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Posted on March 26, 2016 by Bodil Isaksen

Going postal about posters

Posters lessons. We’ve all done them. Maybe we were naive NQTs, who believed it really would be a great way for 7 set 4 to synthesise their understanding of the formation of ox-bow lakes. Maybe we were exhausted, the week before Christmas, sleep-deprived to the point of torture, and thought it would tide us over. Maybe it was coming up to the summer holidays, and all the key stage co-ordinator had written on the departmental Schemes of Work was “group work on fireworks”. Maybe Open Evening was coming up, and the yellowing displays needed replacing. Maybe we were taking our tricky year 9 form for PSHE, on a topic we knew little about and felt uncomfortable with; when we’d raised it with the Head of Year, all she’d said was that the other forms were availing themselves of the sugar paper.

Fine. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. But let’s be honest: a poster lesson is a desperate measure, not a rigorous first-class education.

There’s been quite the kerfuffle over Tom Bennett’s reasoned, measured comments about the value of certain lesson activities. Tom was very diplomatic, caveating his assertions carefully with the word “some”. I think he doesn’t go far enough. I don’t think posters are ever an effective use of lesson time. The exception, perhaps, would be graphic design, where the poster can be the point. As IndieP tweeted, “If you want to teach ‘making a poster’, teach it. If you want to teach ‘history’, teach that instead.”

The additional fripperies of poster making merely distract from a learning objective to acquire, practice or memorise knowledge. Thinking about layout and visual appeal takes up precious mental space that should be wholly focused on the subject matter.

A poster on the causes of World War I cannot possibly induce more learning than the same content written in an exercise book. The difference is that the poster will inevitably take much longer; it is much less time efficient. Wasting our pupils’ time is an insult to their futures, their intellect and their dreams.

And that’s assuming the poster is taken as seriously by pupil and by teacher – which, let’s be honest – it rarely is. Often, the less conscientious pupils won’t take the task seriously; the more conscientious will take it seriously, but entirely the wrong things. The bubble writing of the title will be immaculate; the speech bubbles coming from the cartoon Napolean’s mouth perfectly formed; Homebase could turn the border design into a wallpaper pattern. Work is rarely assessed beyond a tick and “2 house points” for the neatest girls’ work. After all, if it’s for display, you can’t sully it with ugly red pen. And if it’s the end of term, marking is as likely as eating your 12 boxes of Ferrero Roche in moderation.

Teaching is a noble, honourable profession… when we’re actually teaching. We are so much better than sugar paper and felt tips.

Posted on March 25, 2016 by Jo Facer

Term 1 at Michaela: what have I learned?


For the first two weeks at least, the feedback in my (very frequent) observations was ‘you are going much too slowly. You need to speed up!’ Having worked for over five years in other schools, I’d become adept in the ‘explain it slowly three times and check everyone understands before doing anything,’ and at Michaela that is completely unnecessary – with the expectation for 100% sitting up straight and looking at the teacher, they get it first time, every time.

I was also spending far too much time eliciting information the pupils didn’t know – at Michaela, instead we tell them and then check they have learned it. So, if there is a word they haven’t learned I used to say ‘who knows what this word means?’ And if someone got close, try to elicit them to the right answer. Now, I say ‘woe means “intense sadness.” Annotate it on your booklet.’ And then, at the end of the lesson, I ask the class: ‘what does “woe” mean?’, along with the other new words we have encountered.

I’ve written at length about how we give feedback to help pupils improve their writing, but for me this was a totally new way of approaching looking at kids’ work. I’ve learned lots about the best way to explain how to improve, and when it is important to show exemplars to clarify trickier concepts.

I’ve worked on my ‘warm-strict’ balance. In a school with such strict discipline, it is especially important to explain why you are issuing a demerit or a detention – because you love them, because you want them to learn and succeed, and that issuing such a sanction doesn’t diminish your love for them as a human. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is at Michaela to show your love.

I’ve never taught from the front so much in my life, so I’ve had to improve my explanations. Luckily, I work with wonderful colleagues, and our weekly huddle where we annotate the lessons for the week has really helped me become clear on exactly what I will be explicitly teaching the pupils and how. This has been especially important for me with grammar, as I’ve never taught a single grammar lesson in my life. I am eternally indebted to Katie Ashford for spending countless hours going through the resources with me, and in particular for her eternal patience in always quickly answering my occasional panicked text message, which invariably reads: ‘is this an adverb or a preposition?’


Previously, I’ve been a bit of a praise junkie. I like to be told I’m great. There is no room for ego at Michaela – I’m bringing my A-game to every single day, and still have a such a long way to go to match up to the brilliant people I am surrounded by. It can be hard to see daily the distance between where you are and where you need to be, but being hung up on yourself just makes it harder. I’ve also had moments of panic, where I’ve thought: ‘I need to progress up the career ladder! Why did I quit an Assistant Head position? I need to have an impressive title and feel important NOW!’

Luckily, I’m able to find peace in the realisation that it isn’t about me – it’s about the school. The point isn’t me being brilliant and important, the point is all of us working together in the best way to serve our children. The ego gets in the way – kill it dead.


I’ve written before about the intensity of the Michaela school day: no doubt, working at Michaela is hard! The difference is purpose: I’m not doing last-minute marking or planning, I’m not having stressful altercations with recalcitrant children or chasing up a thousand missed detentions: I’m preparing our year 9 units and improving our year 7 and 8 ones.

Reading my year 8s essays on Macbeth, who I’d only taught for a month at that point, was an emotional experience. Every single one contained more genuine engagement, impressive analysis, and originality of thought than any other essay on Macbeth I had ever read – including my previous year 13 class. I can’t take a single shred of credit for that, having only just arrived, but again it affirms my purpose: the sky is the limit for what these children can do, and it makes me want to do everything I can to see what is truly possible.


Posted on March 23, 2016 by Lucy Newman

Starting at Michaela

I love working at Michaela. Unlike at other schools which do not have tight behaviour systems, Michaela brings out the best in the children and they are lovely and polite. At my old school I had some good classes. At Michaela there are only good classes! Every lesson is one I look forward to. At my old school there was a huge element of unpredictability to each day. I would have pupils fighting in lessons, or a pupil would have to be removed and would start arguing with me. Now I just teach and they listen. It is really quite remarkable, the children are actually listening!

At Michaela we like knowledge. For a humanities teacher the learning load is intense. I love it, I am learning so much. The truth is that if you don’t want to test yourself and learn dates and facts, then this is probably not for you. If you want to grow and change and you love ideas then it is just the most exciting place. If you do not really want to learn and do not like being made to be uncomfortable, probed and questioned, then you will find it hard here. In this postmodern, often nihilistic, morally relative society,you do not often hear the phrase “you are wrong”! You will hear that here, and it is shocking at first. If you want your views to go unchallenged, if you don’t like people telling you when they think that you are wrong, then Michaela is not for you. Michaela is not an army of clones, but there are core values. At Michaela we believe in tradition, respect, and in the authority of the adult. We do not all vote for the same political party. We are not all followers of the same religion; but there is a way of thinking and a set of values that bind us.

Teaching at Michaela is completely about teaching and learning. This was very strange at first; you realise that most of the time when you taught before, behaviour was the focus of your mind. Suddenly it is not the same game; if you have been used to lessons where the bad behaviour was very extreme then it is hard to give a child a demerit for persistently daydreaming in the lesson. It feels odd, you think and feel,“what’s the big deal they are all sitting and being quiet”. That is all you ever wanted at your old school! You feel like a fraud, you give a demerit but you do not fully believe in it. Then as time goes on you realise that if someone is consistently looking away from you during the lesson then you know that means they are not listening, and then you actually give a demerit with conviction. At first it feels silly saying 3, 2, 1 before each instruction, and it feels like you are acting out the role which is all a bit strange and foreign. After a while, with enough time, the routines you are told to carry out become like breathing, they are second nature.

The end result is the learning that goes on is just exceptional. I worried before coming to Michaela that I might miss teaching A level classes, but honestly, teaching year 8 here feels like an A level class; not because of the standard, but because of the intellectual focus and the lack of bad behaviour.

As Katharine says, ‘in the Michaela boat everyone is rowing together’ to the same destination. The ethos, the feedback, the teaching routines, the behaviour policy, they are all worth it, at the end of the day these kids are getting the best life chances and they are very happy and as a teacher I am much much happier. The pupils that will leave Michaela will be kinder people and contribute to society and you will be the best teacher you can be.

Posted on March 23, 2016 by Jonathan Porter

Did it work? Year 8 history essays on medieval England

Essay title: What was the most significant challenge to the king’s power in medieval England?

Conditions: Exam conditions. 50 minutes. No notes. From memory. Pupils DO know the title of the essay in advance.

High ability paragraph on the Church.


Mid ability paragraph on the nobles


Low ability paragraph on the peasants


High ability conclusion (typed out verbatim)

‘In conclusion, the most significant challenge to the king’s power in the medieval period was the Church. It’s spiritual and temporal power, and the last grip it had on the population made it a clear rival to the State. The ‘Magna Carta’ was not a major challenge to the king’s power as even thought it restricted the king’s power for a very short amount of time, King John declared it invalid. The peasants were not a significant challenge to the king’s power in the medieval period as the rebellions such as ‘the Peasant’s Revolt’ were crushed by the king. The Church’s hegemonic influence made it a significant challenge to the king’s power’.


Strengths: knowledge and memory

One of the things I like about the way we assess at Michaela is our emphasis on memory. All our pupils (from top to bottom in ability range) do their assessments from memory. Almost all pupils wrote for the full 50 minutes and almost all wrote three paragraphs on each of the three challengers to the king’s power: the Church, the nobles and the peasants.

What I particularly like about the essays is their clear command of the facts. They have used dates, people and concepts to support their judgement. The high ability pupil has remembered that Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. Specific people such Thomas Becket, John ‘Softsword’, Richard ‘Lionheart’, William de Braose. And specific places such as Runnymede, Brittany, Normandy and Anjou. Most pleasingly, the pupils seem to be using challenging conceptual vocabulary such as ‘spiritual’, ‘temporal’, ‘independent’, ‘authority’, ‘tyrannical’, ‘clergy’, ‘lenient’, ‘rivalry’ and ‘hegemony’. All of these were taught explicitly and the pupils have used them, with reasonable accuracy, in their assessment.

One of our less able pupils even managed to remember that pesky apostrophe in ‘the Peasants’ Revolt’ – my favourite thing of all!

Improvements: explanation and judgement

However, I want to see more sophisticated explanation in future. The high ability paragraph on the Church is good, but I don’t think it is as well developed as it could be. There is also some speculation in her explanation: ‘This was a significant challenge to the king’s power and authority because the peasants would have judged the king when he was in the streets and, ultimately, threatened his status in the social society.’ How can we support our pupils to make more incisive comments about the significance of this event and what it tells us about the power of the Church in the period? How can we support them also to ‘zoom out’ and see the bigger picture?

I also want pupils at the bottom end starting to see their essay more as a single articulation rather the sum of three discrete paragraphs. You can see that quite clearly in the high ability conclusion in which the pupils weighs up the challengers to form an independent judgement. But it isn’t there in the low ability paragraph: the pupil simply introduced ‘another significant challenge to the king’s power’. 

If you think you have what it takes to help us to improve our pupils’ work and take them to the next level, you should apply to teach with us. Follow this link for more information: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/vacancy-humanities-teacher/

Posted on March 19, 2016 by The Music and Art Departments

Quality Music Education Remains the Preserve of the Privately Educated


I read this article earlier this week, and two statistics have stuck with me.

  • “Despite the fact that music is taught at the majority of schools in the country, admissions at leading universities from state schools are on a par with subjects like classics and theology; both subjects traditionally seen only at independent schools.”
  • “Music at GCSE and particularly A-level are the most under-subscribed of all elective courses by some margin, with only 1 per cent of A-level entries in England in music or music technology.”

Why is it that the academic study of music at GCSE and A-level is undersubscribed, despite being a compulsory subject in every school? Why is it that the academic study of music at university has admission rates comparable to subjects which are only taught to the privileged few, when all children have access to a music education in school? The answer is simple. Because the academic study of music isn’t really what’s taught in schools. Music, the rigorous academic discipline, is taught in private lessons. The children who enjoy studying music, who are successful at studying music and who elect to study music further are the children who learn music outside of the classroom, and unfortunately, they are the privileged few.


A typical child who is paying for music lessons will:

  1. learn how to read music.
  2. be exposed to and spend time learning an enormous range of music, particularly music written before the 20th
  3. study music theory.


A typical child who is studying KS3 compulsory music in a state school will:

  1. study ‘accessible’ music genres like film music, samba, reggae or calypso
  2. spend time listening to compositions made up in lessons by their peers
  3. create posters about music


The child receiving private lessons is learning music. The child whose only music education comes from compulsory music lessons in school is receiving a dumbed down and simplified version of the subject. We need to remember why it is that music education is compulsory in the first place: to make music accessible to all. We think that, by simplifying the content that we teach as part of the compulsory music curriculum, we are making music accessible. The sad truth is that, in doing so, we are ensuring that quality music education remains the preserve of the privately educated.

This fact may not sit well with some readers. But we have face the facts – music as a compulsory curriculum subject is failing. Every child in a UK state school studies music until they are 14. How many of them can read music fluently? How many of them have studied the scores of the great composers? How many of them know and understand the circle of fifths? At Michaela, we believe that being able to read music, being exposed to a broad and detailed history of music, and understanding the theory of music is what makes a music education, and those are the things we teach in our compulsory music lessons. Over the next few blogs we will go into more detail about what this looks like, how it works and why we do it. We drill pupils in reading music. We explicitly teach them music theory – up to grade 4 by the end of year 9. We don’t make music accessible by lowering expectations; instead we make music truly accessible by actually teaching every one of our students a rigorous and academic curriculum.

Posted on March 20, 2016 by Naveen Rizvi

Assessment-driven teaching

This post will be outlining the academic rigour I have seen in the teaching and in the assessments created by the Uncommon Schools Network. I shall explain how we can develop such rigour in our classrooms as individual teachers.

Each grade (year group) has an interim assessment exam which is determined centrally by a subject lead teacher; although collaboratively made, a subject lead teacher will finalise the exam produced. Once it is finalised, all teachers within the network will have access to view the assessment but will not have the access to make any amendments/alterations.

I was very impressed by the interim assessments made, because they are created in a way in which pupils’ mathematical knowledge is tested in a manner where they are forced to manipulate the knowledge they have: it tests and masters the fine balance between procedural fluency and conceptual understanding in each question. It also made me reconsider how I plan my teaching, how I now combine concepts in different problem types and how I try to make rigourous low-stake quizzes including questions like the ones you are about to see.

I am going to look at one question which I thought was brilliant, then explain how I would plan a selection of lessons, in a sequence, inducing pupils to become mathematically proficient and confident in order to attempt such a question.


Here I am assuming by convention from how I was trained and from what I have seen in my experience, previously I would begin by teaching the concept of square numbers and square roots, by getting children to identify the square numbers by multiplying the root number by itself, and then drawing the link: that once you square root a square number you will obtain the initial root number which, multiplied by itself, then results in that square number.

Then, I would have possibly explored completing calculations with square numbers and square roots. After that, in years to come, I would teach square numbers and square rooting in relation to fractional indices and with surds. When teaching surds, I would bring in the idea of rational and irrational numbers. Here is what I now suggest!

This is how I would map out teaching the topic of square numbers, square roots and holding a root number, to an index number greater than 2, and introducing rooting greater than a square root. Kids must have gotten to a stage where such calculations are memorised:


Why not bring in the idea of interleaving fractions, decimals etc?


Then, I would build upon the previous questions systematically, in a way in which students can create a fraction which can be simplified.


Also, I would introduce from an early stage the proposition that when we square root a square number we get positive and negative of the root number, which can be a really valuable discussion to have with children. Introduce calculations afterwards with square numbers and square rooting. This type of thinking is driven by another question I saw in a North Start Academy assessment:

assessment 4


The question is touching on key knowledge that when x is equal to a square root then we assume a positive value as an answer, however when x is held to an exponent the values of x will result in a positive and negative value.

Eventually I would introduce a base number to an exponent greater than 2 and interleave it into calculations:


I could get pupils to then go into the following questions:


Or, have pupils determine the value of unknowns through trial and error:


Now, I am going to draw a link between square numbers, square roots and rational numbers without linking it to fractional indices and surds. The purpose behind this is to (for now) restrict what I would teach at Year 8 or 9 but, at the same time, providing that conceptual scope. Simultaneously, it also provides the opportunity for multiple choice questions that have the academic rigour for our pupils.

I would define a rational number and then go into the necessary vocabulary such as ‘a rational number is a number which can be written as a fraction of two integers. A rational number cannot be written as a non-repeating or non-terminating decimal’, for example, in comparison to 0.45454545 which is a rational number. I would then provide a selection of example and non-examples.

I could test children’s understanding through mini whiteboards or hands up: 1 if it is a rational number and 2 if it is an irrational number; selecting the order of questions such as 2, 6, 100, 15, 1/2 , 5/6, 10/100, then bringing in the square numbers and asking pupils to show why it is a rational number or irrational number such as √16, √36 or √144

Pupils could type in the value of √12 or √3  in a calculator to see that you will get a non-repeating or non-terminating decimal that cannot be written as a fraction of two integers therefore categorising such non examples as irrational numbers.

Also then mentioning that square rooting a square number will result in a rational number, and cube rooting a cube number will result in a rational number etc.

You would then be able to explore the idea of rational numbers in which you are square rooting square numbers using your calculator:


Following this, discussion will be made of the notion that the following are rational numbers in regard to the definition of a rational number being a number that can be written as a fraction made of two integers:


Then, the idea of either the numerator or denominator being a whole number should be brought into my teaching:
2fig11After that, I would introduce problem types where you can simplify the fraction:


Discuss that the problem below results in an irrational number because the numerator is irrational and overall the solution cannot be written as a fraction of two integers:




Will the following number sentences produce rational numbers?


Children need to be comfortable in identifying that  is not a rational number because it cannot be displayed as a fraction of two integers. The definitions need to be consistent so that children are confident in differentiating between a rational and irrational number using square numbers and square roots, and then moving onto powers greater than 2. If we expose children to the following above we are providing the academic rigour which future exam boards are attempting to build upon.

All of this is just an idea which I am trying to explore in order to provide students with the academic rigour, in terms of their classwork and in the assessments, that they will be taking.

assessment 2

Everything that I have written, the problem types I have created and the interconnections between square numbers, square rooting, and rational numbers, is a result of looking at such questions above. These questions guided me to plan a selection of lessons which provide the balance between enabling students to become procedurally fluent in calculations and in developing conceptual understanding of this topic.

Through creating difficult assessments you can guide your teaching to induce that academic rigour. I have never taught maths like this, but I do plan to in the future. This was all inspired through looking at this question at North Star Academy in New Jersey. The academic rigour present in the interim assessment guides to create academic rigour in what is being taught and learnt within the classroom.

Posted on March 19, 2016 by Bodil Isaksen

Don’t mind the gap

How many digits of pi can you remember, Layla?

Only twenty, Miss.

Layla sees nothing extraordinary about the fact she remembers four times more digits of pi than her maths teacher. Not when her classmates can remember 40, 50, 60… hundreds digits of pi*. Not that she’s upset about it, mind. She knows that a fortnight ago, the most anyone in her class knew was three digits. She knows that the reason for the difference now is sheer hard work.

How is it possible for a 12-year-old child in an inner-city comprehensive to see knowing 20 digits of pi as unremarkable? By not minding the gap. In fact, we encouraged the gap through competition. Two weeks ago, the gap between the best and worst in the school at reciting pi was three: between those who had no clue, and those who knew 3.14. Now, the gap is in the hundreds.

In absolute terms, the achievement and progress has been excellent. Pupils, including the weakest, reel off scores of digits. In relative terms, it’s a disaster. Layla can say twenty, but Aliyah can recite 160: an eight-fold difference. In relative terms, we were better off a fortnight ago, when the difference was a mere handful of digits.

“Closing the gap”: a well intentioned policy, but one that worries me. I worry about its effect on our Aliyahs; that it encourages us to rein in their potential artificially. But I also worry about our Laylas.

When we focus on closing the gap, our implicit messages are toxic. We imply that there’s only so much we can expect; that there’s a cap on what’s reasonable to achieve. Our monitoring and scrutiny doesn’t leave room for pupils to go off and propel themselves, independently, beyond what our limited imaginations can fathom for them. Round-the-clock interventions for those struggling, while the top end go off and revise on their own, induces a learned helplessness; a sense that work can’t be done without a teacher holding their hand. The intensity of the teachers’ attention implies to the children that their teachers are responsible for their grades, not them. Pupils may even come to recognise that the less they do, the more the teachers worry, and the more the teachers do for them. Pupils are not allowed to fail, and thus gain no experience of the link between laziness and failure; the link between hard work and success.

In fact, I’d posit that if your gap is narrowing, you’re doing something wrong. The Matthew effect states that with the same inputs, the knowledge-rich will get richer more quickly. My experience is that the top end will accumulate knowledge more quickly even if given a fraction of the input of the bottom end.

We should not be concentrating on “closing the gap”. An obsession with relative under-performance doesn’t just harm the top, but also the weakest we are trying to help.

Encourage competition. Encourage every pupil to do their best. It won’t close the gap. It will widen it. In relative terms, it will be a disaster. In absolute terms, it will be a triumph.


*A note on pi: this was an optional competition, a bit of fun for pi day; pupils learnt pi of their own accord outside of maths lessons. I don’t think learning pi is maths, but it was great at creating a buzz!

Posted on March 19, 2016 by Joe Kirby

Experiences of a new teacher

This is one new teacher’s account of her first year as a newly qualified teacher in a tough school.

I teach at an inner-city secondary school, where sixty percent of students receive free school meals. Eight million was spent doing up the building, and the new rules said: no chewing gum. Soon, the brand new tables had layers of Wrigley’s and Juicy Fruit stuck to their undersides.

In my first lesson of my first year, a fight broke out between two students. They went for each other’s hair and throats. The whole class were out of their seats, crowding around the two girls. Senior management arrived to remove them from the lesson. In my first year of teaching I did not have a life during term time: I sat up til ten marking students’ work and planning the following day’s lessons.

The first morning back in my NQT year, eighty or so teachers gathered in the echoing dining hall, where Cecelia, the principal, welcomed us, announced the GCSE results, and congratulated us on the rise in attainment: 58% of students had got five or more GCSEs at grades between C and A*. The national average that year was 64%. Only 32%– about 60 students out of 200 or so achieved a C or above in English and Maths.

I knew the Year 10s were going to be a difficult group. They had been at this school longer than I had, which made me think that they know things I don’t. They were intimidating teenagers, predicted Es and Ds in their GCSEs.

One minute into the lesson, and the seating plan has fallen apart. ‘Miss, I don’t want to sit there. I can’t sit with her.’ They’re adamant, forceful: ‘No, I don’t care, I’m not sitting there!’ The students eye me up, arms folded, with a look of outright disdain. I distribute a poem, a stanza to each table. Chaos descends. All the five groups I am not with raise their voices in pandemonium. A few quieter students are attempting the task, but the loud majority make it difficult to hear anything. Every few minutes I strain to raise my voice above theirs and tell them to settle and quieten down, which they do, for a few seconds. Several separate conversations are going on while groups are trying to share their observations. I turn to the girls talking to each other and ask them to stop, explaining that it is rude to speak over other people. They turn back to each other and finish their conversation. Jamie is eating crisps. Group work was an unmitigated disaster. As the door closes behind them, they burst into loud laughter.

No gum is one rule: all lessons must have a learning objective is another, to tell students what skill to be developing. The other rule about lessons is they must be divided into three parts: a fun starter, main activity, and a plenary where students reflect.

‘Adalia, gum in the bin. Chantelle, why haven’t you started?’

‘Miss, can I borrow a pen?’

My box of biros, full at the beginning of term, had already evaporated. Half the Year 10 class needed a pen each lesson. I always forgot to collect them in, so would have to scrabble around on the floor to gather any that the students had been kind enough to leave with me. Scrambling around on the floor also gave me a chance to collect the wrappers and crisp packets they’d dropped once they’d finished surreptitiously eating the contents. I root around on my desk and find a pen for Chantelle.

Chantelle raises her hand.

‘Miss,’ she giggles, ‘have you seen what someone’s written here?’ She points at the desk. I look and see that someone has etched into the desk with a compass: ‘Your mum is a c**t.’ Shocked and annoyed, I instruct her: ‘Don’t tell the others.’

My energy was waning – there was a pile of unmarked homework in the tray on my desk, and I already felt ready for another week off. The Year 10 class didn’t go in for waiting quietly with their arms folded for me to give them an instruction. I had to bamboozle them with Powerpoint presentations and clips of film and music, instructions and tasks and performances. In terms of the pecking order within my class, there were several positions above mine. By being so purely unpredictable and unbothered by the rules, they made me dread each lesson, not knowing what their mood would be.

At the end of a lesson, I looked at the bin. It was overflowing with crisp packets. Drained of energy, I got on to the floor and started picking up the litter that hadn’t made it to the bin.

At home, I settled down for some marking. I noted it was taking me five minutes to mark each student’s work and therefore I would be finishing at ten. But then at 8.30 something strange happened: every muscle in my body hurt, and I suddenly had to crawl to bed, unable to do anything more.

At six o’clock on Wednesday morning I called in sick. I sat down morosely at my laptop to email in cover work, thinking how the poor cover teacher would be so abused by my classes. The students would trash the room. A supply teacher is a school providing students with a human sacrifice…

On my return, I braced myself. Lots of sheets of A4 lined paper were strewn about the place. Some students had obviously managed to write their names at the tops of their piece of paper, but not got any further. I removed the crisp packets stuffed into the cupboard at the back of the room. A pile of incident reports were on my desk:

“Folashade was drinking flavoured fizzy water in class. I asked her to put it away. She refused. I asked her again and she refused again, angrily. She charged at me, and had to be restrained by her classmates.”

“Erez came into class and immediately would not follow instructions or do anything co-operatively. She was given two warnings for refusing to take off her coat and take her bag off the desk. ‘What? What’s my bag doing to you? Is my bag hurting you?’ I tried to send her out of the classroom but she refused to go.”

I heard a piercing scream next door. I ran to the classroom, imagining a fight had broken out, but it was just a drama lesson. ‘It’s ok, they’re just doing drama next door.’ Everyone looked miserable. ‘Why are they always having fun?’ Princess stamped her foot. ‘Please could you take out a pen,’ I said. Rude, aggressive, and undermining, one pupil snarled: ‘Don’t start on me – I’m not in the mood.’ The same confrontation day in, day out.

The glory days with my Year 7s seemed to be drawing to a close. They were in their second term at the school and, after carefully observing the years above them, had started adopting some of their bad habits. They had grown loud. And the louder they grew, the less I enjoyed being in the classroom with them. They’d completely lost interest in hearing anything the rest of the class might have to say.

Day to day I could feel I was falling down a never-ending spiral of tiredness. So much of the time teaching the Year 11s I wanted to shake them and say, ‘Stop wasting time. You don’t know what you’re missing out on. Why won’t you do something about it?’ When your students fail to see something, it naturally feels like a failing on your part. Why wasn’t I a good enough teacher to make them work harder? How did Julia do it? Her students were orderly: she narrowed her eyes at them and they fell into silence. Why would they follow other people’s instructions but not mine?

The Year 7s were always at their worst on a Wednesday afternoon. They had history in the previous lesson, which was taught across the hallway by a long-term supply teacher. His door was closed, and so was mine, and the hallway lay between, and yet I could still hear them rioting in his room. As they surged from his class to mine, I braced myself. The class spent the hour not listening to me or each other. My voice was hoarse. I had no energy. I cannot keep them quiet, I thought: I have lost the will. I can’t do it. I can’t make them listen. Controlling disruptive behaviour was sapping my energy, and I felt, once again, I was having to fight my students in order to teach them. By half-term I was lying in bed with a temperature.

One lesson I asked my class to stay behind for a few minutes during break time – they’d easily wasted more time than that in the lesson. I had to ask: ‘Can you sit down, please, Becky – you’re wasting everyone’s break time.’ ‘That’s f**king extra,’ she shouted. ‘F**king shit. F**k you.’ She left, kicking her chair out of the way.

I rang her mum. I filled in the forms: the incident report and the record of the phone conversation with her mother. I passed the report to senior management, so that they could record what action they’d taken. The forms were returned to me. I stapled five copies of the phone record to five copies of the incident report and then spent five minutes in the staffroom finding the pigeonholes to post the copies to everyone involved in Becky’s care. Students rarely attended detentions, and then what? More phone calls home; more paperwork. I remembered that in my first year I’d tried to hold Becky back on a Friday for a detention. I’d gone down to the school gate to make sure she didn’t slip away. She saw me and ran for it. I called home, and then sat down and wrote another report on what had happened. My frustrations were increased tenfold by the feeling that there were no real consequences at my disposal for misbehaviour. Nothing ever seemed to really come of all this paperwork. There was no feeling that, as a teacher, I was being supported. It made me angry, but there was nothing I could do about it.

The Year 7s in particular seemed to be growing more and more challenging by the day. The students who had come up from primary school so well trained and able to listen to each other politely, had all turned into mini-volcanoes, spewing out noise. I tried to cut down on all evening activities, to preserve energy. God, I thought, I can’t imagine working where I am and also having children.

When I asked students about their lives at school, I heard experiences of being bullied on buses, bullied in the playground, mayhem, fights and disruption. Several students had attacked another outside of school.

With only two weeks to go before the holidays, I plodded through the lessons. The Year 7s were completely exhausting. Becky just sat graffitiing her exercise book. Mahima shredded her worksheet into small squares, which then fluttered down on to the floor. If I stuck to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, most of them would be out within the first few minutes of the lesson, if indeed they managed to make it into the classroom. ‘Good, I didn’t want to be in this stupid classroom anyway,’ many an evicted student uttered.

Teaching groups of thirty rowdy, disaffected teenagers with my lack of experience meant I couldn’t get enough control. But I also felt it was because the students were not schooled in the work ethic that they needed to make real progress. And every evening, hordes of cleaners tried to scrape gum out from between the grooves of the carpets in the classroom.

One lesson, I tried dazzling them with activities: freeze-frames, drama, improvisation, matching exercises, picking up the pace of the lessons in groups of four so that there was no time for the girls to start discussing their latest plans for hair extensions. Lessons had never been this fun!

Afterwards, out in the corridor, I heard shouting. I ran out and saw two of my students – a new girl and another – trying to rip hair from each other’s heads. I bellowed ‘What on earth do you two think you are doing? Rose, go and get on-call please . . . Everyone else to break.’ Adrenalin flew through my veins, and I deposited the two by this time hysterically crying girls in different classrooms. I felt a bit responsible. Had the chaotic lesson added to their agitation?

The next lesson, ‘Miss . . . why are the lessons back like this again?’ Folashade asked. ‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘Boring,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, Folashade, but we have to do some writing at some point.’

I returned home from school crying three evenings in a row. I was feeling trampled. The end of a lesson didn’t feel as though a stampede of elephants had run me down in the way it had in my first year, but the effort was still draining: the full timetable, an after-school club, the planning, the marking, the meetings and department responsibilities. Encounters with unfamiliar students still left me feeling battered and bruised. In a school of one thousand, there are a lot of students you don’t know and who don’t know you. It irritated me that, even if I did take the time to write up confrontations, nothing would come of it. I felt the school did not demand that students showed respect to the staff, and teachers had to pick and choose their battles. I worried that a large handful of my students would be fired if they ever managed to secure a job, because they wouldn’t see any problem in speaking to their employers in the way they addressed their teachers. I felt exasperation at the endless disruptive behaviour. I just couldn’t summon up the energy to be on top of my classes.

I still felt like I’d been run over at the end of each day. It was time to move on.



Posted on March 19, 2016 by Jo Facer

Reading all the Books

I’ve written before about marking, but just to summarise: it has always been something I’ve loved doing. There was something in that Boxer-like satisfaction of ploughing through an unending pile of books, leaving lovingly crafted comments in an array of coloured pens and stickers that just looked like it would work so well. How could pupils fail to make progress when I’d spent so many hours on them?

So something I was nervous about when starting at Michaela was their approach to marking; that is, don’t do it. I’d read Joe Kirby’s blog and spoken to him at length, but remained steadfastly concerned that marking worked – if you ensured pupils

acted on feedback. I then moved to the idea that marking worked, but at what cost – a teacher with six or ten classes cannot be expected to give the detailed feedback the lightly-timetabled members of SLT seem to manage on a weekly basis.

In my second week at Michaela, we had a department meeting where Joe brought up the excellent question: it’s great for workload that we don’t mark, but how do we make sure we’re giving feedback to make pupils’ writing better?

One of the main reasons I think I find marking helpful is because it holds me accountable – I am actually reading if I am putting a pen to paper to say something about it. (I annotate the books I read in the same way – it helps me to remain focused.) But while this is an essential strategy when it is 7am on a Saturday, pre-intervention, and you want to clear the last 20 books to enjoy a semblance of a weekend when you return home that afternoon, or 9pm on a Wednesday when you just want to sleep, actually, I had underestimated my ability to focus.

To begin with at Michaela, I couldn’t get out of the habit of marking. I would spend two hours with about 60 books, circling and underlining when I couldn’t resist; writing limitless notes to share with the class, photocopying paragraphs to get pupils to annotate their peers’ examples. Joe’s comments on this kind of feedback were: ‘would you want all teachers to be photocopying twice or three times a week? Is it worth the time getting the pupils to annotate a piece of paper they are then just throwing away? What else could you be doing with that time?’ Moreover, I was reminded of why marking is not always the best method – if I’d put the merest hint of a mark on a child’s book, their hands shot in the air: ‘why is this circled?’ ‘I can’t read your writing on this spelling correction.’ ‘Why is there a question mark here?’ Marking breeds over-reliance on the teacher.

Now, I’m getting into the swing of the Michaela way. I read my pupils’ books once or twice a week. I teach four classes, each with between 28 and 32 pupils, so it is about 120 books in all. I read 60 books in 30 minutes. As I read, I make notes: spellings lots are getting wrong, things they’re all doing well at, and the main issues they need to improve. I note down anyone whose paragraph is amazing to reward with merits or show the class; I note down anyone whose work is messy to give a demerit to. It looks something like this:


In the following lesson, I teach the spellings from the front, and then test pupils. They will write their corrections out in green pen, interleaving the ones they got wrong, or the ‘toughest three’ if they managed, on this occasion, to score 100%. I’ll test them again the following day. I’ll share the positive things I found and celebrate the star paragraphs, and then explain carefully, perhaps modelling on the board (as Katie Ashford has described brilliantly here or occasionally putting a great paragraph from the class under the visualiser, how they can all improve their own paragraphs. And then they improve them, in green pen. It looks like this:




The second powerful tool is in-class feedback. With an excellent behaviour system, silent writing for 25 minutes means I can see every child’s paragraph twice while circulating, giving them suggestions and tweaks while they write. On my colleague Lucy Newman’ssuggestion, I’ve also started using my visualiser more. This way, we can take a pupil’s book, display it to the class, and show pupils how to edit their mistakes in that very lesson, just by giving oral feedback on the common errors they are making, or the aspects they really need to focus on improving. 

The thing is, what makes the difference in their writing is the quality of the feedback and how timely it is. They don’t need feedback on a paragraph they wrote two weeks ago. At Michaela, they can improve the paragraph they wrote yesterday, while it is fresh in their minds. I miss marking, I do. But I’m realising I did it for me, not for the pupils.

Posted on March 18, 2016 by Jessica Lund

Something we do – Speaking

The teachers at Michaela speak a lot.  They are founts of knowledge.  They might spend the majority of lesson time talking.  Much of that is instructional; a lot of it is questioning.  Rapid-fire, constant questioning is a feature of many Michaela lessons.  Critics of traditional teaching methods might imagine a silent classroom in which the teacher talks at length and then the pupils write down their answers to questions or do practice drills.  If you were to visit Michaela, you would see a huge amount of interactivity, hands shooting up to demonstrate recall and to ask and answer questions.  The kids are proud of their contributions, and they have plenty of opportunities to make them.

With respect to speaking, the Michaela French department is no exception.  You can’t shut us up.  We love the sound of our own voices.  We’re actors and actresses with audiences of 30 children four or five times a day.  What you may not be able to glean from the way in which we describe our teaching is how much the kids talk too.  (And shout and chant and sing and try to outdo the opposite classroom with the volume of our alphabet and number recitations – it gets pretty loud).

Last week, I wrote about how we read.  Nearly all of our reading is done out loud, which allows pupils to practise and perfect their pronunciation (if you listen to the examples in that post, you’ll see that it’s working!).  We also read out loud individually.  How does that work in a classroom of 30-odd pupils?  Each pupil puts their hands over their ears, and then reads and re-reads a passage of text so that they can hear themselves but not anybody else.  It works.  We can then walk around and catch any errors or encourage better pronunciation of particular words and phrases.  We can also nudge those who are not putting in enough effort into their projection, articulation and expression.  At the end I also give merits to pupils who have put real thought and effort into those things.  Pupils can then read out loud one at a time to the whole class with a greater sense of confidence.  This opportunity to practice beforehand is perfect for less confident pupils to go over the text a few times before reading to others; it’s perfect for all the others to develop a sense of the meaning of the text and read with expression, in addition to understanding.

The teachers read out loud a lot as well.  We do this in a very theatrical fashion, with a hammed up French accent and putting deliberate emphasis on accents and the sounds of particular vowel combinations – we’re overemphasising the pronunciation because pupils so easily under-emphasise it.  We intercut our reading with notes on what we’re reading – either to do with the meaning or the morphology of the word.  Remember, this is all done as a parallel text, so the meaning of the words is already clear.

“J’adore fAIre mes devOIrs – my homeworkS, in French, c’est au pluriel, mais évidemment les lettres ‘s’ sont [they all chime in ‘MUETTES!’] – en Écoutant, É-cOU-tan, la lettre ‘t’ est muette, il y a un accent, quel genre d’accent, oui un accent aigu – de la musique – of the music. Mais franchement – franchement, onze lettres, fran-che-ment, the -ment means ‘ly’ in French, like normally, normalement – je prÉfÈre lire – I prefer to read, regardez le mot ‘préfère’, il y a deux accents, quels accents? Oui, un accent aigu et puis un accent grave, it makes a mountain towards the f…”

In this way, reading a short (10-15 lines) passage of text, and repeating the bits they know less well, can take up to ten minutes.  We ask questions while we’re doing it, and get pupils to commentate on the words as well.  They really enjoy putting their hands up to interrupt with observations we might ‘forget’, saying things like “alors, Mademoiselle, évidemment il faut souligner les voyelles AI dans le mot ‘faire’.”

Much of the rest of the speaking in class is done as rapid-fire translation:

Yesterday – Hier – I went – je suis allé – to the stadium – au stade – with my brother – avec mon frère – but unfortunately – mais malheureusement – one must say that – il faut dire que – it was – c’était – rather boring – plutôt ennuyeux – because – parce que – I don’t like – je n’aime pas – to play at foot – jouer au foot. So – Donc – it is rare that I go – il est rare que j’aille – to the stadium – au stade – because I prefer – parce que je préfère – to stay at home – rester chez moi – where I watch the telly – où je regarde la télé – having done my homeworks – ayant fait mes devoirs. Tomorrow – Demain – I’m going to go – je vais aller – to the swimming pool – à la piscine – with my mates – avec mes potes – and it will be great – et ce sera genial – because I love to swim – parce que j’adore nager.

There are hundreds of similar phrases that we construct using regularly recycled, wonderfully rich and varied vocabulary.  Our Year 8 pupils can translate at length on a range of subjects, including language learning itself:

Pour moi, et évidemment c’est un avis personnel, si on veut maîtriser une autre langue, la chose la plus importante, c’est la lecture.  Ça va sans dire.  Mais ça ne vaut pas la peine de lire si on ne réfléchit pas en lisant…

This can go on for several minutes!

As a result, our classrooms are full of pupils speaking French.  Reading out loud, translating beautifully, and giving answers about spellings.  This is a typical exchange with my year 7s:

“Le mot ‘introverti’, comment ça s’écrit (how that itself writes)?  Ikram.”

“I-N-T-R-O-V-E-R-T-I [note: this is spelled using the French alphabet].  Mais Mademoiselle, il faut ajouter la lettre ‘e’ à la fin si c’est féminin.”

“Oui, tu as raison (you have reason, you’re right).  Et comment dit-on ‘me interests’, Alex?”

“Moi, je dirais ‘m’intéresse’”

“Oui, c’est ça. Mais est-ce qu’il y a un accent?  Oui?  Quel genre (what type) d’accent?”

“Bah, Mademoiselle, ça crève les yeux, il y a un accent aigu sur le premier ‘e’.”

We don’t use pictures for anything.  We will have to at some point, in order to enable pupils to respond to the image stimuli in the new writing and speaking exams, but for the moment they use the written and spoken word as their cue.  We don’t play games.  And – this is the bit that might ruffle practitioners elsewhere – the pupils hardly ever speak to one another.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • It’s unnecessary. There is plenty of opportunity to speak in lessons, to practise pronunciation and use all sorts of language, transactional and otherwise.  We also quiz pupils in the yard or at lunchtime – many is the breaktime I’ve sat with a few pupils and listened to them reading and quizzed them on their French.
  • It prevents misapprehension and the reinforcement of mistakes. Two pupils speaking French to each other increases the likelihood of speaking poorly and going uncorrected, or developing bad habits with regard to accents and phonics.  If we can listen to what they’re saying the vast majority of the time, we can reinforce good habits.  This is helped by the fact that 59 minutes of every hour is active teaching time – our slick routines and transitions mean that we have far more time to listen to each pupil read and give answers.
  • If we allow pupils to speak to one another, even for brief periods, the outcomes they get are completely dependent on the individual motivation of the pupils. The vast majority of our pupils would dive into the task with real focus and willingness; the small minority would use the chance to just talk and not engage with the task.  If we give them the chance to do that, we allow them not to make any improvement, or do any practice, in that time. This is unacceptable.  We’re thinking about carefully designed tasks that involve pupils quizzing one another on specific key bits of language, but that’s further down the line.

The results: our pupils speak great French with competence, confidence and superb accents.  They love reading out loud, answering questions, pointing out things about the words and pronunciation throughout the lesson.  They also – of course – love shouting the alphabet as loudly as possible to beat the kids in the opposite classroom.  And they love it when you get to ‘seventy’ in the number chant and they can go ‘soixante-dix’ and adopt a ‘duh!’ face when they’re doing it, remembering the time they thought it might be ‘septante’.  And, importantly, they understand everything they say, which only adds to their sense of mastery.

If you’re reading this with incredulity, I don’t blame you.  What the pupils at Michaela can do is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a classroom.  I’m going to try and sort out some videos to post on the school’s Youtube channel so you can see all this in action.  Of course, the best way to see it in action is to come and visit the school – we love visitors, and the kids love showing off what they can do.  Email me at jlund@mcsbrent.co.uk – we’d be happy to welcome you any time, give you a tour and you can stay for lunch and speak to our lovely pupils.