The Writing Revolution

I have always been convinced that children need to read texts with high cultural capital. It is only in the last five or so years that I have begun to think more carefully about reading, and why it is so vital every child reads in every lesson, and how we can go about checking children’s reading. But I have really neglected to think about writing. In my early years as a teacher, I would get children to do ‘extended writing’ for fifteen to twenty minutes every lesson. More recently, I began to see the merit of using short-answer comprehension questions to check children’s understanding.

What The Writing Revolution provides is both a revolutionary rethink on how we teach writing across a school, and some really easy-to-integrate, sensible activities to help hone students’ writing skills. Below are some key take-aways for me.

 

The content drives the rigour

Just like reading, the more rigorous the content studied, the more challenging the writing required. Writing about a very simple text is much simpler than synthesising the key elements in a very complex one.

 

The stem of writing is a short, simple statement…

…but children need to be able to expand on that statement in a variety of ways. The authors use the connectives because, but and so. Using these, you can really see how much children have really understood of the teacher instruction and the text read. In his foreword, Doug Lemov gives an example to illustrate this: if the sentence stem is: ‘the Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city,’ the three sentences the student writes might be: ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, because at the time, citizens didn’t have the knowledge to stop the fire before it spread;’ ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, but London survived and thrived;’ ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, so the city was rebuilt as a result.’ After reading a complex text, we can give students a sentence stem and get them to finish it in these three ways to encourage them to apply their knowledge, as well as focusing on creating a grammatically accurate sentence before they are ready to write long paragraphs.

 

Note-taking is crucial

Taking notes by pen consolidates understanding. Children putting ideas into their own words is invaluable in helping them to process what they are learning. We need to explicitly teach children how to take notes, and explicitly teach them the signs and symbols associated with note taking.

 

Teach sentence types and transition words

We need to teach children: topic sentences, sentences of supporting detail and concluding sentences. Using this language across subjects will help to ensure student paragraphs are more coherent. Likewise, teaching the three ‘transition’ types and the associated words (time and sequence transitions like ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘finally’; conclusion transitions like ‘in closing’, ‘consequently’, ‘in the end’ and illustration transitions like ‘for example’, ‘such as’, ‘particularly’) will help to add coherence to student writing.

 

A cheat for quotations

We need to explicitly teach children some helpful words to introduce quotations and drill them so they practise this – getting students to embed quotations is notoriously tricky. I think almost all English teachers already do this, but perhaps some feel like they shouldn’t. I think we should feel happier about drilling ‘Shakespeare writes’ and ‘Romeo states’ because this is the crucial first step to accuracy, without which children can never move on to use their own insight and creativity to express their ideas more originally. After quoting, we need to teach children to paraphrase the quotation to display their understanding immediately after using it, again by teaching some useful fragments like: ‘in other words…’, ‘therefore, according to the author…’ ‘Romeo’s point is that…’ With my intervention group of year 11s, I’ve simply introduced ‘this means…’ which has really revealed to me who understands the quotation and who does not.

 

Summarising is vital

One of the best tasks the iGCSE English required, in my view, was that students write ten bullet points (not in full sentences) about a text and then made these into a short summary. Summarising is a helpful skill in and of itself, but it is also a great activity to consolidate learning in the acquisition phase, and one that is easily incorporated into lessons. The authors provide some incredibly useful scaffolds in their book to develop summary writing even further.

 

Explicitly teach them how to craft essays

The authors break down the art of the essay into really manageable steps, including writing a thesis statement and then supporting it with paragraphs that are developed using a very clear and simple scaffolded plan, relying on student knowledge of the sentence types outlined above. If we teach the individual elements of writing, crafting the essay draws on this explicit knowledge and helps students to form cogent arguments.

 

 

There is a lot more to The Writing Revolution that I haven’t covered. Every school’s current situation will be different, and for me the aspects above are the most pressing ones for us to address now. Yet all of the above seems, to me, entirely manageable with a few tweaks. The beauty of The Writing Revolution is that a few tweaks will lead to a lot of gains in learning.

 

 

 

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Starting at a new school: SLT edition

Let me start by saying: I think I’ve started at enough schools for a lifetime now. Starting at a new job – any job – is mind-bogglingly tough. In my first week, I have basically stumbled around the school, finding myself in cupboards as I have managed to repeatedly get lost in what is probably the simplest layout of any school building I have ever been in. Still, having read Ben Newmark’s excellent and useful blog on starting at a new school, I thought I might add my two pence on beginning at a new school as a member of the leadership team.

It is basically impossible to lead when you’re not sure where the pens are (true story: I did not think to bring a pen on my first day and had to be bailed out by my incredible Head of Department), but nonetheless I set down some of my learning below.

 

  1. Teaching is the first thing

The first time I was a Head of Department, my line manager said: ‘focus on your teaching first. That is always the most important thing.’ Earlier this week, I was in the middle of dealing with an incident ten minutes before teaching, when my Headteacher told me to ‘leave it – teaching is more important.’ Teaching is the heart of every school, and every lesson taught matters. This week I have gone for ‘strict, very strict’ and hope I can ease off a bit as soon as I can trust my classes.

 

  1. Make time for everyone

Despite constantly being lost and running late as a result, I’ve really wanted to try and make time for everyone who has taken the time to stop by for a chat. As a member of a leadership team, you want to work well with every single person at the school. That first conversation sets the tone, so you have to welcome it. I’ve already had so many fascinating conversations, and hope to have many more.

 

  1. Ask the stupid questions

‘How do I leave the building?’

‘Where is room “Hu1”?’

‘What’s my username?’

‘Where do I stand for playground duty?’

Honestly, the list of stupid questions I have asked has no end. But I think you have to ask them, because sooner or later people will look to you, and you need to be doing things right. I’ve tried my best to find a few different people to lean on, so I’m not bombarding one person with all of these.

 

  1. Think about what you would change

As a senior leader, you have a massive opportunity to set the direction of the school, and the start is a great opportunity to seize those ‘fresh eyes’ (that don’t last all that long). As the week went on, I kept a ‘wish list’ of things I would change if I could and added to it every time I thought of something. This will be useful for strategizing when I’ve found my feet a little more, and also ensures thinking is more ‘solutions focused’ in terms of ‘what do I want this to look like?’, which is helpful, and not ‘what doesn’t work?’, which is less helpful.

 

  1. …But don’t push it

You’re not going to change anything if everyone hates you and feels alienated, so I’m in no rush to stomp around changing things. The school already works really well, but we all know there are lots of areas for improvements. Anything I know will be a longer-term structural change will need a lot of planning, starting with building up positive working relationships with all teachers and staff.

 

  1. Escalate like a newbie

I’ve leaned really heavily on the SLT and pastoral leads this week because they have the relationships and credibility with the hardest kids. I haven’t let anything go, but I’ve had to knock on a few doors and ask for help more than a few times. I think that’s ok, but I’d love to know what I could have done differently if people have tips!

 

One quick word about commuting, which I have never done in a serious way. The server in the St Pancras Pret a Manger has given me three free coffees this week (and on Tuesday I think also gave me a free lunch somehow), not to mention a huge smile and friendly chat every day. They are the best part of the commute. Yes, that is a formal endorsement of Pret.

Overall, the week has been hard – trying to learn loads of kids’ names, loads of adults’ names, and loads of rules, but I’ve absolutely loved it. I’m so excited to be at the Ebbsfleet Academy, working with a group of inspirational teachers and leaders from whom I have so much to learn. The very vast majority of the kids have been warm, polite and welcoming; all of the adults have given generously of their time to help me settle in. Being a comprehensive school in Kent’s grammar system brings some challenges I have never faced, and I’ll try and write about it as much as possible! I have such a good feeling about 2018.

Teach Knowledge

What can you do when you inherit a clueless year 10 or 11 class? Teach them the test. It’s something that teachers who join struggling schools know well. Principals who are drafted in to turn around failing schools are not fools to throw their resources at year 11 intervention, a.k.a., teaching to the test. What is the alternative?

But kids at private schools and grammar schools don’t do better on these tests because they were drilled better in exam technique. They don’t even do better because their teachers are better paid, or better qualified, or their schools have bigger, better buildings. They do better on the tests because they have deep subject knowledge, built up incrementally over a great number of years, often beginning in the cradle with a loving parent’s reading aloud each night.

In state schools, we have, for too long, been teaching skills and neglecting knowledge. In English, we have taught any novel, or any poem, thinking that the thing that is important is the ‘skill’: of reading, of inferring, of analysing. And yet, novel finished, what have the children learned? Daniel Willingham says that memory is ‘the residue of thought.’ The problem with skills-based lessons is that they don’t require thinking about anything you can commit to memory. Nothing is learned because nothing is being remembered. Over years and years of skills-based teaching, children aren’t actually learning anything. They are simply practising some skills in a near vacuum.

And yet, when it comes to the exams, we all know what to do: we teach them the test. We don’t like knowledge, but we’ll drill children in quotations and PEE and techniques used in key poems. We’ll drill kids in how long to spend on each question and how many marks are available. We’ll drill kids on the key words in each question (‘bafflingly, when AQA says “structure”, what they actually mean is…’). And then we will complain that we have to teach to the test.

I say ‘we,’ because I am equally culpable. Before joining Michaela, I could not see an alternative way of teaching English. Surely it was all about the skills! Who cared when Oliver Twist was written or what the characters’ names were? The kids could look that stuff up! What mattered was their ideas about the text!

We hugely underestimate how vital knowledge is. Skills-teachers across the land cannot work out why their kids cannot improve their inferences, cannot improve their analysis. Why can’t their ideas about the text just be a bit, well, better?

The kids’ ideas can’t be better because they don’t know enough. We don’t think it matters whether they learn chronology, but we forget that it is not obvious to children that Dickens is a Victorian. It is not obvious to children that Shakespeare is an Elizabethan. It is not obvious to children that the Elizabethans pre-date the Victorians. They simply do not know this.

The children who grow up being taught facts and knowledge will thrive in their national exams. They will use all their background knowledge and cultural literacy to deliver deft insights in glorious prose, and sweep up the top grades with ease. The children taught through skills will improve slowly, painfully, and nowhere near fast enough to compete. They will endure two years of teaching to the test and lose any love of learning they might have gleaned in the previous years.

Is there another way? Of course: teach a knowledge-based curriculum from the very start. Stop giving the rich kids a head start.

Assessment in a Knowledge Curriculum

I have written and spoken at length about simplification. In short, I have come to believe that a knowledge curriculum simplifies everything we do as teachers. Rather than considering engagement, entertainment, or pupil interest, a knowledge curriculum relentlessly and ruthlessly prioritises kids learning stuff in the most effective way: that is, reading it, writing about it, and being quizzed on it.

In my past life, here are some ways I assessed pupil learning:

  • Painstakingly marked their books with lengthy written targets for improvement that pupils responded to
  • As above, but for essays and assessments
  • Used spurious National Curriculum levels to denote the level the child appeared to be writing at
  • Developed an assessment ladder based on vague descriptors provided by GCSE exam boards to denote how far a child was from the GCSE expectations
  • Had pupils complete multiple choice exams which, having sweated over making, I would then have to mark
  • Had pupils swap books with one another to write insightful comments such as: ‘good work. Next time, write more’
  • Asked pupils to tell their partner what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to write a mind-map of what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to make a presentation of what they know about a topic

Not only are the above techniques unnecessarily complicated, they almost never gave me any useful information about what my kids could do.

At Michaela, we ask the kids questions constantly. Every lesson begins with two to five practice drills. In English, this would consist of two or more of the following:

  • A spelling test
  • A vocabulary test
  • A grammar drill
  • A gap-fill on a poem the pupils are memorizing
  • Knowledge questions on a previous unit
  • Knowledge questions on the current unit

We then read some material, and ask the pupils questions to ensure they have understood. The pupils then answer some questions about the material. We then go over the questions as a whole class, and pupils edit their responses using the whole-class feedback. For a lengthier piece of writing, I would use a half-page of feedback as outlined in my post ‘Giving Feedback the Michaela Way.’

For our bi-annual exams, pupils write an essay or, in subjects like Science or Maths, complete an exam paper that tests their ability to apply their knowledge. They also complete two to five ‘knowledge exams,’ which are simply open answer questions about everything they have learned that year. (Example questions from English could be: ‘What is a simile? When did Queen Elizabeth die? When was Macbeth first performed and where?’) We don’t painstakingly mark every paper – instead we sort them swiftly into three piles: A, B and C. A quick glance can tell us how a pupil has done – lots of gaps is a C, a sample glance at a number of correct answers and all questions attempted with a well-worked extension an A; everything in the middle a B.

The reason we can assess so simply is that in a knowledge curriculum there is a correct answer. There are, though we love to deny it, right and wrong things to say about literature. At Michaela, we are explicit about this. When I asked for pupil inferences about Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men in my previous school, I remember asking them what the colour red could symbolise. Their answer, ‘jam,’ was simply wrong. What we do at Michaela is to codify the knowledge we want the pupils to learn, teach that knowledge, and then relentlessly test that knowledge.

Simple.

Warm – strict  

I have written previously about Teach Like a Champion, a book I feel to be the most important contribution to pedagogy advice I have read. Although it is nearly impossible to pick which of the important techniques are the most vital, ‘warm strict’ is definitely up there: in fact, it may even be the foundation of a successful education.

The thinking behind ‘warm strict’ is that you should not be either the warm, friendly, kind teacher or the strict teacher: you need to be both. And not one after the other – it’s not Jekyll and Hyde – but both, at the precise same time.

So ‘warm’ and ‘strict’ are not mutually exclusive. In fact, at Michaela, we have found that the more strict we want to be, the more warm we have to be.

Anyone who has visited Michaela is immediately struck by the behaviour of the pupils. It is unusual, they say, to find classroom after classroom where 100% of pupils are focused for 100% of the time. Row upon row of eyes are fixed on their teacher, or on their exercise books. There is no staring out the window, no fiddling with a pen, no hanging back on their chairs.

But this does not happen by magic. Watch any Michaela lesson, and teachers are constantly issuing corrections to pupils. These can take the form of reminders or demerits, and are swift and public. ‘Kevon, remember to keep those eyes glued to your page,’ might be issued to a year 7 who is still in terrible habits from primary school, who desperately wants to focus on his work but just isn’t quite in the habit of it. ‘Shyma, that’s a demerit: if you focus 100% on your paragraph you know it will be the best you can do,’ might address a year 9 who is knowingly letting their eyes wander because they are seeking to distract others or themselves. It’s a judgement call, and one we don’t all always get right, but in general Michaela teachers are incredibly consistent in the messages they give the children. (We achieve that consistency through frequent observations – the topic of a future post.)

In my previous schools, I was also issuing constant corrections; the difference was my stress level. With a tough class, counting up those three warnings before issuing a sanction would lead to me delivering corrections with an emotional tone, conveying the stress I was feeling. Because the bar for behaviour is set so ludicrously high at Michaela, and pupils are never doing anything worse in lessons than turning around, whispering or fiddling with a pen, we can all take the time to explain every correction we give throughout the lesson. And we give corrections, reminders, demerits and even detentions with care and love: ‘that’s your second demerit, which is a detention – this will help you to remember to keep your focus so you will achieve your full potential.’

Not only within lessons, but also between lessons, Michaela teachers are seeking out opportunities for warm interactions with pupils. At break time, tutors circulate the hall their year group is based in, shaking hands, chatting about their weekend or their interests; we even have footage of pupils teaching their tutors how to dance. At lunchtime, we eat with our pupils; teachers will seek out kids they have had to sanction or have a difficult conversation with, and use that friendly interaction to reset the relationship in a more positive tone.

Because we are so strict, it is vital that every teacher greets every child with a smile and happy ‘good morning!’ prior to each lesson. Because we are so strict, we must smile and chat with the pupils on the playground, in the lunch hall, and even at the bus stop. Because we are so strict, we need to let our love show.

All truly excellent teachers love their pupils – that seems obvious to me. But if you want to be really, really strict you need to show them that love in every smiling interaction.

PowerPoint

Before training as a teacher, I’m genuinely not even sure I was aware of the existence of PowerPoint. I’d certainly never used it, nor was it installed on my computer. I’d never encountered it as a pupil in school or a student in university (although I do recall images being used in lectures, which could easily have been delivered through a PowerPoint format).

It was in my second week of teacher training, in what is called a ‘Second School Experience,’ I first was made aware of the program. Preparing to teach a lesson for the first time, I met with the class’s usual teacher whose opening words were, ‘here’s my log-in so you can make a PowerPoint. Obviously you’ll want to make a PowerPoint.’ It didn’t seem too obvious to me then. I spent an hour or so painfully working out how to use the program, painstakingly copying and pasting images I found at random using clipart (I hadn’t yet understood how to get images from the internet onto a slide), and changing the fonts at random. During the lesson, which was obviously a disaster for far wider ranging reasons than the existence of PowerPoint, I remember finding the slides a hindrance rather than a help, as I awkwardly pointed to a slide from time to time, only really to justify the time that had been poured into making it.

Looking back on my first term of teaching, my early PowerPoints were four slide affairs. They had a title, a learning objective (it was 2010), and then a series of questions for kids to answer, split into different slides which vaguely corresponded to different parts of the text we were learning (normally, the heading was a page number, the bullet points questions).

But I learned fast. My PowerPoints soon exploded into twenty, even thirty slide affairs for a single 50 minute lesson, packed with animations, images and coloured backgrounds as standard. At peak-PowerPoint, I could knock one of these out in under ten minutes.

But I’ve since reneged, and I’ve come to believe the use of PowerPoint is misguided. Why?

  1. Life in a dark room

The first time I visited a school, after 6 interim years of work and study, my first thought was how dark it was. It was the end of the year, and so bright and beautiful outside, but in classroom after classroom it was beyond winter. It was hellishly dark, and with the blinds drawn the classrooms were sweltering. I wondered how the kids could even see what they were reading or writing. Much like modern family life, everyone seemed orientated towards the bright screen at the front. It’s depressing.

  1. Split focus

PowerPoint splits kids’ focus. You want them to focus on you, and your instruction – but instead, they are focused on the screen that bears the remnants of that instruction. You want them to focus on the text and what they are learning, but instead they have to keep looking up to find out what the question is before they write again.

  1. It stops teachers teaching

Even ten minutes to bosh out a PowerPoint is a waste of time. But more than that, it actively impedes my preparation. I’m thinking about slides instead of thinking about content. I might put twenty questions on a PowerPoint, but actually I need to be thinking about a hundred questions to ask pupils. At Michaela, we ask each of the 32 pupils in our classes at least three, and often more, questions in a single lesson. I need to spend my time planning those micro-questions as well, not just the few ‘big questions’ they might answer at length in discussion or writing.

  1. Technology fails you

If I haven’t persuaded you with the preceding arguments, perhaps I will have more luck here! Hands up who has ever had technology fail them in the classroom? That’ll be every teacher ever.

And it’s awful. You stand there at the front. You have nothing. You could write your questions on the tiny actual whiteboard that is awkwardly positioned so not all kids can even read it, but then you’d have your back to the children and we all know how that pans out. Plus, what if half your questions are about the gorgeous images you’ve meticulously selected? You’ve got nothing. You do a little dance. You pray you can contain them.

We teach a poem in year 7 by William Carlos Williams called ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.’ It’s a poem about a painting by Pieter Brueghel, so obviously I felt I needed to show the kids the image in order for them to understand the significance of the poem. It was in my early days at Michaela, and I was already nervous as a visitor I knew vaguely from the world outside Michaela would be in my classroom. (I think we’re all desensitised to visitors now, as we have about five a day wander in.) I cued the image up ready. And then it transpired that my board was not connected to my computer. I absolutely panicked.

Back-up could not arrive in time, so I taught that lesson without my picture. I just explained the picture, and why it was important. The kids got it, wrote about the poem; happy days. It was fine. But by the afternoon my board was fixed. So, the second time I taught the lesson to the other year 7 class I taught, I had the image ready to go.

And it was a much weaker lesson. Because we had split attention. We had a request to pull the blinds down so they could ‘see it properly.’ They were confused by other aspects of the picture I didn’t want them to focus on. It was, all in all, a massive distraction.

  1. Work less, achieve more

Why have a resource and a PowerPoint? It’s the same argument I used to make against lesson plans – why do I need one when my PowerPoint shows my planning? Well now – why do I need a PowerPoint when my resource – poem, novel, play – shows my planning and thoughts about how I will teach these children?

At Michaela, all children have the same resource, and so does the teacher. The teacher’s is annotated with questions and key aspects to bring out in instruction. What more do we need?

A caveat

Ok – I actually do use PowerPoint. One slide, one lesson a week, for ten minutes. It is for our weekly quiz. We put the questions on a single PowerPoint slide, and the kids write their answers on paper. We then sort the papers using comparative judgement.

We’ve tried to come up with ways to avoid this, but so far everything considered has meant considerably more work for teachers than just sticking the questions up. We’re still brainstorming how to eradicate this last remaining slide. One PowerPoint slide one lesson a week. I look on that slide as a necessary evil.

Teaching English at Michaela

When I joined Michaela, I was excruciatingly ambitious, and not a little arrogant. Within a week, I felt that if I remained an English teacher at Michaela until the end of my working days, I would be content.

For someone who loves books, loves reading, and loves kids, it is the perfect job. Our classrooms are peaceful places, where children read loads and where discussions are enthusiastic, and often insightful. Even teaching year 7 and 8 last year, I would frequently be made to pause, sit back, and say: ‘hm. I hadn’t thought of it like that!’

It is, in short, the dream.

Of course, not everyone feels like this. The list of what we don’t do at Michaela is significantly longer than the list of what we do. We don’t do card sorts, group work, pair discussion, drawing, mind maps, or any tasks asking children to guess. Our knowledge-based curriculum is 100% fully resourced for teachers, so teachers never have to photocopy a single worksheet or create a single PowerPoint slide. They never have to decide what to teach, or in what order. They never have to guess what prior knowledge their kids might have – they simply look at the fully resourced curriculum for the lower year groups.

That said, not everyone wants this.

Many teachers love to create their own resources, and plan their own lessons. But we at Michaela would rather our English teachers focused on how to teach instead of what to teach. All teachers plan their lessons, in the sense that they read and annotate their booklets prior to teaching, ensuring that they know the best way to deliver new concepts to pupils. We meet together as a department once a week to add to these annotations, and to improve our alignment. It’s not good having one teacher decide to teach the term ‘hypophora’; far better if we all agree to teach the term and agree the best way to teach it.  If one teacher’s class are struggling to use apostrophes accurately, we all work together to decide on the best way to ensure the children really understand it.

At Michaela, we think that team beats individual. Our English department works together to ensure that every single pupil in our school gets the very best education possible – not just the kids happening to benefit from what one individual teacher happens to know and think to share with them.

The results? Happy kids, learning loads. Their writing is beyond joyous – it is certainly unlike anything I have ever encountered in any of my three previous schools. In my first term, my year 8s essays on Macbeth far outshone those of the year 13 pupils I had taught the text to last.

If this sounds great, then you’ll be excited to hear that we’re hiring, and we’d love to hear from you!