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!