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Posted on October 4, 2015 by Jessica Lund

Spring Clean

Once in a blue moon, I’m moved to rid myself of the clutter that accumulates over the course of term time.  While I was busy having one of the greatest summers I’ve ever had, the heaps of paper and stationery and books and shoes and so on languished in piles around my room.  The piles became mountains. This morning, as I knocked over a mountain on the way to brush my teeth, I thought it time for a spring clean. Yes, it’s autumn, but hang the orthodoxy.

You know the kind of purge I’m talking about.  Summer clothes are banished to the bottom drawer, items are dragged out for re-heeling/mending/taking to the charity shop, hours pass in a haze of ‘what on EARTH was I thinking?!’ It was a morning of cathartic entertainment.

By mid-afternoon I had filled three bin bags.  Now, while this sounds utterly slovenly on my part – and, to some extent, it is – the contents of those bags were different.  They weren’t bags of clothes or shoes.  They were reams and reams of paper.  Paper that had gathered in my room since September 2013, or the day I started my teacher training.

Since I started my training year, I’ve kept every single sheet.  Every booklet, every inset pack, and every set of notes from the many seminars I attended on the various facets of teaching.  I found ‘outstanding teaching toolkits’, guides to various kinds of lesson, data analysis packs.  Over the course of two years, including my NQT year, I’ve amassed close to 3,000 sheets of paper – resources, lesson plans, training notes, advice, photocopies of god knows what…  I kept it all, in the naïve expectation that, at some point, I might need them.

Today I threw them all away.

I figure that the following is true:

  • If I haven’t revisited this stuff in the last two years, I won’t.
  • If I found it useful, I would have in some way assimilated it into my teaching. If I didn’t, I don’t need it.
  • There may have been a huge amount of wisdom contained in that paper, but nothing compares to the wisdom you gain by seeking advice from good people about real life classroom experiences.

Posted on October 3, 2015 by Katie Ashford

Give him a break

Palmer was a popular lad: square-shouldered, dishevelled, dramatic. An eternal creator of classroom chaos: he and I did not share many positive interactions.

On a typical day, he would wander in late, toss his JD Sports bag onto his desk, slump into his seat, and immediately turn around and chat to his mates. In Palmer’s eyes, reading and writing were unnecessary distractions from his social life, and his disdain for me- a teacher, and therefore the unfortunate embodiment of such hindrances- could be felt in his every scowl and grimace.

In those early months of my teaching career, I was permanently exhausted. I had been warned about the late nights, absurd SLT demands and excessive workload, but nobody had quite managed to express to me the emotional toll of teaching. In the first term, I must have been trying to diffuse around thirty arguments a day. Most people won’t experience that in a year. It was draining. I found myself pleading with children who wouldn’t sit in their seats and sworn at by children who threw things at me. I was ignored when I tried to get the class to be silent; I was laughed at when I tried to sanction them.

Palmer was a frequent sparring partner, and he often pushed me to the limits of my self-control. Any instruction I gave was not only ignored, but sneered at or derided as if I were treating him like a prisoner.

It turned out that Palmer had quite a lot of ‘issues’. I won’t go into them here, because the issues themselves aren’t particularly relevant, but they were profound enough to manifest as they did. I found him difficult to teach, and I’ll admit that a wave of relief would rush through me every time he was absent. He was tough, I couldn’t handle him, and I felt guilty about that. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn’t being sympathetic enough to his needs or trying hard enough to understand them. Perhaps I wasn’t a kind enough person. Perhaps I wasn’t patient enough. Perhaps I was expecting too much. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head, so I made the decision to give him a break. When he was naughty, I would try to understand why he was behaving this way and try to see things from his point of view. When he was rude, I’d remember what was going on in his home life and would calm myself down. When he was bored or angry, I gave him a break from the lesson and let him take a breather outside, as was his wont.

I gave him a lot of breaks. It didn’t work.

I now think that giving kids a break often isn’t the solution. Palmer’s life was an unfortunate mishmash of circumstance and bad luck. Disempowering and inescapable, he chose to shove two fingers up to the world and hide his anger behind a veil of heroic self-confidence. His brashness made him a tricky classroom customer, and his teachers became helpless victims of his every whim. It wasn’t just me who had decided to cut Palmer some slack. All his teachers had, because they were all human. Multiple simultaneous sighs of relief; a collective exhale of expectations. We lowered our standards because it was easier than not lowering them.

Some convinced themselves they gave Palmer a break because he really needed it. They did it because they cared about his welfare. Even I convinced myself that I was letting him get away with all sorts because of I cared about his wellbeing. After all, if a kid has ‘issues’, it would be cruel to expect them to function like a person without issues, wouldn’t it?

But by the end of the year, he had no controlled assessments, was catastrophically under-prepared for his exams, and couldn’t have a normal conversation with an adult without getting into an aggressive altercation of some kind. Was this what ‘care’ really looked like? Was giving Palmer a break really the right prescription?

I have taught too many kids like Palmer, and whilst I still have a lot to learn about building the strongest relationships and providing the best possible support, I am sure about one thing. If you give a kid a break, you reduce your standards for them, and to do so is to allow them to fall to those low standards. We do care, and caring is a thread inseparable from the complex tapestry of teaching. But sometimes, the most caring thing we can do for a child is to raise our standards even higher.

Posted on 27 June, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Let’s create something awesome – part 2!

I am looking for one enthusiastic candidate for each project who could work at Michaela (North West London) from 3rd – 14th August. Expenses would be covered.

You would get fantastic experience producing some really exciting maths curricula and resources, which we would gladly allow you to use in your own school come September.
Design and refine our year 7 curriculum

Once pupils start year 8 at Michaela, we use the Singapore Math secondary curriculum. That means getting year 7 right is really important. We need a curriculum that effectively transitions pupils from wherever they arrive from year 6, to a point where they can benefit from the Singapore curriculum.

You would work on deciding theOPTIMAL sequence and then producing or drawing together resources to make it a reality. You will have access to Singapore primary and secondary maths textbooks and teacher resources. You’ll be working alongside people codifying the knowledge base.

You will have Michaela’s current curriculum, resourceBANK, and assessment system as a launch pad to create something even better.

It’s a great opportunity to learn more about high performing school systems, mastery, and curriculum design. You might even be able to import part of what you see or create to your own school.

Optimise our calculation bootcamp

Getting our kids to nail number is a massive priority of our year 7 curriculum. We want to take our kids to the Shanghai level of confidence with tackling problems like 0.62 x 37.5 + 3.75 x 3.8 without fear.

In 2014/15, I tackled this through gamified drills, tracking, flashcards, number talks and more. In 2015/16, I want to improve, refine and package what we have done so far into a “calculation bootcamp”.

Calculation bootcamp (name open to change!) would be a programme of study covering number facts, written algorithms, and mental strategies for calculation. It would be the programme that would take Michaela pupils from their given starting point to fluent and flexible use of number by the end of year 7.

I envisage a package of diagnostic assessments, graduated flashcard sets, booklets to work through, interleaved practice, drills, number talks, and teacher powerpoints. Even better if we can use design and gamification to make it more appealing.

I already have many of these elements resourced, and plenty of ideas for the rest. Now I want outside inspiration and refinement to bring it all together into something cohesive and replicable.

If you are interested in either of these opportunities, please send a brief email to bisaksen@mcsbrent.co.uk including your current role and which summer project you are interested in. The deadline for applications is Friday 3rd August at 4 pm.

Posted on June 27, 2015 by Katie Ashford

Knowledge is Power

When I began blogging in 2013, the argument that knowledge should be at the heart of the curriculum was readily rejected. The most common counter-argument was that rote learning of lists of facts was a waste of time as it would not lead to ‘deep learning’ (whatever that means) or understanding. Since that time, the debate seems to have shifted somewhat. Fewer people now argue that knowledge is irrelevant. Instead, critics argue that knowledge is just the beginning, or that we should somehow teach knowledge and skills simultaneously, or that a distinction between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy (yawn).

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of knowledge. It’s one of the reasons I joinedMichaela– where our motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’. Although I’ve always believed that a knowledge- rich curriculum could lead to great things, I had never seen it in action until I came to work at this school. Over the past year, I have come to see the impact that knowledge can have on a child’s ability to make interesting connections and links, and to analyse and evaluate ideas. At Michaela, all our children are expected to learn lists of facts by rote. This is still very unusual and there are many out there who criticise us for it.

But time and time again, I have seen the value of learning such lists of facts. Not only do pupils genuinely enjoy knowing loads of stuff, this rote learning has proved to be incredibly useful when they come across new knowledge. They are able to make connections and inferences that someone who lacks such knowledge would simply not be able to make.

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

I was reading through a biography of Percy Shelley with ‘Poseidon’- one of my year 7 classes and my tutor group. Many of the pupils in this class have reading ages far below their chronological age. More than half the class have Special Educational Needs.

On this particular occasion, we were preparing to study Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. In the biography, we came across this piece of information:

Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement that the British Museum was to acquire a large fragment of a 13BC statue of Rameses II from Egypt.”

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

Within seconds, a forest of hands shot up. Slightly baffled, I asked one of the pupils to tell me what was wrong.

“Miss, how could Rameses II be a Pharaoh in 13BC when Egyptian civilisation ended in 31BC? Miss, that doesn’t make sense.”

I was stumped and couldn’t answer for this. It later transpired that there had been a typo in the printed version of the biography. Instead of 13BC, the date should have said 1213BC. Because I lacked knowledge of the date of the end of Egyptian civilisation (which the pupils had learned in Mr Porter’s History lesson), I would never have been able to spot the mistake. In fact, I would have had a completely incorrect understanding of Rameses II and the statue, which was over a thousand years older than I had believed it was.

In this instance, a lack of relevant knowledge rendered me incapable of grasping an accurate understanding of the facts. I consider myself to be a relatively good ‘critical thinker’ (although I’m sure many readers may disagree!), but my ability to think critically was useless in this instance because of the gaps in my knowledge. My pupils, by contrast, had been empowered by their knowledge. Consequently, they were in a far stronger position to critically analyse the text they had been given than I was.

Rote learning is perceived to be a dull, mindless activity that leads to little other than parrot-like recall, but this simply is not the case. On the contrary, mastering lists of important dates is essential for critical thinking to take place.

Posted on 16 June, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Maths teachers. Let’s create something awesome.

Summer project: Codifying the knowledge

Spend two weeks at Michaela, expenses paid, working on our curriculum and resourcing. I’m keen to think deeply about knowledge organisers in maths. What knowledge should we include to cover the whole secondary curriculum? How should it be structured and organised? How can we align our curriculum sequence, resources, and assessment optimally in line with this?

I’m particularly excited to work alongside Bruno Reddy, Kris Boulton and the folks at memriseon this. We want to map out and capture “the knowledge” in maths, from year 1 to year 11. We think memrise might be a great tool to capture it on.

We’ve already got some great people, including a cognitive science expert, working on similar projects in English and Science, being led by Joe Kirby.

Ideally, you would work for a 2 week period starting on 3 August, though the length of time and start date are flexible. There is scope to work from home if travel to Wembley would be inconvenient.

If you like thinking about the curriculum and knowledge in maths, and love talking to keen beans like Joe, Kris, and Bruno about it then this project will be right up your street.

Express an interest here.

Full time teaching post: Catapulting our highest attainers

A little while ago, Simon Singh got in touch with me. He told me he’d been bemoaning the lack of attention given to teaching our highest attainers in STEM for years. Now he wanted to try to do something about it. So we’re giving it our best shot.

We want to take the top 5-10 children from Years 7 and 8 at Michaela and Colin Hegarty’s school, Preston Manor (just round the corner from us), and give them a really special maths education. One that truly stretches them and puts them on the road to Oxbridge STEM. If you think talented young mathematicians deserve something more strategic and long term than a desperate last minute scramble of STEP questions in year 13, this is for you. We want to give these pupils an education like this all the way through from year 7 to sixth form.

We’re looking for a full time teacher to make this a reality. Someone who loves maths (especially the sort of Oxford MAT/Cambridge STEP/UKMT/Olympiad stuff) and can do a brilliant job of teaching and inspiring small groups of keen, high attaining kids to go further than would be possible in a class of 30. QTS is not a necessity.

Interested?

Cross-school collaboration: Brent Maths Network

When I started at Michaela, I had no idea that two of my favourite twitter maths teachers,@hegartymaths and @nicked82 were both less than 5 minute walk from my classroom. And given the 1% rule, I’m sure there are scores more incredible maths teachers that I don’t know yet in the area.

I’m starting a Brent Maths Network for maths teachers in Wembley, Harlesden and surrounding areas to connect; share ideas, concerns, problems and solutions;  and host events like teachmeets.

Our first meeting is a pizza night on the 24th June, hosted at Michaela. Michaela is easy to get to (it’s right by Wembley Park tube) so if you’re a maths teacher in the North West, do come along. And, y’know, free pizza.

If you’d like to come along, follow this link.

Visiting

Maybe none of the above quite works for you, but you’re still interested in what we’re doing at Michaela. We love visitors! Visitors normally arrive late morning to have a tour and see some lessons before joining us for family lunch at 12:30. We have an open door policy, so you can observe lessons as you wish.

If you fancy coming along at some point before the summer holidays, fill out this eventbrite form. If you’d like to ask more questions before committing to a visit, fill out this form.

Posted on 13 June, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

The underrated teacher qualities

These are the underrated teacher qualities.

Reliability. 

Turning up day in, day out. Turning up year in, year out. Getting that thing done for Mrs W that you said you’d get done, even when Mrs W is too sheepish to remind you to do it. Kids knowing what they’ll get when they show up to your door. A calm sense of self assurance. A sense that if you stick with me, I’ll teach you what you need to be wildly successful. A reliable pair of hands trumps jazz hands every time.

Subject nerdery.

Yes, we see subject knowledge on every ticklist out there, but it tends to be ticked off thoughtlessly unless there’s a reason for alarm bells. By subject nerdery, though, I mean being unabashedly in love with the nitty gritty of your subject. Pursuing that love through day-to-day habits. Listening to history podcasts while you iron. Opening your department meetings with a maths problem to solve. Listening to French talk radio while you get ready in the mornings. As well as improving your subject knowledge, the fact you’re dedicating time to learning more about your subject shows the children you genuinely value it as an academic pursuit.

Liking kids.

Wanting to spend time with your charges. Your pupils genuinely bringing you some joy. Yeah, you can fake it, and Lord knows you need to fake it sometimes. But faking it is exhausting. It’s hard for teaching to be your career forever if the faking it is constant. It’s also important for teachers to like kids when they’re their best. I always raise an eyebrow when I hear “oh, I just love the naughty kids” or similar. It’s toxic if pupils get any sense that negative behaviour, which will ultimately hold them back in life, gets them more affection or attention from teachers. Love the quiet kids. Love the beige kids. Love the kids that slog it out day-in-day-out without remarkable results either way.

Explaining clearly. 

Get a reputation for explaining complex things so they seem simple, and you’ll win the respect of all but the toughest kids. No gimmicks required. Explanations are chronically neglected in ITT and CPD. One picks up tidbits from colleagues over time, one might stumble across techniques like economy of language, but it’s too rare, too unsystematic, too arbitrary. I suspect we’d need to worry less about the CPD biggies of AfL, differentiation, and engagement strategies, if we just spent a little more energy on strengthening our explanations so more children understood more of what was going on in the first place.

This isn’t novel or new. Ask people about their favourite teacher from their own school days and I suspect they’d embody many of these traits. How sad that gimmicks, vested interests, bad research, dodgy CPD, managerialism, and observation culture has made use lose sight of these simple truths.

Posted on June 6, 2015

Butterfly                    Hornet

When teachers were asked about workload, 44,000 responded. Teachers work 50-to-60 hour weeks, often starting at 7am, often leaving after 6pm, and often working weekends. Some 90% of teachers have considered giving up teaching because of excessive workload, and 40% leave the profession within 5 years. There are teachers out there working 90 hour weeks.

For a school, there are great benefits to leading the way on reducing workload. Teachers who aren’t exhausted teach better. We contribute more over a longer time period. We are far happier to invest time in building trusting, caring, affirming relationships with children. We stay calmer in difficult confrontations, and are less likely to be short-tempered in everyday interactions. We support and encourage each other better. New teachers improve faster, veteran teachers stay longer, and everyone works smarter. A school that pioneers healthy work-life balance is more likely to attract teachers to join – and little matters more in a school than recruiting and retaining good people.

As a school leader, it’s worth asking: “what do you want teachers to say about the school when they’re with friends and family?”

In the school I work in, what I’d most like teachers to say is this: “We work smart. We focus only on what most improves learning. We stop ourselves from doing some good things, so we can put first things first.” 

What it takes to reduce workload is a shift in the mindset and culture of school leaders and teachers.

You won’t spend very long at Michaela without hearing teachers mentioning hornets or butterflies. I first borrowed the analogy in 2012 from Sir Tim Brighouse, who said that hornets are high-effort, low-impact ideas, and butterflies are low-effort, high-impact ideas. Barry Smith has advised teachers for years to think about ‘learning return on time invested’. Since then it has become a part of our everyday chat at Michaela.

EffortImpact

We can view everything we do at school through this lens. The idea is to get rid of the biggest hornets and search for the hidden butterflies.

Seeking out Hornets As senior team, we think ferociously hard about every decision through the lens of the impact-to-effort ratio. We encourage all middle leaders and teachers to do the same in their own arenas. Here’s what we’ve decided not to do:

  • No graded or high-stakes observations
  • No performance-related pay or divisive bonuses
  • No appraisal targets based on pupil data
  • No individual lesson plans at all
  • No expectation of all-singing, all-dancing lessons
  • No starters, plenaries, group work, attention grabbers, whizzy/jazzy nonsense
  • No cardsorts, discovery activities or flashy interactive whiteboards
  • No writing, sharing or copying learning objectives or outcomes
  • No extensive photocopying of worksheets
  • No shoe-horning of IT into lessons
  • No mini-plenaries or checks on progress within a lesson
  • No labour-intensive homework collection, marking or chasing up
  • No unnecessary manual data input or entry
  • No unnecessary paperwork
  • No labour-intensive written ‘dialogue’ marking
  • No time-wasting, temporary display
  • No split timetabling
  • No long-winded written reports to parents

It’s such a relief not to have to do any of these things and be free to focus on what matters most: our subjects and our pupils.

Searching for Butterflies

Resourcing

Knowledge organisers are the ultimate renewable resource: they can be used by every future year-group and every teacher who teaches them. A knowledge curriculum, teacher-led instruction and strong textbooks reduce workload by eschewing differentiated or personalised resourcing. I’ll write about this idea of renewable resourcing in another post.  

Homework

We replace the hornet of setting, chasing, checking, marking and logging homework withrevision, reading and online Maths – three of the most beautiful butterflies out there.  

Marking

Written marking is the ultimate non-renewable resource. By contrast, multiple-choice questions and icons are butterflies. I’ll write about our feedback approach and minimalist marking in another post.  

Two-Week Half-Term

Teaching teenagers full-time is an exhausting job in itself. The simple decision to have a two-week Autumn half-term has a powerful impact on staff energy in the longest term of the year.

Display

We replace the hornet of transient, temporary display with the butterfly of permanent, enduring display.  

Reports

We replace the hornet of highly labour-intensive written parental reports with online access to subject, behaviour and attendance data so parents can see online anywhere, any time, how their pupil is doing.

WorkloadImpact

If you are blind to the hornets in your school, you are allowing your teachers to get stung. Hidden butterflies improve learning and reduce workload, burnout and turnover. At Michaela, we are just getting started, and we are confident that there are many more butterflies to find.

Posted on 2 June, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Motivation is muddier than intrinsic versus extrinsic

I am highly motivated to go spinning. I tend to enjoy it during; I’m always really proud of myself after; and I’m very driven by my end goal of getting fitter. I’m showing up of my own free will, in my evenings when I could be doing any manner of other things. I could walk out at any time with no sanction. I could turn down the resistance to low and give myself an easy ride. I don’t. I want to be there, I want to work hard.

With all that, you might think the behaviour of the instructor would make little difference to how hard I work. But I’ve been amazed at how little things the instructor does can change so much.

The fact is, no matter how much you want it, when it’s hard-going and you’re huffing and puffing, your genuine desire to succeed isn’t enough. Your willpower depletes. You forget why you’re there. So what is it that makes the difference in that moment between walking out and staying the course? What does my favourite instructor, Melvin, do that the others don’t quite manage, to make me turn up the resistance even when I’m really feeling that lactic acid?

Passion: The absolute number one factor that makes the difference between a great class and a mediocre one is the enthusiasm of the instructor. You can feel the passion for fitness and – this is crucial – for getting other people fitter oozing out of some instructors. It makes a world of difference.

What I’ve learnt: let everything I do and say scream how much I care about the kids I teach, how much I love and value maths, and how deeply I want them to succeed.

Care: When you feel like the instructor genuinely wants you to succeed, get fitter, and meet your goals, the experience is transformed. It means they can get away with pushing you harder. They can be harsh to the point of shouting at you, chasing you back into the room if you try to walk out. You want to come back next week to show them you’re a success.

What I’ve learnt: make it obvious that whenever I do something to make their life harder, it’s to help them.

Belief: The best instructors know you’re capable of more than you think. Melvin will come round and turn up your resistance when you think you can’t move your legs any more. You should hate this, but you don’t. You’re just so proud that Melvin thinks you’re capable of more.

What I’ve learnt: have belief in the kids over and above the belief they have in themselves.

Realism: High expectations need to be tempered with realism, though. One instructor would always just say “turn your resistance up to the highest” and will go full pelt for 10 minutes. It’s just unrealistic. He’s not checking that you do it. It just makes me not listen to what he says and set the resistance my way.

What I’ve learnt: get to know the kids well enough that you can tell when they’re pushing themselves; push each kid to their own limit; don’t make blanket unrealistic statements.

Following through: Lots of instructors will tell you to stand up and sprint. If half the room doesn’t, they don’t actually do anything about it. The message that comes across seems to be “I’m here, getting paid either way, they’re the customer, they know what’s best for them, I don’t really care”. The best ones actually follow through. They’ll approach those who aren’t doing it, and work with them till they do.

What I’ve learnt: if you ask for something, expect it and check they do it; for this reason, make sure your expectations are reasonable! Again, know each child and what they can do.

Hard to please: I love an instructor who is difficult to impress. It makes me work so much harder to get their approval. When I do get a fist bump or a high five from them, I am ecstatic. When they turn my resistance up I’m so proud that they think I’m capable of more.

What I’ve learnt: make praise genuine and authentic; use lots of methods other than praise to maintain a positive climate so that praise can be kept rare enough to be meaningful.

Circulation: I like an instructor who circulates the room. It feels more personal. Little things like a thumbs up. Chanting “one two forward back” at you until you get the rhythm right. It’s not that the instructor has any authority over me: if he notices me not trying my hardest, he can’t put me in detention. Yet the mere presence makes you push yourself that bit harder.

What I’ve learnt: circulate; encourage and challenge as I go; adjust tasks upwards and downwards as necessary.

Peer effects: The work ethic of those around you has a big impact on your own. If two girls are casually sat down, cycling, having a chat, it’s really hard to get in the zone and drive yourself hard. If one person walks out, it’s so much more tempting to follow them out the door. It’s why I really appreciate the instructors who don’t let that stuff happen.

What I’ve learnt: don’t tolerate one pupil ruining the learning environment for others; cultivate a studious classroom culture; engineer a state of flow.

If an exercise class with willing adults can be this complex, this must only be scraping the surface of motivation in the classroom. I’m convinced the principles of showing you care, knowing your kids, and pushing them further than they believed was possible are entirely transferable from a sweaty spinning studio to a studious maths classroom.

Posted on May 29, 2015 by Katie Ashford

One Hundred Classics for Every Child

“Miss! I learnt about the Blue Carbunceruncle, Miss!” The excited shriek comes from a tiny, wide-eyed boy in my tutor group. The knot of his tie is inexplicable; his folder bulges out from under his skinny little arm; the Velcro on one of his shoes is stuck to his trousers. He pauses briefly and looks up, beaming and panting slightly after his hasty trot up the stairs.

I can’t help but grin back. “Oh! You’ve discovered the secret of the Blue Carbuncle, have you? Quite the Detective!” I reply. My voice is filled with genuine glee as I emphasise the correct pronunciation of what is – to be fair- a surprising and confounding word at first greeting. My response is animated, possibly a touch over-egged, but I’m enjoying myself and am getting swept away by the enthusiasm, so I keep going with it.

“Yes, Miss!” He offers a bashful grin and giggle, wipes his nose on the cuff of his shirt, and turns and walks to his desk.

A hand shoots up from the front row. It’s a tall girl with a pristine shirt and ponytails. Her pens, ruler and exercise book are already laid out perfectly on her desk.

“It was hidden inside the duck, Miss!” she yelps.

Another hand “Miss, ‘ow do you say that word of that blue thing, Miss?”

“Mr. Holmes is so clever, Miss!”

“He’s sick, Miss!”

Two days before, I presented my after-school Reading Club kids with the newest addition to our repertoire. We’d already ripped through abridgements of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, among others. I’d been savingSherlock for a while. I wasn’t sure if they’d get into it, to be completely honest. I wasn’t sure if the stories might be a bit too obscure and complicated. But fortunately, my instincts were spectacularly incorrect. Contrary to my predictions, Holmes was quite the hit. They couldn’t get enough of him and his sharp-witted, crime-solving ways. I’m pretty sure that two or three kids have decided they want to become detectives since reading about the famous sleuth. I’m sure the HR department at the Metropolitan Police will be delighted.

Reading Club is the highlight of my day. At 4pm, the bell goes and I open my classroom door. Fifteen smiling faces wait in the corridor, books clasped in their clammy paws and a thousand questions on their lips.

“Is Esmeralda going to die, Miss?”

“Does Shmuel go back to Berlin with Bruno, Miss?”

“Was it the monster that did it, Miss?”

“Can I read first, Miss?”

We settle in to our current tome after a quick recap of what we read the day before. We take it in turns to read sections aloud and we discuss what we’ve read. That’s it. We read. We enjoy it. We talk about it. It’s not complicated at all.

I’ve written before about how to get kids reading. I should note that all the kids in Reading Club can decode well enough to access texts aimed at 11 year-olds. The content andvocabulary may be challenging in places, but that’s the beauty of reading in a group with an adult: I can do my teacher thing and support them through the tricky bits.

Katharine, our Headmistress, regularly pops in to Reading Club to see what’s happening (and to soak up its general awesomeness, of course). She is unbelievably supportive and champions reading around the school. We were chatting about our whole-school reading strategy recently when she pointed out that our weakest readers are now the kids that have read the most classic novels. We have a lovely school library, and all pupils have been reading plenty from there. This is, of course, wonderful, and I’m never going to tell a child they can’t read something if they really want to read it, but there are lots of books that they may fall in love with, but might never pick up off the shelf. Let’s be honest: if you were eleven, would you rather read The Diary of A Wimpy Kid or Wuthering Heights?

Whether you’re a Wutherer or a Wimp, it’s important to be exposed to as broad a range of texts as possible. Additionally, there is something fabulous about having read and engaged with the classics. They are the books that have shaped our society and have influenced our collective thinking throughout the ages. Not only should we want to keep the flame of these favourites alive, we should want to empower all children with the cultural knowledge these stories bring.

Inspired by Reading Club, therefore, we have recently introduced a new reading goal for every child. Over five years, every single Michaela pupil will read at least 100 classic novels during tutor time. Some of these will be abridgements, but many won’t be. This does not include any subject lesson reading or independent reading. Many kids, therefore, will read a lot more than this. But the absolute minimum entitlement for every kid is 100 books. Why should we settle for any less?

How the programme works 

  1. All pupils read the same book every day during tutor time. Every child has a copy. The tutor reads along with the pupils and will read aloud occasionally, too. (We buy one class set of each text and rotate. Expensive: yes. WHAT ELSE IS WORTH SPENDING THE MONEY ON?!??!?)
  2. All pupils take their copy home each evening and read the next section.
  3. The next day, the tutor gives the class a multiple choice question based on what they read the night before. These are created centrally and provided to the tutor on a PowerPoint.
  4. Pupils may read ahead or re-read sections if they wish.
  5. Pupils are expected to carry their own book from the library, which they are welcome to read at their leisure after class-reading time is finished. This equates to about twenty minutes a day.

At this rate, we get through one short book every two or three weeks. Some longer novels can take anywhere up to about seven or eight weeks. In future years, when they are in the habit of reading at home, they’ll read longer sections independently so they can get through weightier tomes in less time.

If you are keen to learn more, here is the briefing document I wrote for tutors, which outlines the strategy in more detail: New Reading Strategy Tutors

Here is an example PowerPoint with multiple choice questions for tutors: Dracula PowerPoint

*Note: ‘Blue’ is the name of our in-house ICT system, which we use to create and assign multiple choice quizzes.