern looked different.  Islamic artists had made mosaics of tiles in these patterns in medieval Iran.  Mackay showed that these same patterns could be built in 3D using balls to represent atoms.

Electron diffraction pictures are obtained when crystals scatter a beam of electrons.  The effect is similar to using X-rays.  The pictures appear as a pattern of bright spots.  Normal crystals produce patterns of spots with multiples of 4 of 6 spots in circles corresponding to the normal cubic or hexagonal arrangement of the particles.  Shechtman’s pictures had rings of ten spots showing that the atoms were arranged in the non-repeating patterns predicted by Mackay’s models.

The applications

Since Shechtman’s discovery many quasicrystalline materials have been found and are beginning to find uses.  Steel containing quasicrystals embedded in the normal crystalline structure is hard and durable.  It is used in razor blades and fine needles.

Other quasicrystalline materials are poor conductors of heat and electricity and have non-stick surfaces and high melting points. They are being used in non-stick cookware, in electronic devices such as LEDs and to insulate engines.

The lessons for science

We think of scientists as being methodical and sceptical.  Shechtman was a good scientist in the way that he checked his data but was intrigued by a surprising and perhaps anomalous result.  His colleagues do not come out of the episode as well.  Their immediate rejection of his conclusions because they disagreed with the textbook on crystal structures showed an unwillingness to consider new and different ideas.
The definition of crystals has had to be changed – it is now any structure that produces a distinctive diffraction pattern.

Further investigation

Go to the Nobel Prize website for more details about Shechtman’s prize winning work.
Search terms:  Professor Daniel Shechtman, quasicrystals,  Penrose tiling, electron diffraction,  Alan Mackay crystals.

Peter Ellis

Friday, 14 October 2011

Secondary English - Unseen Poetry approach

Once, Twice, Three Times a Commentary

I don’t know about you but I am finding preparing my GCSE students for the unseen poetry exam question rather problematic. Even the best students seem to be technique spotting, at best, and are having trouble at pulling their ideas together. However, never fear! I have just been given a brilliant tip for tackling unseen commentaries. It was actually aimed at students on the International Baccalaureate course but I see no reason why it shouldn’t work for GCSE students too.

The trick is to get them reading the text not one, not two but three times. The first time they read, students should make notes on their general impression, ignoring any specific techniques. The students should then draw a line under their notes and read the text a second time. This time they should focus on the details, writing notes about the language, structure, layout and the effects created. After they have done this, the students should read the text for a third time. On this reading, they should re-read for a holistic view of the text, thinking about how they can group and organise their points, e.g. by narrative voice, setting, theme etc.

The best ideas are always the simple ones and I think this is going to revolutionary for my students. What I like about it is that it slows them down, forcing them to read the poem in different ways. It allows them to consider the poem in a general way, so that when they unpack the poet’s methods they have an understanding of how they link with the meaning of the poem. The third reading is a great way of re-enforcing to them that they need to consider how the techniques work together to create meaning in the text.

Hopefully now, when my students start writing about unseen poems, they will have a clearer idea of how to structure their response. After all, they may have the opportunity for three readings of the poem, in the exam, but they certainly won’t have time to write three essays!

Naomi Hursthouse
Advance Skills Teacher 
Steyning Grammar School

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Secondary RE and PSHE - Enquiry-Based Learning

During an INSET day in September, I was reminded that students learn and remember best when the learning has meaning. Essentially, the learning undertaken within PSHE and RE should have meaning to all students, as both subjects explore contemporary moral issues and personal views and opinions as well as those of others. However, it made me think about how we can make our lessons even more meaningful to the students that we teach.

I decided to try an enquiry-based learning approach which focussed more fully on the students and their own individual learning journeys. Instead of a learning objective that stated ‘Today you will be learning about…’ I gave the students a question and told them their challenge was to be able to formulate a detailed answer to this question using the learning that they made in the lesson, e.g. Is a place of worship important for the local community? Can scientists be religious? Is peace achievable?

In pairs or small groups students start their enquiry by creating a circle map - a number of concentric circles in which certain pieces of information go. Each concentric circle has a different focus:

  1. What do I already know that can help me to answer the question?
  2. How do I know what I know? Where has my knowledge come from?
  3. What questions do I have about the topic/ learning objective question?
  4. How can I find out the answers to my question?
  5. Answers that I have found out/ learnt during the lesson to help me answer my questions.

Students initially complete circles 1-4 and their ideas, thoughts and questions and can be shared as a class. The main part of the lesson can take shape in any number of ways: research, experiential activities, a visit to the local place of worship, visiting speakers, card sorts, comprehension activities etc., but the key thing is that students keep adding notes/bullet-pointed pieces of information to the fifth circle on their circle maps. Not only will this show students the progression of their learning, but it will also encourage them to find more answers as it creates competition between the groups. At the end of the lesson, each group creates a 1 minute presentation to the rest of the class showing the progress of their learning, their initial questions about the topic, what answers they found, what worked well in helping them to find their answers and to ultimately give an answer to the learning objective question.

The students that I have trialled this with seem to find the learning more meaningful, as the learning objective question gives a sense of direction for the lesson’s learning, but it also enables students to have a sense of ownership over their learning, as they are creating their enquiry questions and trying to answer these too.

Teresa Langler
Head of Beliefs and Values
Clyst Vale Community College

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Secondary English - Using Drama in your classroom!

Don’t worry; they don’t all need to be on their feet in your tiny classroom!

The Drama Studio is not always available in my school and I like to keep lessons lively so these are some ideas and resources that have worked really well with my KS3 pupils.

Warm up idea:
When calling the register set a theme, such as 'you must answer with the name of a celebrity whose first name started with the same letter as your last name'. Or, an action for each letter – people who have a vowel as a first name have to jump on one leg when their name is read until the end of the register, people whose names begin with b,c,d,f,g,h must moo like a cow until the register is read. This breaks down barriers and stops them getting worried about looking silly and being self conscious because everyone is doing it.

Save me because…
This can be assessed as a Speaking and Listening exercise and works especially well with lower ability pupils or pupils with ALN. The premise is that a group of professional people are in a hot air balloon making their way to a promised land, the balloon starts to sink and someone needs to be chucked overboard. I have the pupils sat on tables of 4 or 5 and give them each a number that correlates to the person in the balloon – this way it avoids arguments early on! They then have to argue why they need to stay in the balloon, for example, the ‘Teacher’ may argue the importance of education (although in my experience, we usually get kicked overboard!)
(Download the resource as a pdf here)

Doorbell dinner party
This is from ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ and works really well in the classroom. Using the resource provided, give a few of your more confident pupils a role and send them outside of the door. You will then need a host and someone who can make a doorbell noise. Once the doorbell goes a guest in character enters, the host needs to ask them questions to work out who they are, they should respond in character. This works best if you have about 5 guests who all enter the room within about 2 minutes. The pupils can remain sitting in their seats and get to ‘guess the guest’ after 3 minutes (I use a timer on the board). Once you’ve played this a couple of times and they understand the premise it works really well using characters from your class reader or a Shakespeare play.
(Download the resource as a pdf here)

Improvised Script
This is a very short script that pupils can quickly memorise, they then must deliver the script using different emotions and expressions each time. It helps pupils to understand tone, delivery and clarity of speech. It works well in seats or pupils can stand up to show examples. I found that it helped less confident readers to express themselves.
(Download the resource as a pdf here)

Joanna Fliski
Teacher of English, Media and Drama - Lliswerry High School.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Secondary Sociology - Sociological Settler Activities

The settler is essentially a thought-based prelude to a starter activity.  In my practice, it’s usually something projected on the interactive white board as students enter the class.  Not only does a good settler maximise a patch of dead time whilst students get seated and get out their books etc, but it also serves as something to spark their interest or set the theme of the lesson before they even sit down. Students often have to arrive from different parts of the school or college building so settlers are a good way of ensuring your engaging starter isn’t missed by the minority who might get waylaid en route.  Perhaps most pertinent though, is how a settler can be used as a behaviour for learning tool - a clear and accessible visual task that students can engage with as soon as they enter a classroom.  If you’re not lucky enough to teach successive lessons in the same classroom, print a PowerPoint slide (2 per page saves paper) with the settler on and hand it to students as they enter.  Ask them to annotate the slide if they like.

Now, these suggested activities don’t reinvent the wheel, but they do serve as useful prompts, thought-provokers or recap opportunities for Sociology (or other) students.  Personally, I like my settler and starter to be explicitly linked to the content of the lesson, but I often recap a previous lesson's learning or reintroduce some long forgotten key terms.  The following is a non-exhaustive list of some settlers that have worked well across a variety of AS and A2 Sociology topics.  The formats of which can be used over and over for any subject and for any key stage.

  1. What do these people have in common? Show images of two or more celebrities or historical figures that all have something in common: Henry the Eighth and Jennifer Lopez are both serial monogamists; Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Julia Roberts were all raised by single-parents
  2. What does this graph represent? Project a graph, chart or table and hide/withhold the title. You could give students a hint about the theme (e.g., a criminal act) but I like to be more abstract.  Projection of world happiness maps always intrigue students, and lead to good discussions about the link between wealth, health and happiness.
  3. Blank the stat: In large text present a key statistic but delete important information, be it the figure itself or perhaps what the statistic portrays. For example: ‘ ___% of school exclusions are males’, or ‘1,800 calls per day in the UK are made to the Police regarding _________’.
  4. Cryptic keywords: Find an image that represents a key term.  You can be literal or more metaphorical. A picture of a guitar and a bread roll can depict Parson’s theory of the instrumental role.  Yes, I know that’s stupid but it’s way of asking students to recall key terms and you can ask them to define in the follow up. A series of these also makes a quick plenary.
  5. Keyword stakes: Ask students to bet how many keywords they can define from an extensive list of familiar, or even unfamiliar, key words. This serves as a great way to introduce new terms, or as a way of recapping at the end of a unit.
  6. Something to think about: It could be an image, headline or abstract question that you briefly discuss when all students are seated/ready. My favourite is showing male/female perfume adverts from magazines next to one another and asking ‘What do these fragrances smell like?’ I used this to look at semiotics and advertising, but it can be used when examining gender representation, mass media, gender norms and values and even research methods.

Christopher Stump
Sociology Teacher, Harrow, London

Friday, 7 October 2011

Primary Literacy - Collins Big Cat Writing Competition 2012

Berlie Doherty
Whenever I work with young children I am delighted, but not surprised, at the level of creative excellence many of them are capable of. Teachers know this, sometimes their peers know this, but often the young writer doesn’t. The poem or story they’ve produced gets lost among all the other work they have to do.  So the Big Cat writing Competition provides a real opportunity for the talented young writer to be acknowledged publically. But it’s not just for the gifted child. Working on a particular project of this kind, knowing that thousands of other children are working on it too, will give every child a sense of the significance of writing to the best of their ability. Writing for a competition implies that you are writing for an audience beyond the classroom – it makes it special. It focuses your mind on what creative writing is all about. Writing a book that is going to be read by a younger child sets an interesting (difficult) challenge. And it helps children to understand the process of creative writing, of expressing a dream idea in words.

When I was a child I used to write stories and poems that were regularly published on the children’s page of the Liverpool Echo. I was extremely lucky to have had such an outlet, an incentive to write, and a sense of audience. This is what the Big Cat writing competition is all about, and here the goal is even greater – to be published as a real writer with a real book. When I was ten years old I could never have dreamed that such a thing could be possible. Only a few children will win, but every child who enters should be given the opportunity to see the published books and to know that someone of their own age wrote them. Fantastic.

So how do we help children to write their own book? As it is to be targeted at children younger than themselves, they could first talk about the books they remember from when they were that age. They probably still own them. What did they love most about them? Maybe you could bring some of your own favourite childhood books. We love the illustrations, but what is it that makes the pictures work? The story! Read lots of stories, talk about who the main characters are, and how they behave. (Even an animal character is often a child really; an animal family is actually just like theirs). Talk about the humour, the uncertainty, the sense of loss, the triumph, that many of these story characters experience in the course of the narrative. Talk about how each fresh page brings a new development, (the artist needs to be able to change the background, move the characters, add things to the scene, so this is an important factor in the story.). Think of the page as a stage, where the characters are actors, where things happen to them or around them or because of their actions. Talk about how the whole story or poem leads up to the last line, which is just right, leaving you surprised or pleased and satisfied, never puzzled, annoyed or disappointed.

There are two storylines to choose from (or combine) and they’re both really open and offer lots of possibilities. For a young reader, the story would need to be interesting but not complicated. The language should be clear and lively, but there’s no harm in introducing unusual and imaginative words – story is the way we extend our vocabulary as well as our emotional understanding of our world. Every story has two lives – one when it is read aloud and shared, the other when it is read silently as a personal activity. And when it’s read aloud the reader can think of themselves as an actor, bringing the words and the characters and actions to life as vividly as the illustrator has done. It’s a great team – author, illustrator, reader, and listener. And the story, the powerful, lively, memorable story, is at the centre of it all.

I’m so excited at being one of the judges – and I can’t wait to read the entries. Good luck everyone!

Berlie Doherty - Carnegie award-winning writer and one of the 2012 Writing Competition judges

Secondary History - How to argue at A Level

Can you negotiate your hostage’s path to freedom?

But it’s really hard, it’s a big step up Miss’.

This was the slightly hysterical cry of one of my not-quite-so-new Year 12 students last week. Indeed when they come back after the enviably long post-GCSE summer break, students often enter into a very different learning environment (complete with very different uniform!) from whence they left. Whilst I will never lower the expectations I have of what my students can achieve, I sometimes wonder if I need to pay a little more attention to this transitional phase. Not only is there a big step up in the level of historical detail we expect them to master at the beginning of AS, but the pressure to get the course started, mould anywhere between 10 and 20 disparate individuals into a cohesive ‘class’and just get them to talk to each other, all seems to conspire against the relaxed and gentle entry into AS for which the majority of them are begging by the end of week one.

One month in, and still I am faced with a wall of foot-shuffling silence when I try and lead my class of ever-so-slightly more cohesive students towards a discussion. So this year I decided to take definitive discourse-inducing action. Inspired by an episode of The Philosopher’s Arms on Radio 4, I thought about the skills required by a hostage negotiator and how they could be deployed by the argumentative historian.

What we are asking students to do at AS level is to build an analytical argument, sustain it, support it with evidence, and draw it to a close in a substantiated conclusion. The hostage negotiator at the Philosopher’s Arms spoke of how she needed to create and support her argument, and the importance of being able to defend it against attack. Whilst there are many obvious differences between the negotiator and the historian, this focus on presentation of opinion, use of supportive evidence and negotiation towards a successful conclusion gave me an idea…

The Year 12 class were working on an argument in answer to the question:
The revolutions of the 1820s and 1830s failed primarily due to Austrian intervention.’ How far do you agree with this statement?

Students had already decided on four key factors, including the titled statement, which they felt explained the failure of the revolutions. The consequent negotiating activity worked as follows:

  1. Divide the class into teams of 3 (or 5 in a larger class – just as long as they are an uneven number)
  2. Each group then decides which of the agreed factors they consider to be the most significant (e.g. their pro-argument) and begin to gather evidence to support their statement.
  3. They also gather evidence to support the remaining three factors (the counter argument).
  4. At the end of preparation time (I allowed 14 minutes – I never work in multiples of 5!) you pitch two teams against each other. If you have an uneven number of teams you could go for a triad formation.
  5. One team in the pair opts/is chosen to go first, and to select one member of their opposing team to take hostage. Often I found students made a hostage of the one they considered to be the most able negotiator. I both commended their sneakiness and was pleased that shyer or less forward students would therefore be induced to argue.
  6. It is now the role of the hostage’s remaining team-mates to secure his/her release by arguing against the hostage-takers. The hostage’s team are therefore able to state the argument they’ve built around their chosen most significant factor (see step 2) whilst the hostage-taking team are forced to use their arguments for the remaining three factors.
  7. (The hostage is free to be as irritating as they like, bearing in mind their captors could metaphorically silence them at any point…)
  8. At the end of an agreed period of negotiation (I chose 6 minutes but a shorter time span might be appropriate for younger students) the hostage takers must make a decision: if they consider the argument put forward by the hostage’s team to be adequate, they are duty bound to release the hostage. If they consider it inadequate, the hostage forms part of their team (reluctantly or otherwise!).
  9. The next round then begins with teams smaller, larger or unchanged. Should a team that began as 3 fail to negotiate the successful release of their second hostage they cease to exist. Depending on the size of your class, the depth of argument to be made or the number of factors available you can run this either until you have one enormous team left, are simply hearing the same argument on loop, or the bell rings.

My negotiation situations were based on the failure of the 1820s and 1830s revolutions in pre-unification Italy, but since then I have applied them to the February Revolution of 1917, the downfall of the Weimar Republic, and the contribution of President Gorbachev to the end of the Cold War. I've also discovered Year 10 can create arguments to rival Year 12!

My year 12 students all said they really enjoyed this activity. The quality of argument I heard listening in to various negotiating teams was far more advanced than I have seen at this stage in the year before, and the consequent essay plans they turned in showed the interlinking of factors and maintained a clear focus on the question. Most importantly for me, every single student made a contribution and showed they could both create and defend an historical argument. And all hostages were eventually safely returned to their teams!

Charlotte Grove
History Teacher, Dame Alice Owen's School

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Secondary Maths - IGCSE Maths qualifications

Until 2010 IGCSE could not be taught in state schools in England and Wales. That restriction was lifted in June 2010 and some maths teachers are wondering if the exam might be a good option for them. To help them decide, here is a brief guide to Mathematics IGCSE.

The first point to clarify is that because of restrictions in the use of the term GCSE in England and Wales (it has to conform to certain subject and qualification criteria) the qualification is referred to as a Level 1 or Level 2 Certificate. It is identical to the qualification the rest of the world is happy to call an IGCSE.
Edexcel and Cambridge both offer a version of IGCSE Mathematics accredited for use in schools in England and Wales. Here are some features that have in common.

• Both have two terminal examination papers. There is no modular option.
• Calculators are allowed in all papers. There is no non-calculator paper.
• The specification (Edexcel) or syllabus (Cambridge) contains topics that are not in the normal GCSE.
• Both will be recorded in school performance tables and will count towards the English Baccalaureate.

Here are more details of each one separately
• The Edexcel Certificate (IGCSE specification A) is a two-tier exam (Foundation: C-G grades and Higher: A*-E grades available). Each tier is examined by two two-hour papers, each carrying equal marks. Each paper covers all aspects of the specification. The Higher tier includes calculus.
• The Cambridge syllabus has two tiers called Core curriculum (C-G) and Extended curriculum (A*-E). In both tiers paper 1 is shorter than paper 2, consists of short-answer questions and has a weighting of 35%. Paper 2 has structure questions and a weighting of 65%. The Extended curriculum includes matrices (Note: there is also a version of this syllabus with coursework but that is not accredited).

One final point: AQA has an accredited Level 2/IGCSE specification for Additional Mathematics. It is not an alternative to Mathematics; it is intended as an extra qualification for students who will gain at least a level B in Mathematics. The specification includes topics that would normally be found on an A level course. It might be a useful option for students making early GCSE entry.

Chris Pearce

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Secondary Science - How can we improve the UK's PISA score in Science

In Hong Kong for the English Speaking Federation schools Science Conference; talking about Bad Science and sharing the materials.  There’s a lot of interest, not least from teachers running the IB programme as it’s a good way of exploring the nature of science.  Also sharing ideas about literacy and students writing extended written responses; watch this site for more details on practical strategies.

Hong Kong outperforms the UK in the PISA scores in Science and it’s interesting to consider why.  These are based on competence in scientific literacy and an understanding of the wider applications and implications of science.  Certainly the PISA team are keen to identify the characteristics of high performing systems.
Let’s put the comparative scores in context. The UK doesn’t do badly; the scores are significantly above the median, in line with countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Poland and better than the US.  What seems to count for a lot is the extent to which schools and teachers have the ability to customise provision for students.  The school designs its curriculum; the classroom teacher decides the most effective approach to take.

Now, this is both an opportunity and a challenge.  When I’m reviewing a science department I always try to do a student voice activity and discuss with students the quality of the provision.  It has never yet failed to be fascinating, insightful and positive; students are often disarmingly honest about their abilities and clear about what works for them in terms of lesson design and delivery.  I usually steer the conversation around to getting them to imagine that I was going to be teaching them science in the near future, was planning the lessons and they had the opportunity to influence what I was going to do.  What should I do, I ask them?

The answers vary, but not by much.  Yes, there should be some practical work if possible, and some writing as well, though it should be functional and based on students’ own understanding.  I’d be expected to explain ideas in an engaging way and not labour things.  Oh, and I’d be expected to think of a different way of approaching something if the first way didn’t work. 

What the PISA analysis also shows though is that high performing education systems work for all students and avoid being divisive.  They respond to different expectations and needs.
Now, if these changes indicate the future for the UK system this is fine and will probably be widely welcomed; we can do this, but a few things need to be clear.  Firstly, we will need to be creative and responsive about effective classroom practice, willing to change our practice and develop new approaches if the feedback indicates that that’s what’s needed.  One of the workshops at the Hong Kong event was on the development of “reverse lesson planning”, in which the introduction of new concepts was done as homework and lesson time used for questions, instead of the other way around.

Secondly, the accountability agenda is not going to go away.  Students want good grades and parents and carers want their children to do well.  Freedom for the teacher is the freedom to find ways of doing this.  Finally, we need some joined up thinking about an effective and appropriate curriculum for students for whom the English Baccalaureate is not an appropriate pathway.  Over half of the current Year 10 students in England are now on such a route but it’s not a universal solution.  An effective system works for everyone.
Ed Walsh
Science Advisor for Cornwall Learning

Primary Literacy - Fresh Ideas for English

APP encourages us to set up creative situations for children to be able to demonstrate their learning through innovation. This can often be difficult within the confines of the curriculum but by making use of changing technologies and fresh opportunities the English curriculum can be delivered in a very creative way.

In my class, English used to be met with groans, especially from the boys who saw it as a chore, but with a little research and thought, my school managed to get those same boys champing at the bit for their English lessons.

One of the real bugbears used to be comprehension - a piece of text, ten or more questions, sit there, read it, then answer in full sentences. It was over simple for all but the ones who struggled. The answers for the questions were sequential in the text so the child didn’t need an understanding of the whole text to be able to answer. They might have provided the answers but they were little more than cut and paste exercises, especially when we tell the children that the words and spellings they need are in the questions and the text. There’s then the huge leap when we expect them to answer questions where the information is inferred.

Likewise with story writing. How much of the written material a child encounters is presented in the style we expect them to produce? We ask for paragraphs, speech marks etc, without realising that these are rarely encountered in today’s world unless a child is reading a reasonably challenging book. Even then they are not likely to have taken note of them as they read.

It’s often said that for children to engage in lessons it’s important that they are fun. Poorly informed critics scoff, saying

‘How can a child be learning if all they’re doing is playing games. They might be enjoying it but are they learning?’

I think that the concept of ‘making lessons fun’ is a rather superficial one. What is needed is a closer look at why they’re fun and it’s not too difficult to see that the reason is because they are relevant to the child’s out of school activities they enjoy.
Few children would go home to their parents and tell them they are going to settle down and write a story or do some comprehension. No, if anything they’ll be in front of the TV, playing mock battles, kicking a ball around, playing with their toys or on computer games.

So if we can make their school experiences like their home ones but with the learning still in focus, we will carry them with us more easily.

I’ve put together some of the ideas I’ve used with my class to help them feel more appreciative of English and hope that you find them helpful too.

Dave Lewis, Primary teacher

Primary Literacy - Fresh Ideas for Comprehension

Comprehension used to be dreaded by my class. Make sure you answer the question fully, don’t start with because, use the words from the question and the text to help etc etc. And it would be the same, week after week. So I decided to do something about it that would make the exercise more relevant to what they wanted to do and the following activities are what we tried.

 Activity 1: Comprehension Through Art

I would give the children a copy of the text and ask them to read it carefully, highlighting everything they felt could be represented as an image. From this I asked them to draw and colour or paint a picture that showed me what they had read about in the story. Overall, the results showed a good understanding of what they had read. Whereas I may have asked a younger class how many friends did Peter meet at the park, there in the picture would be Peter with two friends. If the text had described each of them, I would see in their picture, the two friends of the correct size, right hair colour and correct clothing as per the text, so in a much more enjoyable way fro them, they were comprehending the story.

I thought difficulty might arise in the comprehension for the older children but instead what I though would be a road block for them turned out to be an inspiration.

For questions where inference was required; e.g. How did Mary feel, seeing the turtle swim away? I had paintings showing a sad face but also changes in the colouring of the picture itself and the child, in describing their work afterwards, would say, I painted it in greys and blues because Mary is sad the turtle has gone.

I was surprised at how successful it was and have tried it from time to time since. Obviously it can’t be used all the time because the formation and practice of the language of understanding is a vital component but for variety it works very well.

Activity 2: Comprehension as Comic Strips

The difficulty with using pictures for comprehension is that it is impossible to show progression in a story.

I found by using a comic strip format, those texts which question children on a progression such as ‘What do you think Mary will do to help the turtle?’ or ‘What do you think Raj’s parents will say when he gets home?’ are more easily answered.

The children can also practice sequencing by considering how they can show their understanding through the development of the text into a story. It’s fairly easy to guess how many frames will be needed for their answers and I would suggest asking the children to think about where the story will go next. To be able to do this, they will have to have a good understanding of it so far and their finished strip should demonstrate this.

Activity 3: Rewriting the Text

This is a very useful activity as it also practises writing for different audiences.

It can be done in quite a variety of ways depending on the text:

-    A change of person; this often can give a different perspective on the story and help the child to understand more of what might be inferred.

-    A change of setting; this enables the child to take the facts from the given text and transplant it into a different scenario. When assessing it you should see all of the characteristics and action but higher order work will also adapt the actions of the character to the new situation but not completely change them

-    A change of style;  The easiest is to convert the text into a newspaper report format  and it works quite well as detected inferred information often appears in ‘What the eyewitness saw’. Some texts which have a chronology can be tested by changing the format to an instructional one which highlights sequencing of events.

-    The version I like is when you change the subject of the text. We once did this exercise on a piece from ‘Alice in Wonderland but changed Alice to Alex, a boy. The children had to rewrite it but thinking about whether the boy would react in the same way to his encounters. Needless to say, the Cheshire Cat has been rescued by the RSPCA and the Mad Hatter is receiving treatment.

Dave Lewis, Primary teacher

Primary Literacy - Fresh Ideas for Spellings

Over the years we have been furnished with many different ideas for spelling schemes and also for ways to learn spellings. I believe that the problem some children encounter is being encouraged to use only a single method to learn and practise their spelling words. A girl in my class who had been doing really well in her tests began to tail off a bit and when the situation got to the point where I was sure she wasn’t learning them I asked her what the problem was.

Her reply was that she was bored of learning them in the same way week after week and so had given up. Mindful of her comments I looked at the available ways of learning and practising them and implemented a few changes following these activities:

Activity 1: Using Spellcheckers

In Microsoft Word, a red line appears under any incorrectly spelt word (as long as the dictionary language is set correctly)

The children in my class knew this meant they had spelt the word incorrectly but apart from asking me how to correct it, could go no further. We then looked at how, if you right click on the word, a list of possible spellings comes up. I asked them to look through this and see if they can recognise the correct spelling. I’ve found that in over 80% of cases, if the spelling is close enough, the child will be presented with the correct spelling and they are able to select it from amongst the other words that don’t match.

I extended this to producing a list of commonly miss-spelt words using the common problem seen in each one and again presented this to the children. Again, almost all could correct them by recognising the spelling from the right click supplied list.

Activity 2: Paired Spellings

In this activity I pair up children of roughly similar spelling ability and give the whole class a differentiated spelling test. Instead of having to remember the spellings by themselves, they are free to discuss the spelling with their partner and how it needs to be changed if seen as incorrect. This idea helps children’s confidence in spelling tests and once the confidence is there you can split pairs or rematch them.

Activity 3: Guess the Word

Hangman is always a great game for practising spellings and it shows if children are getting the correct rule if the first letters they suggest are the ones from it.

Another version of this is to start off with the first two letters of a word, not necessarily from a list given recently to learn and ask the class to suggest what words could begin with those letters. From this you can practise many words, e.g. if I gave them A and B as the first two letters I could expect above, able or aboard and I would give extra points for if they could continue the spelling correctly. If they got a letter wrong, I would then use the letters we had so far and ask another child to continue.

Activity 4: Words From Words

I used to love this activity as a child. It was often given as a filler and I sometimes use it for that reason. The child is given a word and asked to find, five, ten, fifteen or twenty words from it, depending on ability. This can help with looking at how words are formed form others e.g. the word another being an-other.

Activity 5: Spelling Bees

In the USA, spelling bee competitions are very popular. They have fallen out of favour here because of the public competitiveness of the idea. I like to use the idea occasionally but rather than make all the class do it, I ask the children to challenge each other. In this way they are opting to be in the spotlight and will usually only do it if they feel confident. To encourage the less confident to participate I say that they can take part in pairs.

Activity 6: Teacher Error

I began doing this activity to check if the children were paying attention to what I was saying but it soon got to be a way I could test their spellings. If the opportunity arose to use a word out of their spelling lists in any I was writing on the whiteboard I might spell the word incorrectly and wait to see if there was a reaction. To begin with I had to say that’s what I was going to do but now I can just do it and my eagle-eyed class are watching all the time. It gets embarrassing if I make an unintentional error though!!

Dave Lewis, Primary teacher

Primary Literacy - Fresh Ideas for Speaking and Listening

In the past I considered this to be all about drama but since the introduction of thinking skills and philosophy into the curriculum, I’ve realised that there are a lot more ways it can be practised and developed.

Activity 1: The Voice of the School   

Schools are all about children but we often try to keep them at arm’s length from visitors.

In our school, we recognise that children can naturally be shy around adults they don’t know but try to help them feel more at ease in these situations by allowing them to be the face or voice of the school. This can range from showing parents and visitors around the school, answering the telephone, visiting the elderly in the community and helping out at school events. Don’t worry, we don’t just throw them into the situation, the head teacher organises role plays for them to think about and practise what they may say and what they might hear from the adults. Whilst it seems a little scary to some, they will need these skills soon in life so we help them to develop them.

We often underestimate the ability of children when placed in unfamiliar situations and we found that whilst initially reticent about taking on such roles, soon many were volunteering, gaining greater confidence along the way.

Activity 2: Who Am I?

OK, so this is more drama but I like to think of it as a combination of a bit of research, a bit of drama and practise for speaking.

Tell the children they are going to be famous people giving a speech. Aim for only thirty seconds – that will still seem like an eternity to them!

They need to research what that person may talk about and how they might do it.

You can let them choose but to begin with it’s often better to get them to select from a list you’ve chosen so you don’t get an obscure one. I chose the US President, an actress, a footballer, a pop star and person from history. They then had to research their person to find out what they spoke like and what they talked about and then practise 30 seconds of something similar.

When we came to performing this it was huge fun. Some had decided to dress up as their speaker so the ‘guess the celeb’ aspect was completely lost but they really tried their best and in the fun of the experience forgot that they were being assessed for speaking skills and were naturals.

This is very useful as a introduction to taking on a character role in drama. We follow this activity in drama by asking the children to investigate their character, build up an idea of their personality and use what they find out to make their performance more realistic. It’s a skill often not practised until secondary school but we had some success with it, especially amongst those who are keen on their acting.

Dave Lewis, Primary teacher

Secondary English - Shakespeare in their language!

Making Shakespeare exciting and relevant to today’s teenagers

Another academic year underway, a new timetable to be cautiously navigated… and the same old intractable dilemma  – how to make the words of Shakespeare speak to teenagers born into a world so brave that not even the great man himself could have envisaged it.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...

Well, it can certainly seem that way when you’re caught between the rock of thirty disaffected teenagers and the hard place of the GCSE English curriculum. And yet the plays themselves are full of the kind of stuff that the modern teen thrives upon. Take ‘Macbeth’, for example: intrigue, betrayal, murder, revenge, insanity, all served up with a liberal helping of gore. And, just for good measure, a hefty dose of the supernatural thrown in from the outset!

So what’s the problem? Well, ‘duh!’ it’s the language ‘in it’? No brainer, really. And the average scene length doesn’t help either, especially when our teens have been reared on a quick-fix cinematic culture which frequently puts action before dialogue and changes scenes at a rate that would have made the bard feel dizzy.

One possible solution to the problem is the Teen-Shakespeare approach.

The Teen-Shakespeare project is being developed in order to provide teenagers with a gateway into the most popular of Shakespeare's plays. Comprising a full term’s scheme of work, each Teen-Shakespeare text will incorporate analytical and creative tasks as well as speaking and listening and reading and writing activities.

The Teen-Shakespeare Macbeth is the first in the series and, although suitable for use at any point in the academic year, is especially ideal for that tricky last term in Year 9 when you want to help your students make the transition from KS3 to GCSE… whilst simultaneously keeping them engaged on those sun-drenched afternoons when it can get extremely hot behind the paint-stuck windowsand adolescent thoughts very quickly turn to the long summer break.

Updated to the setting of an exclusive and fiercely competitive Scottish boarding school, and with three menacing rap sisters lurking in the background, the Teen-Shakespeare Macbeth has been designed as a gateway into the original classic. By reincarnating the tragedy of this major Shakespearean character in a realistic contemporary teenage context, and by using language that teenagers can readily understand, this exciting new drama aims to help them better understand Shakespeare, themselves and each other.

Of course, English teachers are notoriously creative – it goes with the territory – and this is an approach that you might wish to develop in your own classroom in entirely your own way. There’s no reason why you and your students couldn’t write your own adaptation of all, or part, of a Shakespearean classic. It might prove to be a fun way of meeting many of those lofty syllabus objectives… whilst simultaneously making Shakespeare exciting and relevant to the modern teen.

If you would like to sample the Teen-Shakespeare project, then you might care to take advantage of the following free downloads:
1) Teen-Shakespeare Macbeth, Act 1
2) Associated teaching and learning activities
3) Exemplar answers to the above

For further information on the Teen-Shakespeare project, please visit:

Peter Morrisson
English Teacher, author and creator of the Teen-Shakespeare project

Monday, 3 October 2011

Secondary Law - Judge for Yourself!

 You be the judge

Just how far are judges allowed to go in shaping and creating the law?

The traditional view of a judge was of an informed but neutral mouthpiece. Far from creating law they simply uncovered the law in all its pre-formed glory. It was a ‘declaration’ not a formulation.

This is unrealistic. Judges, being human, are far from neutral. If this is so then it is fair to critically examine what they say.

A good early activity is to get students involved at the sharp end of the law making process. Let them be the judge. Let them develop criminal concepts. Compare them with the actual judgments. This is both an empowering and analytical activity which helps to promote a healthy critical approach.

The Escaping Victim

Take the issue of the escaping victim who, whilst fleeing their attacker, does some damage to themselves. How do the courts allocate the blame?


  • In pairs read through the scenarios below.
  • Devise an instruction that a judge would you give to a jury before they retire.
  • Try to make sure that the jury are not simply deciding out of sympathy for the victim.
  • Try to make sure they are not dismissing the acts of the 'attacker' without proper consideration.

Scenario A
Alexia hitches a lift home in the car of a friend’s brother. Whilst driving he makes a sexually explicit suggestion to her. Then he leans over to her as if he is about to grab her. Alexia jumps out of the car. She suffers serious injury.

Play Devil’s Advocate - prompts here could include:

  • What other course(s) of action were open to A? 
  • What are the downsides of each course of action? 
  • Isn’t it obvious that A caused her own injuries?

Scenario B
Whilst being looked after by his abusive relative Martin, aged three, becomes terrified. Whilst running away he falls downstairs and is killed.

Prompts here could include:

  • How is this situation different from Scenario A?
  • What difficulties arise from the victim being so young?
  • How can you be sure that you are not overly influenced by the age of the victim?

The scenarios above are loosely based on the cases of Roberts (1972) and Mackie (1973).

Now compare your tests to the real judgments. How are they similar? What differences do you note? What have you discovered about the role of the judge?

The Test in Roberts [1972] Crim. L.R. 27 
The jury had to choose between two possibilities:
1. Was jumping from the car a reaction that was reasonably foreseeable?
2. Or was it ‘so daft’ that no reasonable person could have been expected to foresee it?
(NB. Comforting to note that judges do sometimes use ordinary words too!)

The Test in Mackie [1973] Crim. L.R. 438
3 stages:
1. Was the boy in fear of Mackie?
2. Did that cause him to try to escape?
3.Was the fear well-founded?

Both Roberts and Mackie were found guilty.

Nigel Briggs
Teacher of Law
Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form College