I am a Tiger, and you’re gonna hear me ROAR!

I’ve been promising to write this blog for months. I was going to write about MCS Brent after attending my first event there. Then my second. Then after my day’s visit to the school. Then at the end of the school year. It’s now September and having promised myself that I will now start to use this blog more than once a year, here I am.

I first heard of the Michaela Community School when Jo Facer wrote a blog post about their values and their plans as the school grew. My initial reaction was disbelief – this can’t be possible. Then more information appeared on Twitter, following what I now know was Katharine Birbalsingh’s decision to ‘unleash her teachers’. Some things I loved, some things I totally disagreed with. I watched Jonathan Porter debate with John Tomsett over ‘no excuses discipline’ and thought ‘but what about the child with X, Y or Z going on’? I loved the sound of everything they were achieving in their curriculum…but the rest? I have to admit, I was not convinced.

Two Michaela events and a school visit later, I am hooked on everything they do. I am so ‘Pro-Michaela’ and I will ‘roar’ to anyone who will listen! I’d made it nine-tenths of the way there after their book launch in November; coming home and quoting almost every word that was said to my fiancé and showing the video of Katharine’s speech about social justice and not letting children down to just about everyone who would let me!

However, it was my school visit on Monday 19th June that made me fully understand what MCS Brent is all about. Until then, I hadn’t met the children. Prior to this, I was still unsure how walking around the corridors in silence would look. I wasn’t sure how SLANTing and tracking the teacher would present itself. I’d let myself listen to a lot of the negativity on Twitter and wondered, would they be little robots? Would they be in fear of sneezing?

On that Monday, I saw happy children. OK, some slightly hot and bothered, because it was 33 degrees and, well, they’re children! A group of working class, multi-ethnicity, mixed ability, real children, who all have something so important in common: they work hard to achieve their full potential. I saw a school that was filled with the most incredible learning opportunities for the pupils; not only academically, but opportunities to become well-rounded, articulate, gregarious members of the community.

My head of department and I have been implementing as much of the ‘Michaela way’ as we can into the English department and whole school literacy programme (my role) since November. Here are some more details of what we’ve done and the impact it’s had

1. We’ve totally changed our expectations for  ‘bottom sets’.

Hearing Katie Ashford speak at the first Michaela event jump-started us into a new way of thinking. Why can’t the bottom set read ‘Sister Maude’ by Rossetti, if that’s what the top set are reading? They may need more guidance, more time to figure things out, more support in terms of context and approaches – but why take away their opportunity of doing the hard work? There is no differentiated exam or mark scheme. If we don’t teach them the content that will get them the top grades, we give them a glass ceiling. We starve them of the opportunity to be the best they could be.

I saw this in action when I visited MCS Brent and saw Jo Facer’s year 9 lesson on unseen poetry. This wasn’t a bottom set – but they were doing work at the same level as some of my top set year 11s. The class annotated a challenging Rossetti sonnet independently in 5 minutes, before sharing their ideas. Every student in the class had annotations on their poem. They had all been taught an approach to annotating unseen poetry and this gave them the confidence to dive in and do it.

So this is what happens in our bottom sets – and our middle and top sets – now. We equip them with the skills to tackle the challenging texts, and then they can do it. It might take one class 10 minutes to dissect a paragraph of Wuthering Heights when it takes another class 25 minutes, with more new vocabulary needing to be introduced and explanations, but that doesn’t mean we give them Diary of a Wimpy Kid instead! (Or dare I say it, let them just watch the film version!)

2. We’ve ripped up the KS3 curriculum and started again.

Up until recently, ‘Face’ was on our Year 8 curriculum map. I am not here to criticise any individual texts for their merit and writing style, or tell anyone that they’re wrong if they have modern texts on their curriculum map. But let’s look at the bigger picture: do students need us to be teaching these type of texts in the classroom? Are they going to then pick up ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘War and Peace’ of their own volition?

I found myself in such a debate at a wedding, sitting opposite a guest who had graduated from the same English Literature degree course as me and was now doing some research into education in India. He asked me ‘what’s the point in teaching Shakespeare to children in inner city schools? How is it going to be relevant to them?’ All of the words of Jo Facer, Katie Ashford and Katharine Birbalsingh flooded through my mind as I built up my response: we MUST teach children in inner city schools these texts, because they deserve to have the option to choose whether or not they are interested in them. They deserve the right to decide. How else could they find a love of literature that they otherwise wouldn’t know they had?!

Last year, we introduced Sophocles’ Antigone into the KS3 curriculum. To allow the text to have the most impact, we taught it years 7-9 at different points of the year, with the intention of making it a year 7 text for this academic year. It received a really popular reception from all classes from day one. Nobody complained that they couldn’t understand the language, because the lesson activities were built around acquiring new vocabulary and comprehension questions to unpick the text. Along with an analytical essay, students wrote a speech as Creon, persuading the people of Thebes to support him. Students in all three year groups produced some of the best rhetoric I’ve ever seen in KS3. Students thrive when given a challenge. No more ‘dumbing down!’

3. We’ve thrown out any ‘Blue Peter presenter’ lessons.

I think the quote I’ve repeated the most since my visits to Michaela was Olivia Dyer’s roar at the audience – ‘Just bloody tell them!’ Tell them what? The information. The things they need to learn. Without a whole host of props, unrelated experiments, fiddly resources or –  my long-standing nightmare – cutting and sticking!

I used to teach a scheme of work in year 9 where my students made stop frame animations out of plasticine. Yes, you are right – I’m an English teacher. Their end of unit assessment was to write a film review on ‘Wallace and Gromit, The Curse of the Were Rabbit.’ For a week, my students all loved English, because they got to play with plasticine. But they didn’t get any better at reading and writing.

In lessons at MCS Brent, none of the students have unnecessary pieces of paper to cut and stick and pass around and sort into the right order. Instead, they spend 58 1/2 minutes of an hours’ lesson reading, writing, listening, giving choral responses. Their work is of an outstanding quality, because time is used most effectively. In the time it took for me to walk up the stairs and find Jo Facer’s classroom after lunch, the class had almost finished reciting ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, with passionate enthusiasm in their voices. In Lia Martin’s lesson, I blinked and nearly missed the transition between students finishing a spelling test and picking up their green pens to mark their work. There was no fuss whatsoever, meaning so much more learning time!

So, gone are the card sorts, the storyboards, the drawings of the opening scene from ‘Of Mice and Men’. All schemes of work in our department now have a much greater focus on vocabulary acquisition, as much reading and analysis of reading as possible, and more extended writing. Which doesn’t mean more marking, as we are beginning to better utilise whole class feedback, peer assessment and self marking. Our KS3 exercise books are showing great progress, with students writing more, and of a better quality, than they did previously. We’re making more booklets rather than sticking sheets into books, which minimises wasted time for both students in lessons and teachers outside of lessons.

4. I will make our students read, and read, and read! 

Students at MCS Brent read at least 10,000 words per day. All lessons, in every subject, contain a significant amount of reading. Students read abridged versions of classic books in form time, which the year 9 students I ate lunch with were really excited to tell me about. If students aren’t confident in reading? They read more, after school, in a group to help support them. Katharine very passionately spoke about the necessity for improving literacy in this country at the ‘Michaela Mistakes’ event, and I was literally bouncing in my front row seat to hear this. If students can’t read well? Their extra curricular activity must be reading!

I too am now on a mission to have students in our school reading 10,000 words every day. From tomorrow, we begin daily ‘DEAR’ time with year group readers every day after lunch (I’m sure I’ll be blogging on how this goes later in the year…). I have also launched a ’30 Book Challenge’ for students and staff for this academic year. My biggest projects will be supporting the weaker readers with a programme of intervention and an after school reading club twice a week. Alex Quigley posted about Literacy coordinators back in the summer, likening us to Sisyphus. Well – that’s me, and reading is my boulder, and thanks to the inspiration from MCS Brent, I will push it up the hill with all my might and will not rest until it’s firmly embedded at the top!

5. They sit up and listen, always.

As I previously mentioned, on the day of my visit to Michaela, it was 33 degrees. Not once did a child say ‘I’m hot’. Not once. I’m used to hearing that at least 67 times during the course of a summer’s day in school. The students did not complain; they sat up and they worked, in the same manner that they would on any other day. No slouching, no leaning on the desk, no rocking back on their chairs. There was so much enthusiasm as their hands shot up in the air to answer questions in a verbal drill in conversational French. These students are not behaving because they are scared of the consequences. I saw children who had reached the top of what MCS Brent call ‘The Pyramid’; they behaved well and listened and participated because that’s who they are.

This has had a huge impact on what I expect in my classroom. Things I used to ‘let go’ are now not acceptable. My pupils are told to sit up straight, face me, follow the text, show they’re attentive learners, no matter whether it’s hot/cold/early/after PE/whatever other reason they give to try to get their own way. I can’t sit with my head in my hands while I’m teaching, so the same goes for the pupils when they are learning. These small things make a huge difference. The classroom gains a positive feeling – even if the students are positive in their outlook; a bit of ‘fake it til you make it’ goes a long way.

I could honestly go on for hours, but that’s probably enough for now. A few final points to make about the impact MCS Brent has had on me:

  • I used to be really snobby about unqualified teachers, but I’ve changed my mind.
  • I was sceptical about ‘appreciations’ being cheesy – they’re not, they’re brilliant.
  • Family lunch is a wonderful idea – you need to see it to understand it fully.
  • You can create an incredible whole school culture if every staff member buys into that culture.

Everything I’ve talked about here is explained far better in the book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers.’ Please view this blog as an outsider’s experience of everything they describe in the book, and my experience was that this is a system of education that works. My huge thanks to all the teachers mentioned in this blog; all of the other teachers whose lessons I saw on 19th June; to Joe Kirby for taking the time to talk to me at lunchtime about the school’s assessment policy and how they have created their school culture; to Jo Facer for always being so upbeat when I send her yet another gushing twitter message and for sharing so many great ideas and great books on her blog; and finally thank you to Katharine Birbalsingh for not being afraid to say and do what she believes is right in education. Or should I say shout it from the rooftops? I do genuinely believe that she can shoot sparks of magic from her fingertips – I’m totally under the Michaela spell and I will continue ‘Roaring’ to anyone who will listen until we have the necessary revolution!

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The gift of confidence (not scented candles) 

‘If I could give you just one gift every day for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence.

It would be the gift of confidence.

Either that or a scented candle.’

(One day, by David Nicholls)

I read this book 5 years ago and I fell in love with this quote. The character who says it is an arrogant twit, but I was able to overlook that at the time, instead wishing that it were really that simple. If only we could just box up confidence and present it to certain people as a gift. 

Confidence is an aspect I’ve always struggled with, which surprises many as I teach classes of up to 30 students every day and I perform in musical theatre. But there, I’m hiding behind the material, the subject, the character. Ask me to lead a project or take on a new responsibility or share my thoughts and ideas, and I always feel as though I am not good enough. 

The environment in which I was educated did not have a negative impact on my confidence – if anything, it should have been quite the opposite. My state school (which was then selective), not only offered the same extra curricular opportunities as many independent schools, but also provided rigorous classroom instruction which included a compulsory public speaking competition for all of year 7 and 8 and a Shakespeare festival in year 9. The support provided for university applicants meant that I was able to secure a place at the University of Leeds. 

However, right up until my post-graduate education, my confidence was affected by other people. People who wouldn’t come to my 13th birthday party because their parents thought I lived in a ‘rough’ area; people who didn’t invite me to their 21st birthday party because I wasn’t ‘posh’ enough. I had always been motivated, studious, kind, caring – but the negatives always took the reins.

Perhaps it was this that subconsciously guided me towards researching student motivation in English literature for my MA dissertation; unaware that what I would find to be the greatest barrier for students is self-belief – confidence. Even when students in my year 10 class had A and A* targets, they were happy to ‘settle’ for a C, because they didn’t believe they could reach an A and didn’t want to work hard and then look like a failure. This leads back to the topic of growth mindset, which seems to be a dirty phrase at the moment, but I feel is so important. I had 10 students in my study with a fixed mindset of ‘I can’t do it’ and I found this utterly heartbreaking – had I totally failed at creating a classroom culture of high aspirations? Or is it a wider problem, with many state school pupils thinking that higher education, the ‘best’ jobs and the leadership roles are out of their reach? 

As I finished writing my dissertation, ‘School Swap – The Class Divide’ was being shown on ITV1. The programme highlighted for me that, beyond the wealth of opportunities offered, a lot of the success that independent school pupils achieve comes down to the fact that they believe they deserve to be successful. Which they do. And so does every pupil in every state school. 

So what’s the answer? I agree with Alex Quigley that over-confidence can be damaging and trying to teach confidence to teens, wrought with hormones and life choices and the endless pressures of social media, is a task that seems impossible to tackle. Yet I completely understand Ben Fogle’s points, as when I think back to the pupils who took part in my dissertation study, a little more confidence could have brought about a little more studying for their controlled assessment, resulting in a higher grade for their GCSE. If I could have taught that confidence to them, I would have. But, again back to Alex’s point, I feel that confidence classes would have many negative factors, not only providing the ‘ego-boost’ that Alex mentioned, but also serving as another measure of success or failure for young people – ‘she’s more confident than me, so she’ll be more likely to get a better job’ or ‘I’m shy, so I’ll never be successful’. 

As much as confidence can’t be a gift given to someone, I also think it can’t be explicitly taught. Thinking back to what made my school experience very positive, I was told every day that I was being given an education that would set me up for a great future; it is my understanding that this same message permeates independent schools across the country. But why shouldn’t this be the way every student feels? Children in Britain have more opportunities than so many children across the world, with free education at the helm. Perhaps I am naive and idealistic, but I believe that every student has the right to aim high and dream big! 

There needs to be a way to drip feed this message, perhaps even beyond assemblies and PSHE. Within state schools, trips and clubs aside, I think it’s important to ensure we include confidence building activities as part of our curriculum. Having year 10s take part in the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge, and having some year 9s interview a refugee who has written a book about his experiences, has provided enrichment to these students which I think will have a positive impact on their confidence. 

As a teacher, I will try to instill confidence in my pupils by giving them my best teaching every day, ensuring that I’m always developing my subject knowledge and learning more about pedagogy in order to do so. As whole school literacy co-ordinator, I will try my best to ensure pupils in my school are secure in their literacy, doing everything I can to intervene if a pupil is not confident in this area. Finally, I will try to create a culture of confidence by always being encouraging of every pupil, whatever their dreams or their backgrounds.

As for me? I’ll keep working on the confidence. It’s the greatest gift I could give to myself. Alex Quigley’s book will probably be a good place to start… 

Nurture 15-16

I first posted on this blog a year ago with my Nurture 14-15 post. Turns out I didn’t find any time to blog between then and now! But it was great to read back over my plans for 2015 and see what came of the year that has just passed.

My plans for 2015 were:

To become more organised at work – I’ve certainly been more successful at this since September. One of my worst traits in the past has been to put things off til later, but actually keeping on top of things (as much as you ever can in teaching!) has meant that there’s a much more manageable pile of things to do and no ‘frog’ on my to do list. I fully intend to keep this up in 2016. 

To do well in my MA – well, it was a long hard slog that meant I studied all weekend in the summer term and didn’t see the light of day much in the summer holidays, but the sense of satisfaction when I had my bound dissertation in my hand made it all worth it. I am so pleased to have passed, but I also learned so much. My challenge now will be to not just ‘park’ that knowledge, but use it to inform who I am as a teacher and leader. 

Not saying yes to everything – This became a bit of a dilemma when I applied for a HOD position in a school and was offered a role as Lead Practitioner with responsibility for whole school literacy. Did I say yes, with the risk that a HOD job might come up later, or turn it down and miss a fantastic opportunity. A range of people helped influence my decision, both in a positive and negative way, and thankfully, ‘yes’ was definitely the right response for me. 

Be the best GCSE teacher I can be – I have spent a lot of time reflecting on mistakes and oversights I’ve made with exam classes in the past, as well as considering how the wider school context can impact students both positively and negatively in preparation for their exams. My MA research also played a large part in this, at times shocking me as I realised some of my students had very low academic aspirations and they were ok with this, as they just didn’t believe that they could achieve. In September, I was given a class of 20 students working towards the core IGCSE paper for language,  and so far I feel very positive about our relationship and their progress. I definitely think having only 1 class of 20 students in year 11 has made a difference, as historically I’ve had up to 50 students in year 11. This has sometimes meant that I’ve dropped the ball with one or two, realising too late that they needed more support. Whilst this is no excuse, and in future if I have 50 students I will be so much more vigilant about this, I am determined to do everything I can in 2016 to ensure as many of my class as possible achieve C grades. 

Make more time for my other half and my friends – Well, my MA didn’t help this plan, but I don’t feel guilty for being ‘selfish’ in that sense. Also, part of my ‘not saying yes to everything’ rule helped me realise that when I take on too much I get stressed – often the stress comes from feeling guilty about not working, which is unhealthy, but planning to keep some evenings and weekends free means that I can manage my workload better and not feel guilty about a lie-in watching Saturday kitchen, a TV series marathon with my other half, or a spontaneous coffee or night out with friends. 

My plans and hopes for 2016:

To see successes in whole school literacy

When one of the major points on the school improvement plan has my initials next to it, I need to make sure I am working hard to make the much needed changes to staff & students’ mindsets on literacy and how it’s approached around the school.  However, I also know I can’t do it alone, I need to have the backing of many people for good literacy practice to become embedded school wide. Thankfully, I know I have the full support of the headteacher and deputy head, who is also my line manager. 

So far, we’ve launched Drop Everything and Read with some success, but I need to evaluate the impact & make some adjustments to the routine, as well as pushing for consistency that it’s happening across the school during the designated 20 mins.

On 5th January, I’ll be delivering at whole staff inset on marking for literacy and use of DIRT in the classroom. I’m really excited about this, as these are two areas of my practice in which I feel confident (makes a change for me to say that!) and I’m looking forward to being able to share this with others. 

I also need to start thinking about World Book Day, drawing on the ideas of the amazing #teamenglish on Twitter!

To build my confidence in  A level teaching.

I have always wanted the opportunity to teach A level and I’m so glad that, in the sixth year of my career, I’ve been able to take on a year 12 English Literature class once a week. I absolutely love spending my Friday afternoons analysing Duffy’s ‘Mean Time’ with the group and hearing them debate the meanings of her language and imagery. I want to make sure I’m doing the best I can for them, and so I’ve been working very closely with the department KS5 co-ordinator, who has consistently had amazing results with A level groups. In 2016, I would like to continue building my confidence with KS5 by speaking to more KS5 English teachers and learning different ways to approach teaching small A level groups. I also plan to ensure my subject knowledge is as strong as it can be by reading and researching. 

To give more praise

I’ve always been concerned that my behaviour management wasn’t up to scratch, but I can now see that the area I need to work on the most is giving praise. It is so important to build students’ confidence and self-esteem, so I plan to spend some time each day thinking about giving merits and sending praise letters or making positive phone-calls home.

To have a little more ‘me-time’

Having completed my MA and secured a new job which is sufficiently challenging,  I am beginning to feel that it’s time to begin to concentrate a little more on my personal life. I’m not suggesting work will take a back seat; far from it. However, I want to spend time doing things that will help me build a nice home with my OH, further develop friendships and help me work towards the things I want in life besides teaching. On some occasions that will mean evenings or parts of the weekend without work, and I must learn to not think of this as ‘wasting time’ and embrace the fact that this is all part of what makes me as a person, which influences who I am as a teacher. And sometimes, it’s ok if the thing that I’m doing that isn’t work is sleeping…because I can’t be a good teacher when I’m too tired to function! 

To be present, and to be grateful. 

Just before this academic year started, a really important person in my life passed away. It was not only a real shock, but an enormous loss to everyone who knew her, as she was someone who had a positive effect on everyone around her. In the 20 years I’d known her, she always encouraged me to focus on all the good things in my life; all the things that I have to celebrate and be grateful for. The best memorial I can give to her is to make sure that I do this for myself, so in 2016, I promise myself that I will stop worrying about what may or may not happen or make comparisons with others. I will notice and appreciate what I have around me and recognise that a bad lesson does not have to mean a bad day, and a bad day doesn’t have to be a bad week. Things always get better.

#Nurture1415

Hello. Good way to start, I suppose. Happy New Year! I’ve had a blog for over a year now, and these are the first words I’ve ever written in it. It’s a bit of a daunting prospect, but someone once told me yo ‘just write’ and it will be ok.

I have attempted this before. I planned out a #Nurture1314 post a year ago, which has been sitting in the notes section of my ipad ever since. I discovered this on a 12 hour coach journey home from the French Alps a few days ago and with time to reflect on all the hopes, targets and wishes I’d planned for 2014, I thought I’d reflect on them here. I’ll also set some new ones in the hope that making them public will make me stick to them. So, here goes…

1. Creativity
2. Confidence
3. Organisation

Now, my teacher head instantly wants to give me a slap on the wrist for not making these SMART targets! I think it’s interesting that I wrote these three down first, because they’re all pretty dependent on each other. I need to be organised in order to be creative, and I need to have the confidence to stop looking at other people and comparing myself to them, thinking that everyone is more organised and more confident than me. So, that’s my new aim for 2015 – to be confident enough to get on with things in my own way. I’ve become much better at filling in my diary and planner, so that’s part of a box ticked!
4. Not saying yes to everything

Ha. Haha. Definitely failed at this one. But having learned the hard way and feeling overwhelmed too many times, I have already started saying ‘No, thank you.’ It didn’t kill me. I didn’t make any enemies (that I know of). So in 2015 I will do that more.
5. Not being so reliant on my iPhone/iPad

I am struggling with the fact that I acknowledged that I am ‘reliant’ on them. They’re an extension of my hand. They keep me connected to my work email and to twitter and they constantly keep my work brain switched on. Or, they encourage me to do make the unhealthy comparisons that I mentioned earlier. Living with my other half for a year has made me better at having time when the phones and ipads go away, but I still need to work on this a bit more. I have seen other teachers saying they will set a cut off for checking work emails; that would make an immediate improvement for me. I need to be able to say ‘it can wait’.
6. Finish a job before I start another one

This isn’t always easy in teaching, as it’s a constant juggling act. I did get some very good advice from my Developing Leaders course at the IoE about time management and dealing with to-do lists, so I will try to put that into practice a bit more in 2015. I need to stop putting off the jobs I don’t want to do, I need to identify what can wait and, again, I need to work out when enough is enough.
7. Make more time for my mum.

This is something I can say I’ve definitely done more of this year. My mum helps me out so much in my day to day life, keeping me organised, running around for me when I’m buried in piles of marking and generally keeping me sane. I love her to pieces and can’t imagine how I’d do it without her.

Now, I need to make sure that other half and I are making enough time for each other, and that I’m also trying to see friends regularly too.

8. Read more books

Didn’t manage this one, due to…
9. Do well in my MA

I’m now 2/3 of the way through, achieving B grades in my last two assignments. I’m really looking forward to undertaking my research project this year and I need to ensure I’m devoting enough time and energy to that, and not just getting sucked into the marking vortex. It won’t be easy, but I know it will be worth it.

10. Share more

This again is the confidence issue – I often think that resources I make aren’t worth sharing. However, a very simple resource that I shared on TES has been downloaded 500 times since Easter. I’m glad that I’ve managed to save people the time it would have taken them to make that resource themselves, and I will try to share much more in the future.
11. Use data more effectively – differentiation.

I do think I’ve got a lot better at this – not just using data, but using my marking to inform my planning. I will make sure I keep going with this.
12. Make sure I don’t have another situation like “the boys”

The boys. A KS4 class with whom I totally dropped the ball. I didn’t do enough for them and they weren’t successful. I will always feel guilty about that class. However, I have grown so much as a teacher and learned so much from them that even when I felt a bit helpless with year 11 last year (and this year) I have carried on, I have persevered, and slowly but surely, there are breakthroughs.
13. Worry less

There’s that laughter again! This is probably the most debilitating aspect of my personality…but also a real driving force in my work. I just need to strike the right balance.

14. Strengthen my exam technique teaching for all questions – hopefully get a few more As and A*s this year!

I’m glad I’m ending on a positive, as my classes did achieve much better GCSE results this year, with many more As and Bs (no A*s, sadly). With a change to IGCSE for current year 11 and new specs to get my head round, I need to make sure that I am in the best possible position to prepare year 11 for their exams.

Well, that’s my reflection on 2014 and plans for 2015. Not very insightful or witty, but hey, I’ve just started a blog!

Thanks for reading

Frosty