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.

Reading Reconsidered

Teach Like a Champion,’ by Doug Lemov, changed my teaching profoundly: it was the most practical and helpful piece of writing I had ever encountered, and transformed my classroom practice, giving me specific aspects to hone and improve.

When I heard that Lemov had been an English teacher, it didn’t surprise me – in particular, in TLAC 2.0 there are several techniques which are especially useful for the English teacher. When I heard he was co-authoring a book on reading, I had very high hopes. ‘Reading Reconsidered,’ written by Lemov with Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, does not disappoint. With a nod to the poetic importance of literature (‘this book is about the enduring power of reading to shape and develop minds’), again, we have a manual for practice; specific things that teachers can do, day in, day out, to read effectively with pupils.

‘Reading Reconsidered’’s opening gambit is that text selection is key: in pages referencing Hirsch and Arnold, canon and cultural capital, the writers note: ‘part of the value of reading is to be able to read and talk about important books that almost everyone else has read.’ The great conversation of literature, intertextuality, ‘works only when pupils have read some texts in common.’ The writers extol the value of a common reading curriculum for all pupils, and warns us to select our texts carefully, noting: ‘a typical pupil might read and intentionally study forty or fifty books in English classes’ over their time in school and ‘these few books form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works.’ If only there were as many as fifty texts! Such a sentence puts the demands of the new GCSE English Literature, with its four texts (I include the poetry cluster as a ‘text’) over two years into frightening perspective. To those who argue that canonical texts are unreadable by youngsters, the authors respond: we just need to get better at teaching them.

The writers go on to isolate the ‘five plagues of the beginning reader’, looking at five challenges all readers face in encountering tricky texts, and how we can overcome these in our everyday practice. One example is using ‘pre-complex texts’ to prime pupils for the canon, such as children’s classics like ‘The Secret Garden’ which use challenging syntax but have child-friendly story arcs.

The chapters on close reading are a must-read primer for all English teachers, going meticulously through how we should read closely in class, supplemented with specific questions designed to unlock meaning in complex passages. One key take-away for me was: teachers! Prepare to close-read! Annotate your text! It sounds blindingly obvious, but I know I’ve been guilty of sauntering into class, blank copy in hand, hoping for the best. Yet what more important preparation can there be for a lesson than our own annotation?

The most revolutionary chapter for me in ‘Reading Reconsidered’ was that on non-fiction. It made me recognise how vital it is for pupils to read non-fiction alongside fiction to assist with their comprehension and to enable really excellent analysis: ‘reading secondary nonfiction texts in combination with a primary text increases the absorption rate of pupils reading that text’; ‘when texts are paired, the absorption rate of both texts goes up.’ Overall: don’t teach non-fiction as a separate unit, but rather interweave non-fiction texts into your teaching of literature, either with short, contextual glosses or in-depth historical study of the time period in question to deepen analysis.

Though reading is this book’s chief subject, the authors do not neglect writing: ‘we are suggesting that pupils [should] write with more frequency and consistency as part of their daily work of responding to texts’. They recommend intervening at the point of writing to help pupils improve (no mention of lengthy, burdensome and delayed marking), explaining: ‘great teaching begins at the moment learning breaks down.’ ‘Writing,’ in this guide, also encompasses annotation, and again there is detailed advice for modelling these, with the goal of pupils eventually annotating autonomously.

Again, though the goal is for pupils to read independently, we need to be aware that if they do this poorly they are ‘inscribing errors’ (and of course we know from Lemov himself that ‘practice makes permanent’). It is vital that pupils read aloud, as well as listening to great reading being modelled for them. In considering ‘accountable independent reading,’ the writers give such guidance as using short sections with a specified focus, or scaffolding pupil comprehension by using questions.

Although the focus of the books is practical, with advice to be found on the specifics of vocabulary instruction and the dynamics of a classroom discussion, the underpinning voice here is one deeply concerned with children loving reading and doing it effectively. The voice of the parent in each writer is heard most clearly in the book’s dedication: ‘to our kids, with whom we have 16,000 more nights to read – not nearly enough.’ Foundational to this book is a personal and deep love of reading, for all the right reasons.

 

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How to Read: TLT15

On 17th October, I travelled to Southampton for my second year presenting at TLT. I was talking about reading (not much new there), and, specifically, how to read. Reading, of course, is at the core of what we do as teachers; and not just as teachers of English. More and more in my new role, I’m coming to see that reading may be the only silver bullet in education: beautiful in its simplicity, obvious in its impact.

The reality is that our strongest readers read the most, and our weakest readers the least: the exact opposite what we need to see to close the gap between our best and worst performing students. This is not only true in their home lives, but also in our classrooms. Anyone who has ever asked for volunteers to read (including: me; guilty as charged) is advantaging those strong readers, and further denying reading from the weakest.

The gap in reading is not just a practice gap: it is also a knowledge gap. When we take our weak readers out of subjects to teach them reading skills, we are denying them that subject-specific knowledge that will enable them to make sense of a wider variety of texts. With the new strengthened GCSEs, students being able to read rigorous subject matter independently is essential.

Of the three stages of reading, decoding, comprehension and fluency, I said the least about decoding, instead pointing people to the awesome Katie Ashford’s blog, where she gives plenty of great advice on how to deal with students who cannot decode. It is clear that too many students slip through the decoding net at primary school, and we at secondary school lack the expertise to bridge that gap. This is evident in my experience in even years 10 and 11; last year I taught a student who would auto-correct unfamiliar words, as she didn’t know how to decode and hadn’t been properly taught phonics. She would autocorrect so many words, she couldn’t then understand the sentence, so for example: ‘Alison leapt up bracingly from her meal’ she might read aloud: ‘Alison led up braking from her meal’, which makes absolutely no sense.

Comprehension entails understanding what is written. Using Willingham’s examples from his excellent book Raising Kids who Read, often reading contains an inference gap: ‘Trisha spilled her coffee. Dan jumped from his chair to fetch a cloth.’ Expert readers automatically see how the first sentence impacts the second; novice readers might see these as two separate and unconnected events.

Interestingly, though, the gap between those from low and high income backgrounds manifests itself after the decoding has been taught, because comprehension, the second stage, is largely predicated on background knowledge, which our economically advantaged students have in abundance (usually from wide background reading). Using Hirsch’s classic ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run,’ I explained that readers with high levels of knowledge on a given topic do better on tests which supposedly only test their reading ‘skill.’

And yet we are still persisting in believing our weak readers simply need more training in generic reading strategies, often withdrawing students from subject lessons to teach reading in isolation, and then wondering why their reading is not improving. In fact, the optimal way to close the reading gap is for students to gain a broad knowledge of subjects across the curriculum.

So clearly, we need to put reading at the heart of our lessons. Yet this is not an easy sell. Citing my own trials of getting students to read aloud (ranging from outright refusals to early tears), I later that evening found there were many out there who considered reading aloud in class to be cruel: (

I welcome those challenges to this idea. It is all too easy to do whole class reading badly.

Indeed, it is absolutely vital to consider the emotional impact of such a policy, and the way to make it work in your individual classroom for your children. Running a class where every child reads aloud is difficult, make no mistake about it. It depends on excellent pedagogy and the creation of a warm, safe environment. It requires constant vigilance and tight management. But, crucially, it is possible.

Why read aloud with students, if it is so difficult? First, so we know they can read. I’ve heard of too many teachers at KS4 finding out their students can’t read to not put this top of my list of reasons. Next, so we know they are listening during the lesson – the knowledge you could be asked to read at any time undeniably focuses the mind. Also, reading aloud helps us as teachers to check for understanding, something impossible when students are reading silently at their own pace. But finally, because reading aloud is probably the most enjoyable thing you can do with a class.

One recent example: when year 7 went on their ‘outward bound’ trip, I was the lucky teacher of history with three periods to fill for those ‘left behind.’ A mixed group of around 18 students of vastly differing ability, I didn’t want to press on with the planned lessons, but also didn’t have a bank of ‘rainy day’ history lessons as a first year teacher of this subject. In my desperation, I photocopied about 30 pages of Gombrich’s History of the World (recommended to me in the summer by both Daisy Christodoulou and Jonathan Porter) and threw together some comprehension questions. The first lesson was fine, but I was really concerned about the double: two hours of pure reading and writing. And guess what? It’s probably the best lesson I’ve ever taught. No joke – I wish someone had come to see it. These children were utterly, utterly engaged in a way I’ve seen only rarely, in the most remarkable teachers’ classrooms. They adored the stories, and their curiosity led to a wonderful class discussion and some impressive paragraphs.

It was not always thus. Previously, I would use ‘guided reading,’ where my students read at different paces in groups, thus ensuring no misconceptions could be ironed out, and again advantaging those strong readers. Moreover, I previously did not read aloud well to students, as I have written about here.

So, I was held back by my own low expectations, and it was the children themselves who set me on the right track: they wanted to read, and they seized that moment to show me they could do it.

But how can we do it every lesson? Here, Doug Lemov has the best answer I’ve found with ‘Control the Game.’ I went through each of the components of this: be vague about how much children will be reading, keep the reading duration unpredictable but short at the outset, move swiftly to the next reader with limited words (‘Stacey, pick up’, or, in my class, ‘Stacey’) and take over and model reading of tricky passages. At the start of my time in a new school, I tweaked this: we did snake around the class, for two weeks in fact. What was lost in terms of students checking out and not following in this two weeks was made up for, I think, in that it set the expectation that every child would read in every one of my lessons. For unconfident readers, they got used to this expectation with the predictability. It also gave me two weeks to suss who was going to push back on reading, and deal with them individually. (Interestingly, my year 10 middle ability class proved harder to get reading than my year 11 set 7 class, who frequently bound into my room shouting ‘are we reading today miss?’) Only once the whole class was secure in reading (and only a sentence each time) did I move to selecting students, but even now they are only reading a sentence, though I am moving away from that.

The implications of this kind of teaching are that teachers need to spend their planning thinking more about the questions they will need to ask students to ensure they have understood, along with which vocabulary students will struggle with and how they will gloss those words and check students have learned them.

From the mechanics of reading I moved to the motivation: reading is highly emotional, and I shared methods I’ve written about extensively on this blog in the past to build a reading culture in a school, such as sharing one book, sharing reading lists and delivering reading assemblies.

Once again, I would like to thank my warm and encouraging audience, who indulged me in my anecdotes and engaged with the ideas with gusto. Much love also goes to those who listen and challenge in the room and after: it is only through such thrashing out of the ideas that we come closer to being the best teachers and professionals we can be.

TLT

How to read

Just one book: teaching

Perhaps I ought to have begun with teaching. Two years ago, I probably would have done. The primacy of teaching then for me was that it was the everything: in a school with no schemes of work and no curriculum plan, part of my teaching was choosing my curriculum and then assessing whether I had effectively taught it.

Now, I’ve moved schools, and seen the benefits of a more stratified approach. All students learning the same curriculum, with the proviso that it be high-quality, is surely more equitable and manageable. I wouldn’t want my children learning Skellig if the folks next door were tackling Oliver Twist. 

For some of the books in this series, I deliberated for weeks, going back and forth over which book to choose. The only topic I didn’t even have to think about was this one. Because, obviously:

TLAC 2.0

Doug Lemov: Teach Like a Champion

Why is this book so good? Because it tells you what other books won’t. This book tells you the nitty gritty practicality of how you should set your classroom up and then what you do in it in order for learning to occur. You don’t go to a book like this for vision and broad strokes, although those too are present; you go to Lemov for practical guidance. This book is the awesome mentor you might not be lucky enough to have in your early teaching years; the fantastic coach you almost certainly will not have in later years of teaching.

I first encountered this book in a lukewarm Guardian article, and decided to give it a miss. A few weeks later, a respected colleague from an ARK school called me up, telling me something had completely changed her practice, and it was this book. I’m so glad I listened to my friend and not the Guardian. Why does TLAC work so well?

Lemov has painstakingly observed hundreds of teachers at work, (“there is no gap that has not been closed already by some teacher somewhere”) and has drilled down into what they do to be effective in their classrooms. The results are distilled into manageable actions anyone can take, with examples you can watch on an accompanying DVD. They’re not quick-fixes; they’re not gimmicks. They are habits which, if embedded, will change the amount your students learn and want to learn from you.

Lemov notes that “perhaps the most salient characteristic of a great teacher is her ability to recognize the difference between ‘I taught it’ and ‘they learned it.’” Too often, I find myself despairing that students still cannot embed quotations and analyse language, given how many times I have taught it. Lemov reminds me that there is always a tweak; always a way I can improve my practice.

Just some of the key habits Lemov advises include avoiding the use of yes/no questions; instead, we must use pointed questioning to distil the students’ true understanding. Cold-calling is the widely preferred method of questioning, ensuring that all students are primed and listening and always ready to respond to your questions – by which he means no hands up. (Incidentally, one major benefit of the prevalence of TLAC parlance is the creation of a shared vocabulary of teaching.) Alongside cold-calling, which transformed my practice, he advises “No Opt Out” – students can never be excused trying. Wrong answers are ok, not even trying is not: “everybody learns in a high-performing classroom.”

Yet for methods such as these to be truly effective, we must create what Lemov terms a “Culture of Error” in our classrooms – less ironic than it sounds, this means students need to be willing to “share their struggles, mistakes, and errors” so teachers “spend less time and energy hunting for them and more time fixing and learning from them”. This might seem like overly broad brush advice, but Lemov follows this up with precise examples of how to do this, which include narrating growth, celebrating improvement, and praising struggle (“great question!”).

On structuring a lesson, I can’t think of a simpler or more easily applicable method than Lemov’s “I do, we do, you do”: therein lies lesson planning. Firstly, the teacher models. Then, the class practises together. Finally, students practise independently. Peppered in this structure you can have your cold-calling; your “Turn and Talk” (a much nicer way of saying “pair share” to my mind, rolling, as it does, so much more easily from the tongue: “turn and talk to your partner about…”).

One of the most helpful additions to the new edition of TLAC is the section on reading, which I have revisited more than any other this year – again, full of useful tips on how to encourage students when reading aloud in class, explained in lucid detail and with helpful examples.

As frequently thumbed in my own copy is the section on managing behaviour. Lemov’s overarching idea of making the “least invasive intervention” has changed the dynamic in my most challenging groups. Helpfully, he details examples of these interventions: positive group correction (“I need to see everybody writing”), anonymous individual correction (“I need two more sets of eyes”), private individual correction (quietly, one to one, with the student in question), lightning-quick public correction (always followed up by praise).

For those who fear that the outcome of these techniques is the creation of tiny obedient robots, Lemov reminds us all to “seek not only to be both warm and strict but often to be both at exactly the same time.” We must be strict, and never excuse poor behaviour; yet just as imperative is to be warm and kind, and love our charges, infusing our corrections with reminders of this love.

TLAC distills what the best teachers do:

  • Cultivate classroom culture, systems and routines
  • Enforce high behavioural expectations
  • Build trust
  • Set high academic expectations
  • Plan, pace and structure their lessons
  • Increase cognitive ratio (making students do the thinking) through questioning, writing and discussion
  • Check for understanding

To go on further would run the risk of plagiarism. In my view, to summarise, this is the book on teaching.

So far, I’ve explored curriculum and assessment, two aspects of education which are inextricably linked. The final two posts will be on leadership and ethos.