How does it feel?

How can* it feel for children from separated homes?

Nerve wracking telling friends you’re not here this weekend. Sad missing out on things, again. Guilty about trying to be loyal and trying to grow up, be independent, make choices all at once. Confused about where feelings of anger come from and terrified by the strength of them at the same time. Understanding of your parent’s flaws in a way only older sons and daughters are. Slightly more vulnerable, slightly more needy of approval and reassurance. Plagued by a sense of something missing that just doesn’t go away. Drawn, inevitably, into adult worlds even with the most discreet and harmonious ending of a relationship. Embarrassed because the homework you thought you had is actually in another house. Exhausted negotiating through home(s), routine(s) and rules(s). And sometimes isolated, when those around you really don’t get how it feels.

As a parent, I don’t want school to make allowances or make excuses. I want school to believe in my children as much as I do. I want firmness with compassion that takes into account that not everything is within their control, but seeks to help them work with what is in their control.

As a teacher, do I always know which children are from separated families? No. Do I need to know? No (although it is useful to know if children are in process of a separation so that they can be given support if needed). The point is, these could be my children, or anyone’s children, carrying around enough luggage for a month long trip. And it’s worth remembering.  Sometimes, some people need building up a little more than others. It doesn’t mean the rules are off or that the policies don’t work. It means we are responding, just as we do with marking when we adjust our teaching accordingly, to the people in our care.

Last year, my 5 year old didn’t really need to be told she was in the bottom 2 of her class every week with her spellings homework, leaving me trying to drag her to school each day as I tried to get to my own tutor group on time. A case of procedure gone awry, as @Xris32 Chris Curtis describes so well here. Thanks goodness reason won out in the end and this year she is beyond grades and beyond happiness at school.

*Disclaimer – Can not does, every child is different.

Never lose sight of the C…

The English C that is…

At this time of year when we’re all watching Year 11, holding our breath and hoping they keep it together, I start to get very excited about Year 10 – filled with all the things that can still be, lessons I haven’t yet taught and strategies I’m going to invent. It’s the endless cycle that’s full of never ending beginnings.

I read many tweets and posts and it’s overwhelming. The amount of knowledge out there and the deep thinking about learning, is all very humbling. However, in the vein of keeping the main thing the main thing, the main thing for me and my students is C grade and above. I know this flies in the face of discussion surrounding the moral purpose of education but the bottom line is: if my students don’t get their C grade, they are stuffed. My job, at a very simple, practical level is to ensure that that (and more) happens for as many year 11 students under my care as possible. It’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of that. A GCSE is evidence of the acquisition of a set of skills and knowledge. Apprenticeships, A levels and University come after. So how can we do this for English Year 10’s going into Year 11?

1. Teach structure, over and over. Giving students the foundations for structured writing – deeply secure paragraphing IS equipping them with skills of how to break and shape those rules and independence of thought. But for many this will come after, with maturity and time. For example, TVT (Topic, Viewpoint, Tone) is a cast iron introduction paragraph for essays on unseen poetry and prose. Why? so that students can sit down and start writing, not agonise for 20 minutes about what might be a good first sentence.

2. Give students words. Don’t make them hunt for them, tease them out, or punish them for not knowing.  Give them a bank to select the ones they like, but don’t make it so difficult that students become discouraged and the main thing stops being the main thing.

3. Create a Teenage Dirt Bag. A fabulous idea I picked up from @LadyGlencora in her blog  I almost cannot wait until September to put these together as an essential improvement kit. In mine will be my Student Thesaurus, DIRT cards, Structure Phrase Mat, Highlighter etc.

4. For each assessment task Live Write with students, on projector and talk through the choices that you make at every stage, from the detailed analysis of the question to writing the first few paragraphs. Make every paragraph topic sentence refer to the question. Make sure focus is very tight on the task and the evidence they are giving to the examiner. It may sound obvious, but sentence accuracy is evidence for the examiner. Make sure students are always aware of this.

5. Whatever your thoughts are on PEE (I actually teach PEE,EE,EE structure for Poetry and Prose essays) it doesn’t matter (SPEED,PEEL etc.) be absolutely rigid about your method. Think it through as much as you time allows so that you know it’s applicable in the exam contexts you are working in – one size does not fit all – what works in another department may not be what is good for your learners – but do be absolutely confident that students can apply it and answer the question fully. Your confidence will give them a rope to cling onto when faced with unfamiliar material.

6. Know your specification, exemplar answers, mark schemes, examiner reports and texts inside out and back to front. Nothing will prepare the students better than a teacher who can guide them, every lesson, towards their goal – especially as we know Year 10’s will be Year 11’s in a blink of an eye and we’ll have all run out of time again.

If it is formulaic and teaching to the test, then so be it. My students need their C’s and above, whatever debate rages around them. These routines mean we still have time to be distracted by a mini-discussion over whether you can pay someone to get up Everest and say you did it, or not…


Enter the Dragon: The grit, resilience, character and mindset death match

I felt very proud to have my first article appear in UKEdMag this month. A jolly, upbeat piece about implementing a new course in my school – the main aim to bring together PSHE, Citizenship and engage learners in thinking about themselves, their learning and so on. My pride has been slightly short lived as I have been keenly aware of the growing momentum against the explicit teaching of ‘qualities’ and character, and have read some fantastic blogs this weekend voicing these concerns, trawling Twitter to gather as full a picture as possible.

I am not overly surprised that the idea of explicit Character Education has got so many people in hot and bothered. It’s a politicised rolling pin to once again beat teachers with. But coining a new name has simply made us forget that schools have been doing this to a greater or lesser degree for a long time – what else are assemblies, tutor time, vertical tutoring, mentoring, PSHE, Citizenship and extra curricular clubs for?

Below is what I have concluded about what seems to be of value and how it can be brought into the curriculum so far. I will avoid using the term Character and Character Education, as I think it’s a divisive term, preventing meaningful debate. Before I do, it may be useful to set out my stall, so to speak. I’m an English Teacher and Head of Media. I like the rigour of tests at KS4 & 5. In my dojo of teaching, expert subject knowledge and good behaviour management are king. So, I agree with much of the criticism against fad ideas and know enough to think ‘this year’s brain gym’ is already sounding like a cliche.

1) The rationale behind the programme we have implemented seems sound. The key focus is on developing articulate learners, able to clarify and justify opinions. Students debate, present, discuss and problem solve. This underpins the lesson activities. This does develop ‘qualities’ desirable in young people. Surveys of desirable skills in employees frequently ranks communication, team work and problem solving in the top 5. Developing a culture in the classroom which values and promotes these skills should lead to greater competence in these areas.

2) Martin Robinson, whose writing I admire very much, argues that what is really needed is to teach young people the ‘stuff of importance and value, the best that has been thought, said and done, give them time to question it, think it, argue it, debate it, agree or disagree about what is ‘the best’. Allow them time to develop enthusiasms, to enthuse – from en theos the Ancient Greek for ‘With God’: give them time to practise’ . I wholeheartedly agree here. The big problem for the current curriculum, what with gathering assessment data, hitting levels and targets, is that the life blood has been squeezed out of every subject. Where do teachers have time to allow students to debate, argue and enthuse? It sometimes can feel as if thinking (teach, memorise, teach!) only really occurs at A level and even then, teachers frequently wail ‘why don’t they just think for themselves?’ A course, even an hour each week, off assessment, is a gift surely? Especially if it has been developed with genuine thought and overview.

3) Chris Chivers, another person I much admire, argues ‘grit, determination and resilience are internalised, personal to each and every one of us. Some have more than others. This can be our ability to tolerate discomfort or pain, in different forms, mental or physical. We sometimes don’t know what we can endure until we are tested…..Making learning challenges such that effort is needed, over time, so that grit, resilience and decisions are in-built, might just offer a greater chance of success.’ It is perhaps this that causes people the greatest degree of nagging doubt, that any course claiming to teach Grit or Resilience cannot really do that. Again, I wholeheartedly agree. Whilst we can teach students about grit and resilience , and their role in achieving success through anecdotes of great triumph, we cannot teach grit and resilience. The key must be in the course and activity design. Let students find out for themselves. Isn’t that what great lessons do? Rather than telling students what these qualities are, give meaningful opportunities to encounter them – problem solving, initiative exercises, team tasks with end objectives. One of my most powerful memories from school, and I was by no means a high achiever, is still an enterprise day group task. I was flooded with feelings of success as we achieved that thing we set out to achieve. Not content, not subject.

4) I loved @DisIdealist ‘s blog ‘ Telling Penguins to Flap Harder’ and I recommend everyone to read it. The arguments against a ‘no excuses’ culture are strong. Telling children they aren’t winners because they didn’t want it enough is profoundly wrong, but is this really happening in schools? I would hope education, in it’s real terms of teachers interacting with students, amounts to more than a collection of inspirational PPT slides on grit, resilience, growth mindset or character. These are the dumbed down headlines, not the reality of what is taking place hour after hour, day after day. The operation of schools cannot be condensed into soundbites, even if books, theories and research can. Schools are complex, institutional systems, with governance on many levels and a thousand human interactions taking place every minute.
With this in mind, as well as @DisIdealist ‘s parting statement that although penguins can’t fly, they are expert swimmers, do we not then owe it to young people to offer the richest experience possible, ‘to educate’, during the years of school, so that they can find out what they do do well?

If anyone is keen to know more about our Core Programme, please contact me via Twitter @evenbetterif or via this blog.

Sweating the Big Stuff

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There can be no doubt that sometimes we forget to look at the big picture in favour of the tick box mentality of assessment criteria, method, outcomes, grades etc. Wood and trees, in a word.

Three weeks into term, looking back over the work completed by my classes, I realised that many of my new students had habits that were holding them back –  no matter how well crafted a sentence here or there was. It was the big stuff – handwriting, punctuation throughout, completing tasks fully, taking risks with vocabulary, presentation and so on. This needed to be highlighted right from the start and given as ‘big’ targets for students be mindful of before beginning each task. They help to remind students that every time they write in lesson – it is for an external audience. Writing for someone else means presentation & handwriting always matters, as does punctuation, as does trying out new words to communicate new ideas.

The form I created is stuck in the front of book. It is headed by the statement ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’ – a catchphrase used by a wonderful former colleague. I wanted students to be aware that making progress is not just about learning to do new things, it is also about, in some case, changing their ways of doing things and developing NEW habits. I collated the targets and gave practical advice on how to start making these changes.

I will review book work with students on these big targets on a termly basis. Meanwhile two very useful outcomes have arisen from the form. Firstly, students are accountable. They have a clear statement showing what they need to do to improve the quality of their work overall, which we can keep going back to. Second, time spent doing this means I also have a very clear overview of where we need to go and how each individual can develop as a writer, not just train for the exam.


The Critical Mass: Audience as a critical component in deconstructing texts.

The topic for my presentation came largely out of experiences I’ve had in the classroom where students ‘haven’t got it’ or have missed the point when attempting to analyse media texts. The first thing to reflect on is: why is my explanation, my pre-teaching, my process ausing them not to get it? The ‘missing the point’ is evidenced by a lack of awareness of the original function of a text – determining it’s construction and possible audience response to it. I had many students writing responses, trying to cram in as many key terms as possible, struggling with the cognitive overload of diegetic and non-diegetic, but only one or two referenced the fact that because they were watching a public information film, the audience would be tuned into a likely set of devices, construction would consist of a likely set of codes and challenges to convention would impact on audiences.

This is a ‘text blindness’ – an inability to recognise something that is familiar and known because of the way it has been presented. The way I had been presenting texts was through media language in the first instance – teaching wonderful bits of codes, key language that the students could acquire and feel like proper, academic sixth formers. This is a typical starting point for almost every Media course book out there. But, it wasn’t allowing students to perform at the best of their ability, worst still, it was causing them to doubt the stuff they did know – the highly sophisticated (though not articulated), implicit knowledge they have of media texts, having had a lifetime of exposure to moving image and print.

In reading acquisition, fluency comes from three key elements – activation of Schema (an existing knowledge of the world, a stable foundation of a degree of predictability), Chunking and Automaticity (an ability to block groups of words in a text to move swiftly through the text). Fluency is prevented when individual elements are decoded in isolation. When the brain attempts to add each bit together to construct meaning, it has to keep going back to the beginning of the sentence as the demand on working memory is too much, leading to overload. To prevent this overload, Schema is highly important. Many emerging readers, read globally – that is, guess or overlook unknown words, but they are still able to pick up the absolute essence of what they are reading to make sense of it. This is because of their solid Schema.

So, if we are to turn our emerging readers of the media into fluent critical thinkers, we should ask them to consider whole texts before beginning the process of deconstruction – the whole being greater than the sum of it’s parts. Media texts are a means of communication, a portal between two worlds – the world of the text producer and the audience. Each moment of communication can have an infinite number of possibilities, variations resulting from institutional values, resources, limitations, tools used etc. We cannot teach students every slot machine combination that may occur. We can though, begin by activating students awareness of their expectations when engaging with media texts, familiar and unfamiliar, to enable them to decode on a less literal, more analytical level.

Central now to my delivery of media texts is the starting point of what would an audience expect from this text? What’s the (communication) purpose of this text? What codes might appear in a text like this? How could audiences be challenged or the communication be subverted? This places more emphasis on the impact of text producer choices (the why and the effect) rather than struggling to move forward from the what ( ‘….umm… because it just is…?’ ) Finally, how could exam boards support students? If we want the best out of our students, so that they can achieve and excel, it could be argued that the parameters need to be much more clearly defined in Media Studies specifications. What those parameters are is part of the much wider discussion and debate facing Media & Film at the moment.

Any feedback is always welcome. I would love to hear from media teachers and share what has worked in their classrooms.

Kate McCabe

@mediaradarguru (subject)

@evenbetterif (teaching and behaviour)</p

Creating conditions for Independent Enquiry: Thoughts on engaging reluctant learners


Yesterday, I gave a presentation at Pedagoo South West. As usual there was the fantastic buzz and sense of excitement that accompanies these events – all under the wonderful captaincy of @ictevangelist, @rlj1981 and @DoctorMassey,  held in the spectacular Bristol Grammar School.

If anyone hasn’t presented before, do. It’s a brilliant way of focusing the mind, clarifying what you think, reflecting on your observations and analysing and justifying why you have reached the conclusions you have. All to a deadline. None of us are trained researchers and whenever I put together my presentations, I have a mini Tom Bennett and Dr Ben Goldacre sitting on my shoulders tut tut tutting away, every time I carelessly insert a sweeping generalisation – and rightly so. As Rachel mentioned in her opening keynote, there is more than one way, more than one right answer, more than one possible approach. We are in the business of dealing with people after all, with their billions of variations in responses from one millisecond to the next.

So my presentation yesterday dealt with a fair few questions – largely because I don’t know the answer – presenting is a way of me trying to work towards finding an answer. I’m surprised no-one on Twitter has yet to make the connection that maybe there isn’t ‘an’ answer. People have been taught for over a millennia. With the titanic-sized body of knowledge that has been amassed in that time, we still don’t have the answer.

So here were my questions:


It seems that if we want to consider how to create the best conditions for students to become more naturally independent in their thinking and engage those that are switched off in the classroom, we have to first consider, why this is and what are good conditions for independent learning.



Early years learning suggests that the acquisition of skills and learning can be rapid, can leapfrog other skill development, can undergo processing for extended periods (as in the silent phases of language acquisition) and most importantly autonomous and based of immediate needs and wants. This element of choice and need seems at the heart of the reason why the love of learning can be lost in formal education. I gave an example of my 5 year old daughter, who, as a summer born child, sometimes feels overwhelmed by school. When I tried to coax her with the carrot of all the fab facts she would learn that day, she wailed ‘but they don’t teach us any of that stuff there!’





Mick Waters and Martin Robinson provide absolutely fantastic reads on Schooling and Education. But, the reality is that we need to live in the here and now and get on with the daily task of getting students through benchmarks – exams, controlled assessments, the next level etc. And if the student has lost a sense of awe and wonder for learning, if they have lost a sense of purpose of what it is for, if they have lost choice and it fulfils no ‘need’, can we implement some of what works in early years to secondary scheme and lesson design?





We know choice works. We use it as a key behaviour tool – but how much do we use it in lessons? I recently read a reply in a comment thread for one of @learningspy’s posts. The comment read (sorry I don’t have the author’s name) ‘the reason students don’t like school has little to do with thinking hard and everything to do with the lack of autonomy and passivity that would annoy any one of us’. This struck me as true. Have we scaffolded students within an inch of their lives? Have we destroyed the very thing we tried to build – thought? I first gave a low set a challenge of Mastermind 4 years ago. I thought it was a huge gamble then, that I could lose the students for the year. But they rose to the challenge and more. They each chose a specialist topic and revised. I got my swivel chair, put a lamp on the floor, downloaded the music, pulled down the blinds and we were off. Each year, I crown someone the Mastermind champion. And it leaves students feeling like champions.

Another element of choice, is presentation of work. Why do we have to work on lined books? Why can’t we give students more freedom to present their work how they like? I know they have to write essays for exam, but if we want the learning done, why can’t students have a bit more ownership of it?




We ask students a lot of question. A phenomenal amount of them. How often do we encourage and allow for students to ask their own questions? If they did, isn’t that learning? Asking a question about something means you are engaged, thinking about it, trying to make connections, trying to work it out. What difference does it make when a students asks ‘what is….?’ as opposed to ‘I don’t know, Miss’  or more authentically  *shrugs.  With this in mind, I set up a mini-project with my tutees. I asked them to ask any question they wanted to – what did they want to know, just because they wanted to know it. Their eyes lit up (not measurable data, I know) and they came up with a great set of questions which we then we set out to decide which questions we would need to ask to find out the answers. What I was surprised by, was how much thinking they had to do, and how willingly they took part.


Can we embed more student question time into our lessons? Will it deepen knowledge and understanding? If anyone has done any similar projects, I’d love to hear about it, and any observations you have.

Finally, a huge, huge thank you to @musicmind for saving me and letting me use your laptop!


Part I: A New Hope. What can Fixed Mindset teach us about behaviour?

While the world is excited by Dweck’s Growth Mindset, I am intrigued by what we can learn from Fixed Mindset – especially as a trigger of poor behaviour in the classroom.

Like all good films that try to milk it for all it’s worth, (and for Star Wars purists, I know calling this Part 1: A New Hope is maybe taking creative licence too far) this post is part of a trilogy, that may have a dodgy second instalment, but will try to pull it back for part III.

Today I read Shaun Allison’s excellent post on a Whole School approach to implementing Growth Mindset – school wide practices in CPD, marking & feedback. Shaun has embedded two must-watch video’s – Dweck’s talk on Growth Mindset and Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk on Grit . In essence, both urge teachers & senior leaders to be mindful about the use of praise, encourage hard work and point students towards to ongoing nature of learning – the long haul, rather than quick fix.

For me Dweck’s words ring very, very true.

Yes, like anything which is founded on sound common sense, it is easy to dismiss with an attitude of a surly teenager (…am I dumb???), angry, because we, like, totally knew that already! But, even common sense needs dissecting and reflecting on every so often. Otherwise, it simply becomes the stuff of myth and legend.
Yes, the ideas are communicated in new-spangled terminology, which can also be off -putting to many (and maybe Dweck should fire the guy that came up with the brain image). But words are funny things. Sometimes we endow them with way too much power. A willingness and desire to learn is what it is, whether we call it Growth Mindset, Motivation, Can-do Attitude, positive thinking or whatever phrase captures the particular zeitgeist.

Dweck’s research tells us that students with a Fixed Mindset will try to ‘look smart at any cost’, ‘hide mistakes’ and firmly believe that effort and difficulty are an indicator of being stupid. The implications of this are significant. Where there is a fair proportion of students with challenging behaviour, low resilience, esteem and academic confidence, how many lessons are disturbed because of a need & desire to look smart? How many disrupted so students can hide difficulties? How many shouts of ‘This is sooo boring!!’ to avoid effort and difficulty? Many, oh so many. If the school isn’t implementing growth mindset across all policies and systems as described in Shaun Allison’s post, how can the individual classroom teacher use the research about growth mindset to support students in lessons and head off Fixed Mindset behaviour at the pass?

This is not a set of answers, more a set of posed questions to reflect on:

1) Recognise when the behaviour is being used as a strategy to leave the task, the classroom or learning altogether. Give the student *some options – as teachers our end goal is their engagement, this cannot be achieved through conflict, so cooperation is vital. This is not an acceptance of rudeness, which MUST be addressed, but separating this from the defence mechanisms will be a way forward.

2) Use tutor time or lesson time to make explicit the positive impact of difficulty on the brain. A short video, like this may benefit students. This has relevance whether interjected during a Romeo & Juliet lesson with some resistant ‘learners’ or used as a whole school assembly.

3) Encourage challenge much more. Can teacher talk help to curb the desire to ‘hide difficulty’ ? “I know this is hard but look at the progress you’ve made already? Keep going with it”. Ramp up the encouragement (not praise, encouragement).

4) Is it the immersive curriculum of primary which makes children feel they are ‘experiencing’ rather than learning chunks of information for end gain which means they cope with struggle and difficulty much better? Is it the level of control – the ability to MANAGE the skill acquisition that toddlers and babies have, that makes them devour tough tasks (language, walking, coordination etc) ? Could teachers plan their own schemes of work to immerse students in ‘experiences’ which ‘flow’ better than a finite series of goals? Is this why evidence suggests Flipped Classrooms work?

5) Should teachers be referring backwards, forwards & sideways (cross curricular) as standard practice? This will lend relevance – remind students regularly that what they learned last term relates to current work, what they have done in another subject is relatable. Would it help students to feel they got *here by getting *there first?

6) Should we, as teachers, provide more answers, and spend more time asking students to add the examples, discriminate, evaluate etc? When we ask students to contribute every few minutes, are we not simply reinforcing what they intrinsically know or don’t know? And if they don’t know, are they not more likely to switch off? Without being drawn into the content vs skills debate, a great motivator is ‘getting better’ at something. That is skill. Growth mindset uses early years acquisition of skills as a springboard. Much of what we have to do in school requires content teaching and memorisation – much tougher to ‘get better’ at. Can giving students the answers help deeper ‘understanding’ preventing feelings of helplessness and failure as a barrier to engagement?

The biggest hurdle I believe, is the belief that students should, as Dweck says, ‘look good at all costs’. The ‘too cool for school’ attitude alive and beating a good lesson plan into the ground. Create a classroom culture which explicitly acknowledges we don’t know all there is to know. Make those with low academic esteem build on it by providing absolutes, and refer them back to those absolutes. Wow student with tales that seem so extraordinary that ALL of their brains will hurt, as they try to comprehend the feasibility of your story. Encourage, encourage, encourage – not just praise. Finally, if modelling exemplars is vital for success and we know losing our fear of failure is also vital for success, maybe we should not just talk about failure, but should model failure; show how we have overcome, how we have failed.

The next post, Part II : will consider Gaming: Worlds where effort and difficulty reign supreme and even those with a firmly Fixed Mindset display grit, resolve and reflectiveness hour after hour after hour.