Teaching Vocabulary

 

If this blog had themes, I’m sure one fairly major one would be ‘Changing my Mind.’ And lest readers consider me a fully paid up zealot of the ‘Knowledge Devotees,’ let me tell you that I have only recently changed my mind about teaching vocabulary.

When I began teaching at Michaela, I picked up someone else’s timetable; someone else’s classes. I was totally at the mercy of those who had begun their learning, and it was my job to learn how to teach in the ‘Michaela Way.’ I knew what I was getting myself into, and bit my tongue when one particular sheet came my way. It was a sheet listing 45 difficult words, split into three columns of 15, each with a one (or very few) word synonym.

‘What do I do with this?’ I asked.

‘They learn one column a week – meaning and spelling – and then you test it,’ replied Joe Kirby.

Not wanting to be that challenging complainer on day one, I said nothing. But I thought: ‘no way will this work.’ Everything I’d read, everything I believed, told me that rote learning vocabulary was a bad idea. It was far, far preferable to read widely, flag up new words, and allow children to just absorb them.

The first week, almost every child in the class scored zero out of fifteen on the words. (Here is the test: Me: ‘what’s a better word for determined beginning with “t”?’ Kids: ‘….’ [Meant to write down: ‘tenacious.’) Part of me felt vindicated – this was too hard, and totally pointless. But I trusted Joe, and I’d been wrong before. I was prepared to find out if this was partly my fault.

‘Didn’t you test them orally first?’ asked Joe. I had not. ‘Did you do a few every day at the beginning and end of lessons?’ I had not. ‘Did you give them time to green pen afterwards, looking at a few they had got wrong to really work on them?’ I had not.

I drilled them the whole next week, and tested them again. Half of them achieved 5 out of 15. The other half achieved zero.

Was the idea rubbish? Was I rubbish? Were the kids rubbish?

With lots to do, I had no time to rethink the Michaela vocabulary strategy, not halfway through the year with already boggled children. I kept going.

And as the weeks went by something started to click. It wasn’t just that the kids were starting to achieve 10, 11, even 15 out of 15 – and they were. (I had even taken out my letter cues, saying: ‘what’s a better word for determined?’ ‘Tenacious,’ they would write, spelling it correctly.) It was their paragraphs that showed the impact. They were astonishing. And that’s when I realised that while part of writing an analytical paragraph is knowing about character, plot, quotation, technique and context and combining all of that knowledge to write about it; the other part is having the words in the first place. The good words.

One of my year 7 classes learned the vocabulary. Inexplicably, I didn’t teach the other class the words. The gap between their paragraphs has grown and grown. The difference? Vocabulary. I am teaching the same lesson to each class – usually one straight after the other – the same concepts and ideas. They are reading the same thing, and I am saying the same thing to them. But class 2’s paragraphs contain mediocre vocabulary.

And vocabulary loves vocabulary, like all knowledge loves knowledge. Class 1 are always on the look-out for new words. Supported by their extraordinary form tutor, Ms Clear, who notes down key vocabulary from their class reading (done in tutor time in the afternoon) and tests them on it, Class 1 have actually started teaching me words (not sure yet if this is a low or a high point of my teaching career).

Yes, the kids really struggled with this at first. And they still get it wrong in context – one said recently: ‘The Arctic is the zenith and the Antarctic is the nadir of planet earth.’ Obviously wrong. But the list isn’t everything – it is the beginning of their accurate use of these words. Having this list committed to memory means the kid can say the above sentence, be corrected in front of their peers, and learn more about the correct context for these words.

I used to believe that kids could absorb vocabulary. On some level, I still believe this – if kids read widely enough, their vocabulary will inevitably be better than their non-reading peers. But it isn’t enough, not for any kid, to rely on this. They need to learn words by rote. The more they learn, the more they use these words, and the better their vocabulary becomes. I was absolutely wrong and Joe Kirby was absolutely right – a common theme in my teaching career.

Here is a paragraph from a year 7 exam, done on Julius Caesar and entirely from memory.

image1

I’ve typed out what it says below, and made bold any words this pupil has learned by heart through our vocabulary programme, or through other knowledge organisers he has had this year:

Moreover, Antony develops as the play reaches its crescendo into a choleric, manipulative and sophistical character. After the death of Caesar, Antony calls him a ‘bleeding piece of earth.’ He uses personification fused with the striking word ‘bleeding’ to display his sorrow but also his anger. Shakespeare now makes Antony speak his mind after Caesar’s death to portray Antony’s true character, a manipulative, magnanimous and mendacious individual. Antony then goes on to deliver an oration to the crowd by starting with the lines ‘friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears.’ By combining the tricolon of ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ and the metaphor ‘lend me your ears,’ Antony creates a false sense of camaraderie between himself and the crowd. By doing so, he achieves the attention of the crowd, proving that he is manipulative. Antony uses sophistry to prove to the audience that Caesar was not a tyrant.

This pattern was replicated throughout the essays I was reading. The difference between the great and the good was often the words they had in their memories to use.

There are two changes I would make to the Michaela Vocabulary Strategy for next year. The first is chunking: I’ll be setting five words a week for the first few weeks. Success builds motivation, and those first weeks were depressing for pupils and me alike. We can build up to 10 and 15 words as the year goes on. The second change is to make sure that every single class learns these words. As Wittgenstein says, ‘the limits of language mean the limits of my world.’ With every word learned, those limits expand just a little bit more.

Here is a grid for year 7, with thanks to Joe for letting me share it.

Vocabulary Y7

Advertisements

A Michaela Feedback Lesson

At Michaela, we have two exam sessions each year: in February and the end of June. Nonetheless, when completing a unit we do sometimes give pupils an assessment to see what they can do. Recently, our year 8s finished learning about Romantic Poetry. To really stretch them, we decided to give them a poem they had not seen before, and ask them to write on it. The responses were phenomenal, and you can read some below. But today, I want to focus on how we give feedback following such an assessment, using a specific example.

I visited Joe Kirby’s year 8 lesson, just at the moment he was testing them on the words they had misspelled. He tested them on the spellings (in the same way as I have written about previously here) and then went on to look at what else the pupils needed to do to improve their essays.

He began by looking at grammar, a key aspect of our English curriculum at Michaela. At Michaela, we focus on memory and automaticity, and we know pupils need to overlearn each aspect of writing in order to improve. If a couple of pupils are misusing the apostrophe, we know all pupils will benefit from overlearning this key ingredient of accuracy. Joe has written three sentences on the board which come from different pupils’ essays, and he asks them to write them correctly in the back of their books. He then goes over this as a whole class, leading pupils to articulate why each apostrophe is needed:

 

 

Following the focus on spelling and grammar, Joe goes into what not to do, using examples again lifted from the pupils’ essays, and helps them to see how to improve these by explaining from the front of the class:

Here are some more examples of ‘vague’ sentences, with Joe explaining what pupils need to do better:

He then goes on to explain what precision means, and gives concrete examples of how to be precise:

 

 

Joe then leads pupils through some of the most impressive insights from their essays. This was my favourite bit of the lesson, and something I tried with my own year 8 classes the following day. When reading their books, you put a tick in the margin of a sentence you found especially impressive, and note their name and a trigger word on your feedback sheet. You can then say, ‘Elena, can you read your sentence on alliteration?’ It is lovely to celebrate the impressive responses of pupils, while also helping others see what they ought to be writing about:

Following this, pupils read one of their classmate’s essays, again focusing on what precisely made it so effective:

Hosna example parag

After this, pupils re-wrote a paragraph in their books.

The above approach is simple, and requires no marking. The teacher reads the essays, noting down examples of great work and ‘non-examples’, or examples of what not to do. The teacher then structures the feedback in a clear way, for us beginning with accuracy, moving on to ‘non-examples,’ and finishing with exemplars.

Here are some further examples of the pupils’ writing. Remember, this was analysis of John Keats’ ‘This Living Hand,’ a poem they had never encountered before. Some sophisticated insights they have written include:

‘Keats keeps the poem following free verse and no rhyme scheme to perhaps inform readers that the possibilities and powers of the ambiguities, hidden meanings and unknown capabilities are not so easily understood and that the power is so strong that it breaks all form of rhythm and pattern.’

‘This poem could be about the relationship between the poet and poem and the emotion it gives the reader. Keats could be saying that poetry is capable of inflicting an outburst of emotion, which is recollected in “tranquillity.”’

‘At the beginning of the poem, “now warm and capable” is used combining life and death imagery to describe the transience of life in the present.’

‘The poet does not refer to an actual living hand in his poem, instead it is used to symbolise the poem itself, personifying it. He does this to illustrate that life may be transient however this poem shall be transcendent, otherwise “haunt” our “days” and “chill” our “dreaming nights.”’

Keisi parag

 

Maryam parag

Teacher Instruction

While moving my blog from Squarespace to WordPress, I witnessed some worrying things. I was horrified to see the extent to which I had relied upon group work, philosophy circles and multimedia to engage pupils. I considered, briefly, expunging these articles from my blog. But I decided, ultimately, that it was more honest to leave them. I have, you see, been on a journey.

When I first met Joe Kirby, Katie Ashford, Bodil Isaksen and Kris Boulton in 2013 to write an e-book for Teach First starters, I was their polar opposite. While they talked about knowledge and instruction, I raved about student-led lessons and pupils’ personal interpretations. We had common ground only on curriculum choice: the one thing that united us was the idea that kids should be taught great literature. We were desperately divided on how to teach it.

By September 2014, Michaela Community School had opened, and I was still nay-saying in the corner. It wasn’t until Katie Ashford shared her pupils’ essays with me that I had the profound realisation: their way worked. My way did not work. With my way, some children thrived, and others were left hopelessly far behind. With their approach, Katie’s set 4 (of 4) year 7s were outperforming my set 3 (of five) year 10s.

Teacher instruction sounded terrifying. For one thing, I’d never done it or been trained to do it. What would I say? How on earth could I fill 60 minutes of learning time with… Me? In my head, teacher instruction was like a lecture, and in my experience lecturers would speak once a week, and have a whole week to prepare it. How could you possibly lecture six times a day?

But that isn’t at all what it is. When I first visited Michaela, I accepted the theory, but had no idea what to do in practice. Seeing it, I saw there was a lot more common ground than I had thought. In fact, even in the dark days of 2013, I might even have done a bit of teacher instruction myself.

Teacher instruction is highly active, not passive. We explain, read, expand, yes; we also probe, question and test. We spend time writing out explanations and printing them up for pupil and teacher to read together. We spend time in department meetings discussing what we will teach and the key learning points we will be drawing out as we teach. The result is powerful: a highly engaging and dynamic classroom, full of pupils learning, answering questions, and recapping their prior knowledge. Visit Michaela and you see one thing very clearly: pupils love learning. They aren’t sitting in lessons bored, waiting for the next video clip or poster activity to engage them. They are answering questions, positing ideas, listening and annotating or taking notes, reading, reading reading; writing, writing, writing.

For a flavour of what teacher instruction looks like, watch year 8 annotating as Joe Kirby talks. Notice how he recaps on their prior knowledge throughout instruction – picking up on vocabulary they have learned, along with their prior knowledge:

Watch Olivia Dyer questioning year 8 in science. This is the start of a lesson, where she is recapping their prior knowledge. Look how many pupils have their hands up wanting to contribute! I always love visiting Olivia’s classroom – her manner is extraordinary: she is patient, quiet, calm and encouraging.

I love Naveen Rizvi’s excitement about the Maths as she carefully models for year 7, and engages the pupils every step of the way:

And finally, Jonny Porter’s expert use of a pupil demonstration to explain jousting to year 8, again recapping on their prior knowledge all the way:

 

 

New Year, New School (Part 2)

I can honestly say I did not foresee 2015. For me, 2015 was a year of dramatic changes, both personal and professional. In 2015, I saw things differently, and it was really, really hard.

Could it be a product of turning 30? Could my willingness to move away from what I had always taken to be a given have been signaled by my growing awareness of the brevity of life? Have I, in plain terms, had a mid-life crisis?

It is possible. I’m going to talk about one of the big, controversial choices I made in 2015 and why I made it.

In September, I took on a post as Assistant Principal for Curriculum Design at a large academy. I couldn’t believe it: my dream job in my dream school. It was everything I had wanted: a big promotion, whole-school responsibility, and an opportunity to change the minds and practices of every teacher in a big academy. When I started in September, it was even better than I had hoped. People listened, engaged, argued, and, swiftly, started to get on board. Change was, in many ways, rapid. I realised straight away I was working with some phenomenal people: an understanding line manager who ‘got it’ on every level; a Head of English and Head of Communications who were not only smart but massively fun to hang out with in the office we all shared, and a core group of individuals I ‘clicked’ with. Then there were the children: they were something else. Despite coming in massively far behind, despite every conceivable deprivation and difficulty, they were joyous. Within days, children I didn’t teach were greeting me politely; classes at first a little wild soon accustomed themselves to my preference for silence and made ridiculously good progress, and I was even beginning to enjoy the challenge of teaching, for the first time, out of my specialism. I could see myself building my career here.

So why on earth would I leave such a job?

I met Joe Kirby, Katie Ashford and Bodil Isaksen for the first time in January 2013. Between the three of them, they changed the way I thought about everything in education. They presented a radical departure from the norm to me, and although I held firm for a long time, eventually truth and research won me over. I could argue no more: there was a better way of doing what I did. I had to kill my darlings: group work, student-led activities, student research, and skills-led lessons. In the summer of 2013, when Joe, Katie and Bodil were about to found what would become Michaela Community School, I thought briefly about trying to join them. I dismissed the idea almost immediately. Why would I join something so untested? How did they know these ideas would work in practice? Then there was my own career trajectory – I was about to become Head of English; my next career move would be Assistant Head, not Head of Department again.

Then I visited. I saw what they had created, and I was awestruck. Here the ideas were, in their purest form. The children were amazing; so engaged; their progress more rapid than I could even have imagined. The curriculum was inspirational – the very best texts, the most important ideas, carefully organised for maximum student learning. And I met, for the first time, Katharine Birbalsingh, who in 20 minutes of discussion taught me more than I’d ever learned in such a short time about leadership, and what it meant to be a brave and bold leader.

But I was on the cusp of my next job, the job I’d always wanted; the trajectory I had so desired. Why would I leave that? Again, the job advert had come at the wrong time. Taking a step ‘back’ to be Head of Department again is hard on the ego. It is hard when you think about perceptions, and what others will think. ‘Oh, she couldn’t hack it at a tough school.’ ‘She wasn’t ready to be a senior leader.’ ‘It was too hard for her.’

Let them think that. I could have impact in my school in my context as Assistant Head. But as part of the Michaela team, we have the potential to change the whole education paradigm. If the ideas work, and it is a big if, predicated on massive amounts of work and effort, when the school is to scale, it could be the exemplar that moves leaders in education around the country to change what and how children are taught, and to avoid teacher burnout on a massive scale. I don’t want to stand by and watch as my closest friends change the world. I want to be part of that team.

So I have, after a short term, left my dream job. I have defied my own expectations for what a career progression should look like. I have let down colleagues and children at a school I promised to be a part of for long-term change. All of this is true.

And yet, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can build an English curriculum that will endure for twenty years or more. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can learn from some of the best professionals in the country. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, we can destroy all the remaining doubts that ‘children like these’ can achieve at the highest levels in the hardest subjects. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can be a part of a school that will change the way children are taught and the way our profession is run.

IMG_0490

Memory: an inset session

On 1st September, I wasn’t as nervous about starting a new school as I was about standing in front of the teaching staff of the secondary school at 10am to make my pitch about knowledge and the curriculum. I advised myself that it is always easier to speak to people you don’t know, yet this did little to assuage my fears: whatever I told myself, first impressions count.

Happily, I have lucked into my second wonderful line-manager in a row, and together we worked on a session that would hopefully engage the teaching staff at the right level.

To begin, teachers had a multiple-choice quiz about memory, knowledge maps and multiple-choice questions. The idea was to put into practice what we would preach about pre-quizzing and how to construct MCQs.

We split the session into two parts: theory and practice. To begin, I took two key questions: how does memory work, and how can we teach to build memory? I used Hirsch’s example of ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run’ to highlight that we don’t always know how important knowledge is unless we don’t have it and suddenly can’t access what looks like a fairly straightforward sentence (stealing from Daisy Christodoulou the sentiment that ‘knowledge is like oxygen: it is vitally important, but we only notice it when it is not there.’ I went on to explore other examples of sentences students required explicit content knowledge to be able to access ideas. Then, using Joe Kirby’s excellent ideas on knowledge and memory, asked what we mean by knowledge – after all, if many of us took a GCSE paper now we would fail it, having completely forgotten what we once crammed in. We need to move from a cramming culture to one of real mastery.

I then shared the forgetting curve, exploring the idea of revisiting to secure concepts in long-term memory, along with Willingham’s advice that ‘memory is the residue of thought’: we remember what we think hard about.

forgetting curve

The two practical implements we focused on were knowledge maps and multiple choice questions. Knowledge maps are hugely useful for three main reasons.

Firstly, they nudge subject leads to make decisions on what to teach. You obviously can’t teach everything about Frankenstein, for example; you must be selective and deeply consider the most vital information you want students to retain for a very long time.

Secondly, they provide clarity to teachers. The first question any new teacher has is ‘what am I going to teach them?’, and a knowledge map answers that in a single slide. They provide further clarity for subject leads in knowing that everyone in their department is on the same page, and are helpful for senior leaders to have more detailed knowledge of what exactly is being taught.

Finally, they are brilliant for revision. Not intended to be only for teachers, students too can be literally on the same page as their teachers. A knowledge map is a powerful tool for revision, helping students to know exactly what it is they need to revise, both as they are taught the unit, and in the months to come.

I then shared three organising principles for knowledge maps. Firstly, they are selective; you should only select what can fit onto a single page. Secondly, their terms are defined – a list of complex vocabulary without definitions is useless as a revision tool. Thirdly, they are organised into manageable sections, allowing teachers and students to focus on the discrete aspects of the unit.

To assuage the fears that MCQs could not test skills, I shared some examples. The first tests pure recall, which is of course important. The second two test application of that knowledge, looking at how well students can infer and analyse. I explained how each of these latter questions still relied on a huge breadth of student knowledge – you need to know the meanings of the poetic terms in order to decide whether they are being used in the example.

  • When did Coleridge write ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’?
  • a) 1665
  • b) 1793
  • c) 1797
  • d) 1815
  • e) 1816
  • ‘I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation.’ Which language techniques are combined here, and what is the writer trying to suggest?
  • a) In this quotation, onomatopoeia and religious imagery are used to emphasise how disgusting Frankenstein is.
  • b) In this quotation, a simile and religious imagery are used to emphasise that the death of Justine will never be forgotten.
  • c) In this quotation, pathetic fallacy and natural imagery are used to emphasise how destructive what has happened is.
  • d) In this quotation, prolepsis and a metaphor are used to suggest that the creature will wreak his revenge.
  • e) In this quotation, a metaphor and graveyard imagery are used to emphasise how destructive the guilt Frankenstein feels is.

Drawing heavily from people much smarter than I on MCQs, I explained three reasons for using them. Firstly, workload: although requiring a much greater effort upfront, MCQs are quick to mark and can be used year after year, compared with the uphill struggle of the essay, which is quick to set, but must then be marked 30 times, at length, year after year after year. Secondly, MCQs allow for a much clearer diagnosis of what students do and do not know – in an essay, where a student misplaces a comma, we might not be sure if they do in fact know how to use a comma, but were distracted by exploring Macbeth; or if they can use a comma for lists but not to separate clauses, or if they can’t use a comma at all. With MCQs, you can test each of these aspects separately, and have a much clearer diagnosis of what students know and do not know. Thirdly, MCQs enable teachers to test the breadth of their subjects, not just the depth; with MCQs, we can find out what students know about every single theme and language technique, compared with an essay which might focus on one theme, and include examples containing three or four techniques.

After sharing some key principles for creating MCQs – five options to avoid guessing, plausible distractors to make it challenging, unambiguous distractors to avoid contention over multiple responses, building misconceptions into the distractors, and including more than one correct option, subject teams had 15 minutes to make five using a subject-specific text they had brought along.

Finally, teachers re-did the do-now test as a plenary. Looking through teacher responses really helped me to see where my explanation had been clear, and where I need to clarify at a later inset. In particular, almost no-one managed to get the multiple correct options right; often they would get two of the three, for example. This made me consider that multiple correct options might be too tricky for students at the start of using MCQs, or that we should flag up how many correct options there are in the question.

I was excited to find for the rest of the inset days a number of presenters used MCQs, and my colleagues referring to ‘distractors’ as they noted some ‘ambiguous’ or ‘implausible’ ones where they occurred. More than that, though, I was overwhelmed by the excitement and energy expressed by so many teachers on these ideas.

Memory Inset

Handout

Wellington Festival

Having suffered from the genuine man flu all week, I certainly was not looking forward to a 5:40am wake-up call on a Saturday. Yet by the mid-morning I was already regretting not requesting a Friday off to have attended both days of the education extravaganza that is the Wellington Festival of Education. Here’s my round-up of the best Saturday I’ve had in months:

Arrival

Being met at the train station by a courtesy mini-van was a lovely touch, and crammed inside a school van really brought on some nostalgia. Upon entering the hallowed gates of Wellington College, however, it was clear that this was schooling from a different planet: it was like entering some kind of National Trust facility; all manicured lawns and ancient turrets. A few friendly chats as we signed in assured me this would be one of those “share and have the chat” days. The relaxed atmosphere, strengthened by hay bales and plentiful coffee stands, made it feel more like a day off than I had expected.

Session 1: David Starbuck: Growing a love of learning in your school

Mocked mercilessly by my friends for insisting we arrive super-early for this session, I watched as the room filled to standing room only. I had really wanted to attend this session, as I’m a fully paid up member of the Mindset club; however much of the session was explaining what mindset was rather than how to grow it on a whole school level. If nothing else, though, the slick delivery of this engaging session assured me that sessions like this do help to convert teachers, and really – you have to get the teachers first. Starbuck was also good enough to provide some interesting resources from his own school on this topic, which I greatly appreciated.

Session 2: Alex Quigley: Twilight or Middlemarch?

I think this was the session I was most looking forward to. I’ve followed Alex’s blog religiously and been very inspired and influenced by his thoughts, yet never met him. This session was moderately interactive, but mostly Alex shared his new KS3 curriculum and the thinking behind it. Even though I’m sure I’ve seen it on his blog before, there was something about it up on a big screen that made me just think: wow. This is an inspiring curriculum. He explored some of the tensions in creating a curriculum: what makes a piece of literature “great”? How can we practically engage with literature in the limited classroom time we have? How can we foster subject knowledge in our departments? I especially liked such gems as teaching spelling through stories, teaching “She Stoops to Conquer” to year 8 to explore comedy, and the four threshold concept AOs – reading about this hadn’t convinced me, but in person (and again that massive screen) I really got it, and that is the beauty of hearing people talk about their ideas rather than just reading about them.

Lamenting after that I was hugely jealous of Quigley’s curriculum, a friend said: “just steal it.” I sighed. The thing isn’t actually the curriculum itself; it’s the deep knowledge he has of his school, the excellent relationships within a motivated department, and the skill he has in leading people to consensus that has resulted in this curriculum. More than anything, I felt like this was a curriculum made by a team, and you can’t just “steal it” and expect it to work. Alex reminded me I have far still to go in moulding a department.

Session 3: Kris Boulton: How a codified body of knowledge could make teaching a profession

I won’t hide that I really really like Kris as a human being, so my view on this session may well be biased. Beginning with the awesome words: “I’m just a teacher”, he proceeded to wow the room with his confidence and well-thought-out schemes. He began by pointing out that the very fact that there is a debate over whether teaching is a profession undermines it as a profession. The decision to come at the argument from the perspective of a parent of a child was masterful; we must always keep our key stakeholders at the forefront of any thinking we do on our profession. Through his talk, I was brought back to my first fretful year of teaching, not quite knowing what to teach or how – as Joe Kirby mentioned later, you study English at university, but you’re not teaching Foucault; you’re teaching how to read sometimes. A degree is certainly not enough.

One of the highlights of this session for me was the questioner who brought up sharing and developing subject knowledge in department meetings, something I have embarrassingly never even considered doing but will now be pursuing in full force (especially as my department adore English and all read plentifully in their free time – there is a vast well of untapped knowledge there to share!).

Session 4: Geoff Barton: The Habits of Literacy

 Mr Barton is the Headteacher of a wonderful school in my hometown, and is also a bit of a local (and increasingly national) teacher celebrity – I knew I would have to call into his session, if only to tell my Mum (a huge fan of his frequent columns in the Bury Free Press – bastion of local news). Barton began by exploring the word rich/word poor dichotomy, and explaining we needed to “make the implicit explicit” in order to help the latter develop the skills of the former. He also noted “language carries power”, and it is of course our duty as teachers to ensure this power is more fairly spread. He moved on to share some useful strategies: ask questions and give students a chance to “orally rehearse” their answers, explicitly teach students how to make their writing “not boring”, share great examples of great writing and talk about what makes them great, demonstrate the process of writing in all its messiness (I felt for the first time superior and not ashamed of my board-writing: so messy as to be almost-but-not-quite illegible), and naturalise the process of reading.

To say I was inspired is an understatement: at the close of this talk, my close friend both agreed we needed to quit teaching because we’d never, ever be this good. (After lunch we had cheered up and resolved to just try a bit harder.)

Session 5: Joe Kirby and Katie Ashford: Our School System is Unjust

Again here, I am going to flag up a severe case of confirmation bias: I am entirely on board with what Katie and Joe said on this front. This session was beautifully engineered, with Katie and Joe tag-teaming perfectly, and again starting with the children. The premise of this talk is that students from wealthier backgrounds have a double-advantage: they are supported at home to be school ready, and then go to better schools. There were some strong words about the training provided by Teach First, which didn’t surprise me but did interest me – on being asked as a block of audience “do you think Teach First prepared you as well as possible to start teaching?” I was too shy to be the only person putting up my hand, but I definitely should have. Admittedly, I did try to supplement the training by reading a lot of books (as both Katie and Joe did, I’m sure), but part of me feels that the only way to be a great teacher is to do it a few hundred times. Yet Joe’s argument against this might be that children are too important for us to try, fail and reflect – we must get it right the first time around for them. Hard to argue with that.

The conversation segued into some exploration of what texts to teach – Joe mentioned being told to teach Cirque du Freak, and rebelling in year 2 to teach Oliver Twist instead. I empathise with this, as similarly I was uninspired in my first year (I might even have taught Skellig, but I’ve blocked that from living memory) and went on the following year to photocopy the entirety of Animal Farm in a desperate bid to be a better teacher. I’d actually argue it’s easier to teach richer texts – have you tried analyzing the language in the AQA GCSE language paper? There’s nothing there.

Session 6: Gary Wilson: Boys will be brilliant

You might know that I have only ever taught in girls’ schools, so my attendance at this session was part of an effort to up-skill myself in the other. Wilson began by noting that Scandinavia is the only place in the developed world where boys achieve on a par with girls, which is of course shocking. Noting that only a barely believable 4% of the teaching profession is male and under 30 (and the majority of those in secondary schools), Wilson remarked that we cannot wait for male teachers to join en masse and lead by example. Explaining how he had taken a group of “at risk” boys and engaged them in peer mentoring in local primary schools – but cooking, reading and dancing with the primary school boys – Wilson heightened my awareness in the other part of schooling – we’re not only there to get results. We have a greater duty to these children. Much of what Wilson said concerned combating sexism and labeling of “troubled” boys, and made a lot of sense.

Other highlights:

  • Reuniting with an unexpectedly large crew of teachers from my last school, and remembering why I loved working with them so much.
  • Meeting my first Leadership Development Officer (Teach First Mum) again, and her telling me I hadn’t changed (“at all”).
  • The Mr Whippy van at lunchtime.

In praise of re-reading

I know someone who re-reads books as a habit. When I first heard this, I could barely hide my incredulity: “but why?” In my land, there are just too many books to do this. As I have stated, my aim is to read all the books. When time is short, who has time to re-read?

My immediate second thought was a jealous one. The books he read were full of clever-looking annotations, scribbles, highlights and a dialogue with himself over the re-reading cycles. My books are fairly marked themselves, but usually only with those initial notes – an underlined quote here, an asterisk or exclamation mark there, and only if I happen to have a pen and the inclination about me. Clearly, this was someone who engaged deeply with his reading. Clearly, I skate on the surface of books.

Indeed, I have read so many books that I very frequently forget the names of central characters. My conversations with people reading a book I have read invariably go like this:

“Oh I read that!”

“Really? What do you think?”

“I loved it!”

“What do you make of the [plot twist/character detail/theme/use of delicious language?”

“….”

In contrast, the books I studied at university and A-level (I am forever grateful to my 17 and 18 year old selves for buying my own “revision copies” of texts to scribble and highlight on) are a godsend when I come to teach a text. That hard “thinking work”, which I seem to find increasingly hard to do as term progresses, is already done. I can choose the quotes I want my students to analyse with ease – they are already highlighted. I can even do Ms Moran’s amazing trick: “I’ve made C-grade annotations – now, you add your A* insights”, a task a blank page on a busy lesson-planning Wednesday makes me despair at.

I’m preparing to teach some texts next year which I have read already, and I am determined to alter my wayward ways. I have re-read “An Inspector Calls”, “Waiting for Godot” and “The Yellow Wallpaper”, among others, and I have been strict with myself about making at least two annotations on every page (though, with “Inspector”, it was more like ten – either the text is thechoice for AQA Modern Texts, or I was having a brainy/non-lazy day – I’m not altogether sure). It has been so long, around ten years, since I last picked any of these texts up, that I could really enjoy this re-reading, and I definitely feel I can have a more intelligent conversation with anyone, in particular my future students, about them.

And perhaps, after all, this is the other great part of being an English teacher. Paid to read widely to recommend books to read for enjoyment; paid for reading closely to elucidate or encourage deeper readings for students. And right now, paid to read in the sun. What a life! Don’t tell the taxpayer…

annotated text