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Remember like an elephant

I’ve always loved mnemonics. One of the first ones I learned was for the points of the compass, clockwise: Naughty Elephants Squirt Water. Why does it work so well to help young children remember? I think it’s because it’s simple, not overloading, but rather chunking four pieces of information into one unit of meaning, a meaningful sentence, which is also a vivid, memorable mental image; it is also sequential, with the order of letters and words reflecting the order of compass points, helping us remember the difference between East and West, which are often and easily confused by children.

 

A demo

I saw my colleague Jess Lund teaching a lesson on psychology recently. She shared a demonstration on memory. Try this simplified version of it. There are three buckets of words to remember. Take 60 seconds to try to revise each one, ready to reproduce them within 60 seconds:

Bucket 1: tree market happiness box window apple love road book hat

Bucket 2: fox hen burger steak love conflict bed pillow computer phone

Bucket 3: arrow ball crow dice effort fall gate hero injustice jumper

Which buckets were easier to remember? Once we see the pattern of bucket 2, pairs, or the pattern of bucket 3, alphabetical order, these give us ways to recall remembered information: cues. The reasons that bucket 2 is easier than bucket 1 is because of organisation, and that bucket 3 tends to be easiest is because of unique cues (first letters sequenced in alphabetical order).

What we can learn from this demo is that if we want our pupils to remember what they’re learning, it might be advantageous if we can organise subject material and give them distinctive cues for recall.

 

Acrostic Mnemonics

Some of my favourite type of mnemonics are acrostic mnemonics. Naughty Elephants Squirt Water is just one example. Here are 20 or more others that are useful for learning subjects, some of which I still remember being taught in school to this day, for remembering tricky subject knowledge:

1. Living Organisms

Mrs Gren: move, respire, sense, grow, reproduce, excrete and require nutrition.

2. Trigonometry

SohCahToa: sine opposite hypotenuse; cosine adjacent hypotenuse; tan opposite adjacent

3. Mathematical order of operations

BIDMAS: brackets indices division multiplication addition subtraction

4. Long Division in Mathematics

Does Macdonalds sell burgers? Divide, multiply, subtract, bring down (via Philip Roddy)

5. Seven continents

Always Eat An Apple, Says Aunt Nora: Asia Europe Africa Australasia South America Antarctica North America

6. Order of Planets

My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets: Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto

7. Colours of a Rainbow

Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain: Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet

8. Scientific Classification

King Phillip Can Order Five Good Soups: Kingdom Phylla Class Order Family Genus Species

9. Five Kinds of Vertebrates

FARM B: Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles, Mammals, Birds

10. Scientific Conversion

Oil Rig: oxidation is losing electrons, reduction is gaining electrons

11. Natural Selection in Biology

VC Baspog: variation, competition, best adapted survive, pass on genes (via Damian Benney)

12. Coordinating Conjunctions in Grammar

Fanboys: for and nor but or yet so

13. Order of Greek Philosophers

Spa: Socrates Plato Aristotle

14. Five Pillars of Islam

French People Can’t Forget Paris: Fasting Prayer Charity Faith Pilgrimage

15. Five Prophets

I just love every day: Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations Ezekiel Daniel

16. First Five Old Testament Books

God’s Eternal Love Never Dies: Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy

17. Musical Notation

Every Girl Born Deserves Freedom: EGBDF keys

18. French past tense verbs conjugated with etre not avoir

Dr Mrs Vandertramp:

devenir, revenir

monter, rester, sortir,

venir, aller, naitre, descendre, entrer, rentrer, tomber, retourner, arriver, mourir, partir

19. Tricky Spellings

Beautiful: big elephants are under trees in forests until light

Rhythm: rhythm helps your two hips move

Mnemonics: Mnemonics Now Erase Mankind’s Oldest Nemesis, Insufficient Cerebral Storage!

20. Psychology: Four Lobes of the Brain

Freud Tells Parents Off: Frontal, Temporal, Parietal, Occipital. (via Kate Barry)

21. Medicine: Twelve Cranial Nerves

On Old Olympus’ Towering Tops, A Finn And German Viewed Some Hops: optic, olfactory, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory, glossopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory, and hypoglossal nerves.

22. Historical Dates: Rhyme Mnemonics

There are also rhyme mnemonics for historical dates, such as:

In 1492, Columbus sailed the oceans blue.

 

What can we learn from these 20+ mnemonics? How exactly do they help us remember? They are simple; they chunk down complex, overloading or forgettable knowledge and they make it memorable, cheating the limitations of our working memories; they give us a way of self-checking that we have remembered all the content, and in the right order.

In almost every area of human knowledge, mnemonics are useful – from mathematics, science, geography, music, religion, history, literature, philosophy and languages, including complex processes like trigonometry, to spelling, grammar, and medicine, as the examples above show – because they work with the human cognitive architecture that we all have in common.

 

So, if we want to make our own mnemonics, useful our own subjects, here are some ways we could start.

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Example of Making a New Mnemonic: Seven Deadly Sins

Here is an example of a mnemonic we have created in our English department. We were trying to come up with ways for our pupils to remember what all the 7 deadly sins from Medieval England were. The number is just beyond the limits of working memory, so both children and teachers were finding it hard to remember all seven reliably. I came up with the faintly ludicrous mnemonic GP WEASL (Gluttony Pride Wrath Envy Avarice Sloth Lust): imagine an eccentric Austrian doctor, perhaps! My colleague Sarah went one better and came up with a more easily memorable image:

Wasp Leg: Wrath Avarice Sloth Pride; Lust Envy Gluttony.

We really liked it because it’s a vivid image, chunked into one meaningful phrase. It has helped both teachers and pupils to recall what the 7 deadly sins are, which is useful when reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the morality plays like Everyman and much subsequent English literature.

 

Another simple one we came up with in Science was a way to remember the answer to the question: why wasn’t Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection accepted after the 1859 publication of ‘On The Origin Of Species’?

GEM: God (19th century Victorians believed in divine, biblical creation); Evidence (there was insufficient evidence through fossils); Mechanism (genetics as a science didn’t yet exist).

 

I’m an English teacher, and so from here on I’m going to stick to English examples. But you could apply this process for making mnemonics to any subject.

 

Spelling Mnemonics

In English, two of the areas that mnemonics hold most potential in are spellings and quotations. Spellings in English are often irregular and tricky to remember.

How to remember that responsible (unlike accountable) ends with –ible not –able? Words like appear, necessary, tomorrow, repetition and successful have tricky, forgettable combinations. I still have to write rhyme slowly in case I misspell it and confuse it with rhythm! Here are 10 mnemonics that help kids remember how to spell 10 frequently misspelled words:

 

  1. fascinating: science is fascinating
  2. repetition: repeated letters are ETI in r-Ep-ETITI-on.
  3. suspense: suspense has 3 ‘s’ letters, like the dot dot dot of a cliffhanger . . .
  4. responsible: I am responsIble for my fate.
  5. rhyme: rhyme helps your mate educate.
  6. appear: Peter Pan appears, then disappears.
  7. necessary: it’s necessary for a shirt to have 1 collar, 2 sleeves: 1 c, then 2 s’s
  8. tomorrow: will we go with Tom or Row tomorrow?
  9. successful: Cheryl Cole and Steven Spielberg are both successful.
  10. embarrassing: It’s embarrassing when we blush ruby red and feel like an ass.

 

What these mnemonics have in common is encoding a memorable way to remember the trickiest part of difficult spellings. Building up a bank of spelling mnemonics and teaching them explicitly is something we are embarking on at Michaela.

 

Quotation Mnemonics

We also want to prepare our pupils for GCSE literature exams and English essays where the questions are unseen before the assessment. They need to know many quotations off by heart in order to succeed. Mnemonics are a great way of remembering trigger words for quotations. For instance, we want pupils (and teachers!) to remember these quotations from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, starting with the main character.

  1. “Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.”
  2. “He’s here in double trust; first, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed.”
  3. “Vaulting ambition only overleaps itself.”
  4. “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?”
  5. “Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell that summons you to heaven or to hell.”
  6. “A voice cried ‘sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!’”
  7. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”
  8. “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go over.”
  9. “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow
  10. “I bear a charmed life, which will not yield to one of woman born.”

An approach we’ve found successful is to choose a striking ‘trigger word’ that can be remembered in order of the plot of the play. For instance:

  1. Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.”
  2. “He’s here in double trust; first, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed.”
  3. “Vaulting ambition only overleaps itself.”
  4. “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?”
  5. Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell that summons you to heaven or to hell.”
  6. “A voice cried ‘sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!’”
  7. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”
  8. “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go over.”
  9. “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow
  10. “I bear a charmed life, which will not yield to one of woman born.”

10 Trigger Cues for Macbeth Quotations

Stars, trust, ambition, dagger, hear, sleep, neptune, blood, candle, charmed.

Ten words are easier to remember than ten quotations! It is then easy to set practice tasks such as: write out the 10 trigger words for your Macbeth quotations from memory, and pupils write: stars, trust, ambition, dagger, hear, sleep, neptune, blood, candle, charmed. We could go one step further and link them into a vivid phrase: “Stars trust ambitious daggers, hearing sleepy nightmares of bloody candle charms.” Ten quotations into one chunk in long-term memory. Practice exercises to recall the quotations using the mnemonic is then what is required for pupils to remember them during the essay. Some wrote ‘s t a d h s n b c c’ in the margin of their essays to aid recall under time pressure, mid-flow!

We plan to use these mnemonics for GCSE English Literature across the 3 texts (a Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel and a modern text), so that our pupils have the strongest foundation for answering any essay question that could come up.

In our curriculum, our pupils now have this shared memory bank across subjects that they can draw on, which helps them to remember the mnemonics we are collectively learning.

Mnemonics are fantastically useful and versatile in teaching. Given what we know about how memory works, through encoding, storage and retrieval, and the interaction between limited working memory and almost unlimited long-term memory, the main limit to making mnemonics useful is our own imagination as teachers.

 

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For those who are interested, there is a sound foundation of over 60 years of scientific research into mnemonics:

Miller, 1956: Limits on our capacity for processing information

“Recoding is an extremely powerful weapon for increasing the amount of information that we can deal with. In one form or another we use recoding constantly in our daily behaviour.”

Bellezza, 1996: Mnemonic Methods to Enhance Storage and Retrieval

“The study of mnemonic devices can make important contributions to the study of human memory and learning. Teachers must learn how to activate appropriate information in the memories of their students by using specially designed mnemonics to develop useful knowledge structures. Current research provides reasons to be optimistic.” 

Levin, 2004: Mnemonics boost recall

“In all experiments, mnemonic keyword students (whether individual, paired, or small group) outperformed their counterparts.”

Worthen, 2010: Mnemonology: Mnemonics for the 21st century

Encoding Processes are Fundamental to Mnemonic Success

“Research has established that the joint operation of organisation and elaboration, herein referred to as distinctive processing, enhances memory retention beyond the operation of either alone.”

Ornstein at al, 2010: Teachers’ Mnemonic Instruction and Children’s Memory Skills

In longitudinal classroom research, researchers found that although memory demands in school are high, explicit instruction in specific strategies for remembering is low. Students taught by high mnemonic teachers outperformed those taught by low mnemonic teachers over one year and two year periods.

Visiting Michaela

When I first visited Michaela, it was in July of 2015. What I saw on that day changed my view of education forever. I left the school in a daze, both dazzled by what was possible. Many of our recent recruits tell a similar story. Some applied for a post on a whim, not really sure what our school was about. The visit changed everything. Reading about our school is great. Seeing it in action is something else.

My visit proved the catalyst for my involvement with the Michaela project. Today, I still feel a little starstruck when I walk into Katharine’s office, or watch Olivia Dyer teaching, or hear Katie Ashford speaking. I feel so lucky and so proud to work at Michaela.

At our event in November to launch our book, people had come to us from so far away. Their joy was palpable, as they came up to various Michaela teachers. ‘We’ve been up since 5am! We’ve read so much! We’re so excited to be here!’ was something I heard so often, I had to pinch myself. I am so lucky to work at Michaela.

On Twitter we have said to people: ‘don’t believe us? Come and visit!’

And they do. We’ve had to organise new systems to deal with the massive influx of visitors. And we didn’t mind that, because so many people came, saw, and took back ideas and methods to use in their own schools. Countless visitors sent us glowing letters of thanks, praising our lovely school and, in particular, our lovely children. We framed the letters, and read them out in assemblies. The children glowed with pride: they felt so lucky, and so proud, of our school. And we were happy to spend the time to spread the ‘good word.’ Our pupils were so proud to show guests around, and explain everything they knew about their school.

Now, not all visitors were respectful. We’ve had visitors cancel at the last minute – the day before, or on the day, causing untold difficulties with the administration at our end. We’ve had visitors turn up with seven of their colleagues unannounced, expecting it wouldn’t matter how many of them there were. We’ve had visitors make dietary requests at lunch, as if we were a restaurant and not a school. We’ve had visitors become annoyed because their specified date or time was not available. We’ve had visitors email on Sundays, following up their Saturday email, asking why no one has got back to them yet, as if we were a business, and an eternally open one at that. We’ve had visitors demand to speak to various Heads of Department or Deputy Heads, as if those people didn’t have a school to run.

None of these demands are quite as disrespectful as what some visitors to our school have done. We have had visitors take away lesson materials, even out of pupils’ books. We have had visitors rifle around a teacher’s desk; even her drawers. Visitors have frequently interrupted a teacher while they are teaching, sometimes only to ask where the toilets are. We have had visitors filming our lessons without permission, or taking photographs of our children. We have had guests asking children what set they are in, even after being explicitly told to not mention setting to our pupils as we do not share this information with them. We have had visitors talk loudly to pupils who are desperately trying to concentrate on their silent practice, or their teacher’s instruction. We have had visitors hide in the toilets, making long phone calls, while their guides stood waiting for them, unsure of what to do when the guest asked for an extension on their thirty minute tour afterwards. We have had visitors talk to each other, loudly, in the back of the classroom, disturbing the learning of our children.

 So we have had to chase visitors down to delete images or wrestle our materials from them, and start reminding people before they visit of the etiquette of a school, and begin emailing out our prospective visitors with guidelines of how to behave, and what to do and what not to do.

And then there was worse. Much worse.

More recently, we have had hostile visitors. People who have come to our lovely school, only to look for what is wrong with it. Some have written blogs and Tweets, deliberately misrepresenting our school, and containing factual inaccuracies of things they have not understood, but have not bothered to ask for more information about. Visitors who have come with an agenda to destroy, not caring about who they are hurting in the process: the children.

We have had guests aggressively questioning the children taking them around – year 7, year 8, year 9 pupils. People, teachers, who have bombarded our children with leading questions, perplexing them and upsetting them: ‘aren’t the lessons boring? Do you hate this school? Do you think your teachers are too controlling? Do you feel oppressed? Isn’t this school much too strict?’ One visitor told a pupil over lunch: ‘your teachers aren’t teaching you Science properly. There is a much better way to do it,’ and proceeded to explain he could teach him science using football.

This week, over lunch, one of our pupils in our lowest attaining group, who is also a guide for visitors, sat with our Headmistress. Deeply shaken, she said: ‘Miss. They say our school is bad. I don’t know what to say to them. I love our school.’ She did not want to be rude to the guests, but she did not know what to say. Katharine, who had before wanted to open our school to those who wished to learn, began to question the wisdom of our approach.

Our concerns reached their apex this week, when one visitor, a non-teacher, raised a safeguarding concern with our Headmistress about the aggression the pupil guides were enduring from another visitor, a teacher, who was on the same tour. And of course, we take safeguarding concerns very seriously.

So it is with great sadness that we are closing our doors to guests for the moment. Although parents of pupils attending our school are always welcome at any time, we need to protect our children. We need to focus on educating them, and keeping them safe. We opened our doors to guests so we could share the love and the joy of what is happening here. Instead, our children have been compromised by the political blindness of some of our guests, who haven’t come to have their minds opened, but have instead come seeking confirmation of their prejudices, and have put vulnerable children at risk in order to do this.

We will still share through blogs, through Twitter, through images and videos we take, what we are doing at Michaela. And in the meantime, we will try to find a way that we can have visitors in without putting our children at risk. We do want to keep our doors open to teachers who are genuinely interested in what we are doing. The difficulty is distinguishing between those guests, and those who are putting our children at risk. We hope to have found a solution to this in early 2017.

You Turn Me Right Round

This is just about some ideas for angles we’ve been using in the department.

Polygons: angles as turn

We’ve been trying to demonstrate to the pupils what it actually means to say the sum of the angles in a triangle is 180 degrees. On a straight line it is easy to demonstrate the half-turn, and remain faithful to the idea that angles are a measure of turn.

I find that the activity of tearing the corners from a triangle and arranging them on a line doesn’t seem to stick. I suspect it also reinforces the idea of a line more than the idea of a half-turn.

Using a board pen or, in my case, a small toy bird, we’ve tried this instead. Because it is small-scale, I’ve used an anthropomorphised key…

It starts facing forward. At each vertex, it turns. Upon returning to its original position, it is facing the opposite direction. It has completed a half turn🙂

It then extends nicely to quadrilaterals (it is facing the same way), then pentagons (a turn and a half – facing backwards) and so on. It allows the pupils to see that not only does the number of triangles increase (the standard and much-loved way of showing progression in polygons), but also that each time they increase by a half-turn.

Vertically opposite angles

We were finding it tricky to help pupils spot vertically opposite angle when there were more than two intersecting lines. One pupil* suggested that they position their rulers to rotate around the point of intersection, turning to hide the one being focused on. The one that is revealed has the same turn, so must be equal. They are the vertically opposite angles. Here are two examples of her suggestion:

It is obviously easier if a finger is placed at the point of intersection, as it is easier for the ruler to rotate. The limits of one-handed camera phone filming!

Lastly, another pupil had a good suggestion to help with spotting vertically opposite angles. If each separate line segment is highlighted (and there are no non-straight lines!), then the ones ‘trapped’ between the same colour-pair will be vertically opposite to each other:

vertically-opposite-highlighting

This works better than just giving highlighters, as the additional rule of ‘trapped between the same colours’ gives them a little more to hang onto!

If you have tips to make it easier to spot alternate angles than ‘a Z shape’…please tell me!

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(I’ve partly made a fuss of this way of modelling because the pupil is a solid fourth quartile kid. It’s been really exciting to hear her come up with her own ideas for demonstrating what she understands. I plan on showing her this video tomorrow)

 

 

No Excuses: High Standards, High Support

highstanardshighsupport

Our school, Michaela, has very, very high standards. We expect every pupil to arrive at school on time every day, and we expect 100% attendance. We expect every pupil to arrive in school fully equipped for learning. We expect every pupil to have completed all their homework, and to a high quality, every single evening. We expect every pupil to behave politely, responsibly and kindly around school, in lessons, breaks, lunch and outside school. We expect every pupil to move swiftly and in single file lines between lessons, so that children are hardly ever late to lessons. We expect every pupil to greet teachers and guests with eye contact and a polite, cheerful, ‘morning, sir!’ ‘afternoon, miss!’

 

We also have a culture of full responsibility for choices, mistakes, setbacks and habits, with no excuses. We believe responsibility is incredibly empowering, and that excuses are disempowering. When pupils try to come up with excuses and deflect responsibility for not bringing their equipment, for not bringing their homework, for distracting others in lessons or for reacting negatively to their teachers, they inhibit themselves from improving. When they take the tough choice to ask – ‘what could I have done differently?’ – they improve faster and feel happier. It also reduces other pupils’ time in lessons being taken up on teachers handing out pens to those who have forgotten them, or on confrontations about one individual’s behaviour when the other 31 pupils in the class would be better focused on learning than on watching an argument.

 

We set detentions for lots of reasons: for arriving 1 minute late to school or more; for not bringing in the daily homework; for homework that is incomplete, badly inaccurate or dreadfully scrappy; for not having the right equipment (for example, not having a library book; not having a pen; not having a pencil case; not having a ruler [because we read in almost every lesson using rulers for visible accountability]); for reacting badly to a teacher’s instruction or demerit, such as sulking, tutting or rolling eyes. We would give a detention for persistently turning round in class after a teacher has reminded the pupil not to do so.

 

Detentions aren’t barbaric. Ours are 20 minutes during lunchbreak or after school, and pupils do not write out lines repeatedly or copy out reflection letters, but instead self-quiz using their knowledge organisers in a subject and topic of their choice to revise what they’re learning in lessons.

 

Detentions are clear consequences and helpful reminders to improve. They signal to kids what the school and wider society values: responsibility, punctuality, politeness. Their certainty and consistency is far more important than their severity. It is absolutely certain in our kids’ minds that if they are late, lazy or rude, they lose the privilege of playing tabletennis or basketball in lunchbreak, or going home with their friends at 4pm. The instantaneity of lunch and afterschool detentions means that pupils can more easily remember why they incurred the detention, so that they haven’t forgotten the reason for it the next day some 24 hours (or more) later. It is kinder to give pupils the clear message through a detention that rudeness is not permitted, that respectful interactions are expected, than to permit and thereby promote rudeness or slackness that may damage their chances in life in the future.

 

No excuses does not mean no legitimate reasons given, ever. We minimise unnecessary exceptions so as not to create moral hazard and norm contagion: if there are inconsistencies between teachers or too many exceptions being offered, more and more pupils begin to wonder why they should have to arrive prepared or work hard in lessons or at school if others do not. If a school is too permissive, allowing too many exceptions, it risks creating helplessness, selfishness or dependence in its pupils rather than responsibility, consideration and agency. If a school reduces its standards for poorer pupils because of their poverty or difficult home life, it does them a disservice; frankly, it doesn’t believe in them enough. Schools in the responsibility paradigm empower every child, even the most disadvantaged, even those with the most traumatic pasts, to overcome their difficulties and change their life chances.

 

It is vital to distinguish between excuses and reasons. For instance, at Michaela, if a parent writes a note to explain that their child was in A&E for the entire evening, but has managed to attend school, we see that as a legitimate reason, and we do not give them a detention for incomplete homework. Otherwise parents may not have them attend at all that day, and they’d miss 8 hours of school! Other examples of humane decisions (that are the same for all children in these circumstances) are:

 

A child has broken his or her leg or has some other severe physical injury, and cannot walk swiftly in the corridors – they are of course allowed to leave the lesson five minutes early and take the lift.

 

A child has lost their bag on the way to school – instead of incurring several detentions, they are provided with a pencil case and equipment for the day. This has happened once in two and a half years, partly because it has become a collective norm to arrive prepared, and partly because we have taught pupils to check and double-check their belongings when they leave the house and leave the bus or train.

 

A child has lost a loved one and attend the funeral instead of school – instead of expecting homework from that evening, we do not set detentions. However, although it is difficult, we expect homework to be completed from then on, whilst offering emotional support, listening, guidance and stoical and Tibetan philosophy to help them overcome their grief and bereavement. We also preempt this by teaching them Eastern wisdom about mortality before they encounter the bereavements we all inevitably encounter in our lives.

 

A child is visiting a parent who is very ill in hospital – instead of expecting homework from that evening, we do not set detentions. However, we would support the child through this difficult time and ensure that just because they are undergoing family troubles, we do not lower our standards for them – that they must get back on track as soon as possible.

 

These are not excuses; they are legitimate reasons. How do we distinguish? The above list is not at all exhaustive. We use a few rules of thumb: how fully was the choice within the child’s control? to what extent could they have chosen differently, and chosen better? Clear, strong guidance from the school is useful feedback to children about what society values: responsibility over irresponsibility, politeness over rudeness, self-discipline over laziness. Very, very occasionally, when there is almost nothing the kid could have done differently, we accept the explanation. Most often, mistakes and setbacks are opportunities to learn for next time. To err is human; to fully acknowledge (rather than to excuse) our weaker choices is the route to improving our lives.

 

As a school, we understand that such high standards without high support would be punitive. So we focus on how we can preemptively support and nurture our kids. We spend seven days in Year 7 induction teaching our children exactly how to meet our standards. Of course, we are still evaluating, improving and evolving these support mechanisms – and we are open to suggestions and ideas to strengthen the support that enables agency without risking dependency or learned helplessness.

 

High Support on Equipment

  • Provide pupils with a fully-stocked pencil case on their arrival in Year 7
  • Give pupils responsibility for replenishing the pencil cases as pens run out or ruler break, etc
  • Provide pupils and parents with checklists of all required equipment
  • Offer pupils with £10-£20 back-up packs that provide 1-3 years worth of supplies of all necessary equipment so they can restock at home without
  • Provide a school shop open before school every day, where all necessary equipment can be bought by children, at slightly subsidised prices as it can be bought in bulk by the school
  • Display equipment checklists on large, clear posters in every form room so that every pupil is crystal clear on precisely what equipment is necessary to bring in every day and there is no ambiguity
  • Simplify equipment requirements by having one simple, standard pencil case, to prevent expensive, competitive brand-war escalations between pupils and to reduce costs for all parents and children
  • Run equipment checks three times a week (or more) in morning form time to help pupils keep on top of their equipment
  • Send frequent letters home to parents with the required equipment checklist and reminders of the opportunity of back-up packs
  • Spend an entire lesson in induction on the expectations, consequences for equipment at the school, as well as tips for always being prepared and making optimal choices: packing bags the night before, self-checking and double-checking the night before, triple-checking in the morning using the home support checklist.
  • Ask elder siblings of those pupils with a few equipment detentions to support them to improve their habits of self-checking and double-checking the night before and in the morning
  • Remind pupils regularly in break and before school about their duty to arrive on time and well prepared to school

 

The reason why we expect no excuses at all for not bringing equipment is because we are always seeking to maximise support, responsibility and automatic habits for our pupils.

 

As a result, 99% of pupils bring in all equipment on an average day. Out of our 360 pupils, we have fewer than three 20-minute equipment detentions a day. Given that there are at least 10 pieces of equipment checked in our equipment check, that means that just 3 pieces on an average day are forgotten out of 3600: 99.9% pieces of equipment get brought in by pupils at Michaela every day, thanks to our high support for pupil habits.

 

High Support on Homework

  • provide a 7 day induction for Y7 with multiple opportunities to practise completing homework in school with plenty of feedback so pupils can meet our standards
  • dedicate a 60-minute lesson to explaining the exact expectations, consequences and top tips for completing homework
  • provide model examples of near misses that result in detentions for parents and pupils, so they know exactly how to avoid them
  • dedicate several practice sessions in the first week of school to completing homework at school so that all pupils are crystal clear on exactly what is required
  • simplify homework in Year 7 and 8 into one, streamlined practice book for all subjects so that pupils only have one book and one strategy to focus on: self-quizzing
  • run afterschool provision supervised by teachers for 90 minutes to allow all pupils to complete their homework
  • run lunchtime, afterschool and before school library with quiet space for pupils to complete homework for 120 minutes in total each day
  • provide supervised computer rooms for all pupils who do not have internet access at home to complete online homework
  • run termly big picture sessions on the importance of homework as a revision opportunity not as a burden
  • daily conversations to support pupils who regularly incur detentions with tutors & co-tutors
  • conversations to support parents whose children regularly incur detentions with middle and senior leaders
  • compulsory homework club for those who repeatedly struggle to complete their homework adequately
  • assembly announcements twice a week to recognise and celebrate those who have put the most time and effort into homework in the previous evening and over the holidays

 

The reason why we expect no excuses at all for not bringing homework is because we are always seeking to maximise support, responsibility and automatic habits for our pupils.

 

As a result, quality homework completion is over 95% from KS3 Michaela pupils. There is still much, much more to do to get closer to 100%, and to support and ensure all pupils can overcome their struggles to meet these standards, but because so few pupils do not complete their homework, it is far easier for teachers and tutors to intervene to support them.

 

High Support on Behaviour

  • provide a 7 day induction for Y7 without Year 8 or 9 so pupils can adapt to our high standards with the full attention of many teachers
  • hold Parent meetings with the Head before September to go over the home-school agreement in detail
  • teach all pupils politeness with the STEPS acronym: speak in full sentences, say thank you, excuse me, please and smile!
  • Teach all pupils what demerits are for
  • Teach all pupils how to respond to demerits and detentions
  • Teach all pupils how to behave in detention to avoid failing them and having to redo them
  • Teach all pupils how to enter and exit classrooms
  • Teach all pupils of how to actively listen and focus in lessons
  • Give a daily sermon to reiterate these teachings before school
  • Give daily reminders and reiteration of these teachings during mid-morning break
  • Give daily reminders and reiteration of these teachings during family lunch discussions on topics like self-discipline and integrity
  • Give twice-weekly assemblies from the head or senior team always focused on the ethos of excellent behaviour
  • Teach six 1-hour lessons to start each half-term focused on the family culture & reasons why our school is so strict
  • Give merits for pupils who make consistent efforts to work hard in lessons & at home, and to be kind around school
  • Give demerits given to remind pupils of the standards we expect: no distracting or disrupting lessons; no rudeness or bad reactions
  • Log these online to help teachers encourage those who struggle the most
  • Share a daily display of merits earned throughout the day shared with the form at the end of each day in tutor time
  • Offer a Friday football and Friday table tennis reward for those pupils with the best merit balance every week
  • Give Friday Commendations from the Head, nominated by tutors for the most improved tutees for behaviour, positivity etc
  • Hold regular tutor conversations with those who at first struggle to meet the high standards
  • Offer parents access to cumulative merit balance on online behaviour system, encouraged to have daily conversations with their children about reducing demerits and increasing merits
  • Send Friday emails to parents with their child’s merit balance for the week, term and year sent weekly
  • Show 6 reward films a year, one at the end of each half-term, for the 95+% of pupils who have a positive merit balance (more merits than demerits)
  • Provide subject revision instead of the reward film to the 5% of pupils who do not have a positive balance, to remind them to keep raising their standards until they are behaving positively and professionally
  • Write daily postcards from teachers and tutors to pupils to encourage them to improve
  • Hold tutor-tutee 1:1 conversations to encourage pupils who are struggling with any aspect of school
  • Hold Deputy Head conversations to guide and encourage pupils who are struggling most with any aspect of school
  • Invite parents of children who struggle to provide structure and support for their child to conversations with the Headteacher
  • Invite parents of children who arrive late, to conversations with the Headteacher
  • Hold Deputy Head inductions of children who arrive late
  • Station teachers on duty outside of school before and after school to keep children safe

 

The reason why we expect no excuses at all for disrupting others’ learning or being impolite is because we want our pupils to get into the best possible habits that will most help them succeed in life. High standards combined with high support changes kids’ lives.

 

If your school uses other support mechanisms that aren’t mentioned in these non-exhaustive lists, I’d love to hear about them. We have lots to learn and improve, and schools have been thinking hard about how to support their children for decades. When considering whether to implement support mechanisms, we think hard about impact-to effort ratio, always keeping staff workload and pupil responsibility in mind.

 

No excuses is not uncaring; it is the most caring ethos a school can adopt, because it refuses to indulge irresponsibility, empowers pupils to continually improve their choices, and nurtures in children the personal agency and consideration of others to live the most fulfilling lives for their long-term future.

 

I have been excited about Lucy Crehan’s book for what seems like eons, and it does not disappoint. Unlike Amanda Ripley’s (also excellent) The Smartest Kids in the World, Crehan’s book has real direction and pulls together helpful strands, always with a focus on what we in the UK (or in the USA, as she makes frequent allusions to both countries) might learn from these successful systems. Crehan’s style also fuses strong, robust research with anecdote, all told in a witty and engaging style evoking a sense of a travelogue. 

Early on Crehan refers to her research as a ‘geeky gap year.’ Many teachers would surely envy her travels, but she does not shy away from evoking some of the tougher aspects of travelling from place to place, spending around a month in each country, teaching, observing, helping and discussing education.

There is much to be learned from almost all of the countries explored by Crehan, and I was pleasantly surprised by which I learned the most from in reading Cleverlands.

As a former ‘progressive’ teacher, I used to hold up Finland as an example of all that progressive education could accomplish: comprehensive, child-centred, homework-less. But as its PISA results have flagged, and my own pedagogical values have shifted, I have increasingly turned my back on this previous analysis, listening instead to those who claim Finland’s previous results were down to its earlier, more traditional methods.

And yet I learned much from Crehan’s chapters on Finland; perhaps more so than any of the other chapters. She points out that in 2012, Finland was still the highest scoring non-Asian country. Her analysis ranges over the late school start – age 7 – and the counter-intuitive ‘learn through playing’ ideology that pervades these early years. But the focus in those years is on making children school ready, and Crehan cites extensive research showing that it makes no difference if children begin school early or late.

In fact, trying to teach very young children difficult skills may even prove counter productive: ‘like scattering seeds on a path, trying to teach children to read aged one or two will be unproductive, as they don’t have the skills, the language abilities or the cognitive capacity to be able to do it yet.’ Moreover, such a focus could ‘detract from the time they could be using to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed’ to be ready to learn to read.

Crehan considers the success of Finland’s comprehensive system to be due to its slow lead-in time, extensive training, and oversight and inspection of teachers and schools until its full establishment. And Finland is fully comprehensive, down to mixed ability classes, which make a number of appearances in the book. The focus for the Finnish teachers is on the weakest kids: one teacher opines ‘the brightest kids, they’ll learn anyway, whatever you do with them.’ This equity is also reflected in school structures; only the Headteacher is different in the hierarchy. There are no department heads, or senior teachers. There is no performance related pay.

Teachers are continuously developing their own practice independently, genuinely engaging with research and education and cultural writing, and there is a palpable culture of believing this makes them better at their jobs. Crehan warns, though, that this is only possible with a highly motivated workforce.

Of the often celebrated ‘teacher autonomy’ of Finland, Crehan has much to challenge, beginning with a 1996 report on Finnish schools which found: ‘whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined by the teacher… you could have swapped the teachers over and the children would never have noticed the difference.’ From Crehan’s observations, she notes a ‘consistently traditional approach’ in classrooms, with lessons ‘led by the teacher, but with substantial whole-class interaction.’ High quality textbooks are ubiquitous. Teachers are not forced to use these, but she points out it would be foolish not to. As Finland has no official exams until age 18, these textbooks are not focused on drilling to a test, but instead on promoting ‘engagement and deep understanding’ of the topics.

Where Finland’s values are reflected in each of its schools, Japan’s system seemed the least coherent. Whereas middle schools invoke military discipline to toughen kids up for high school (Crehan includes one of many brilliant details in outlining the lightweight uniform being entirely useless in winter, but due to layers and coats being forbidden the children ‘buy self-heating pads, which they put in their socks and stick to their backs on the really cold days’), the primary schools are almost completely devoid of any behaviour system, with teachers relying on the children to discipline each other using peer pressure. Teachers are graded A to E, but never know their grade, and they are moved from school to school as their district sees fit. The families in Japan demonstrate strong support for education, with mothers expected to ‘retire’ when pregnant and devote their lives to raising kids, and the school constantly admonishing parents for not supervising children’s homework if it is not done.

More positive aspects include the curriculum: in Japan it is, according to Crehan, narrow but deep. Teachers share planning, and all teach the same lessons. They support struggling pupils outside lesson time.

A large proportion of Crehan’s discussion on Singapore schools pertains to selection, which occurs throughout the system, with streaming beginning early, and schools sorted into more and less academic. Personal responsibility is strong in the chapters on Singapore, and Crehan cites former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saying: ‘nobody owes you a living.’ The schools are extremely competitive, and private tuition is big business: kids are often being tutored until 10pm or even later, as the exams increase in difficulty every year. The ‘disparity between what is taught at school and what is in the exams puts further pressure on parents to fund private tuition,’ which Crehan dubs a ‘shadow education system.’

The results of this highly competitive system are indisputably impressive: even the poorest pupils in Singapore are far ahead of their Western counterparts. Yet here, Crehan challenges her reader to think more carefully about what equality looks like. Because although the poorest echelons and weakest performers in Singapore are far ahead of other countries, ‘it doesn’t mean they have better academic opportunities, as their advantaged peers in their own country are still ahead of them, filling the places in the junior colleges and forcing them onto less academic courses.’

In Shanghai, the overriding message was that a Chinese value is that everyone is capable of learning. Success was not considered to result from innate ability, but effort. All work is given to all children, meaning the work is pitched to the top: weak pupils are ‘given challenges rather than concessions, and were expected and supported to rise to them.’

Interestingly, the parents in China ‘tend to play down their children’s successes, because they see it as their role to promote effort in their children… when parents from Eastern cultures point out a child’s failings or mistakes, its whole purpose is to allow the child to grow and improve.’ This puts the writings of Amy Chua into perspective, and helps to explain to a Western mindset why, though the Chinese mother might seem ‘cruel’, it is, in fact, working from a different paradigm in raising children’s expectations of themselves. Like Japan, schools constantly communicate with parents and hold them to high standards. In lessons, pupils are taught didactically, but there is little time for extended practice – this is done as homework.

Of all the countries covered, Canada to me sounded more nightmarish. Crehan outlines a national curriculum full of discovery learning and group work. Yet Crehan herself in fact favours Canada, praising its balance between ‘the teaching of academic content and broader cognitive, social and moral skills and traits.’

There is much to learn from this extraordinary work, but one aspect I found compelling was the teaching in nearly all the above examples in mixed ability classes. Since moving to Michaela, I have really enjoyed teaching streams – lessons move at a pace the very vast majority of the class is comfortable with, and I can give whole-class feedback that is relevant to all pupils. Teaching to the top in a mixed ability class is not impossible, but it does rely on the weakest children working the hardest: doing more homework, and coming to teachers for individual support. This is possible in a culture where hard work and personal struggle to achieve are normalised. The practical reality, in my experience, is that the weakest kids are also the least invested: the least likely to do homework, and the least likely to attend additional clubs (non-teachers wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get kids who have fallen behind to attend catch-up clubs put on specifically for their benefit). But what we can take from the mixed ability argument is a need to pitch our curriculum to the top, so we teach all children the same stuff. This could be done by changing the allocation of lessons, so weaker children do the same high-quality work, but just have more time to spend on that tough material.

This book is fascinating for its research, but it is also a crucial one for all educators in that it reminds us that education is about values. More than once, Crehan asks: ‘would you want this in your country?’ This is why education will always be a knotty issue, because we do not have a consensus on values. We know what works to improve pupils’ behaviour, learning and habits, but what we don’t know is whether we all want pupils to behave in a certain way and know certain things. This book is crucial to prompt reflection from all educators.

cleverlands

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One of the best questions from the Michaela Battle Hymn event was: ‘how would you draw the distinction between authority and authoritarian?’

It is a vital distinction, and one that must be disentangled rather than conflated.

 

My definition of an authoritarian state is one that maintains power by using violence to repress dissent. This definition can be tested by asking: do any authoritarian states refrain from using violence to repress dissent?

One major hallmark of authoritarian regimes, then, is using violence to suppress opponents. Examples of authoritarian regimes are Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Cuba under Castro, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Chile under Pinochet, Libya under Gaddafi, Uganda under Amin, South Africa under apartheid. What these regimes have in common is ruling through violent repression.

 

In Russia, 21 journalists have been killed since Putin came to power in 2000. In Libya, regime opponents of Gaddafi were hanged in purges and at least 25 assassinations between 1980 and 1987 alone. In Chile, Pinochet’s regime tortured thousands of prisoners and left over 3,000 dead or missing, forcing 200,000 into exile. In Cuba, estimates of Castro’s victims of repression range from 10,000 people murdered in firing squad executions and extrajudicial killings. In South Africa, 40,000 politically offending Africans were whipped every year, and hundreds were executed for treason; between 1960 and 1994, the South African government were responsible for 2,700 assassinations by secret security forces. In Zimbabwe, under Mugabe’s authoritarian regime from 1980 to the present, tens of thousands of political opponents: in one attack alone, 20,000 opponents were killed. In Uganda, between 1970 and 1979, Idi Amin is estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 500,000 opponents. In Cambodia, over 2 million people were executed in mass shootings and buried in mass graves. With millions murdered at the hands of these regimes, a revulsion towards authoritarianism is understandable.

 

What is an authoritarian approach to schooling? If violence is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes, one major hallmark of an authoritarian school might be using corporal punishment. In England, this is banned in state schools, since 1986. It remains common worldwide, in Africa and Asia, although many developed countries have banned it.

One behaviour consultant asked if we would use corporal punishment at Michaela if it were legal. Let me categorically state: we would never use corporal punishment at Michaela, even if it were legal.

To brand Michaela Community School as authoritarian, especially without even visiting, is astonishing. Authoritarian regimes have blood on their hands. They have imprisoned, tortured, executed and assassinated millions of people in illegal killings around the world. Frankly, to compare Michaela to these states is an insult to all those who have died resisting these brutal regimes.

By contrast, Michaela is a school of teachers educating children without any violence, torture or terror whatsoever, but rather with great love, passion and enthusiasm. We believe in adult authority, not in authoritarian repression.

 

There is a prodigious danger in conflating authority and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is brutally repressive; authority in schools is vitally necessary. If we undermine teachers’ and headteachers’ authority by tangling it up as authoritarian, if we shame school leaders for imposing authority and enforcing school rules, if we as a country are averse to authoritative schools, we put authority in crisis, and we undermine our own children’s education.

Hannah Arendt’s 1954 essay ‘The Crisis in Education’ was prophetic. Although Arendt was an escapee of the National Socialist authoritarian, totalitarian, genocidal regime in Germany and the Holocaust in Europe, she argued against a ‘radical distrust of authority’:

‘by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority … handed over to the tyranny of the group.’

‘Authority has been discarded by the adults, and this can mean only one thing: that the adults refuse to assume responsibility for the world into which they have brought the children.’

‘The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.’

‘Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.’

The consequences of attacking strict, authoritative school leadership as authoritarian have been disastrous. School leaders all over England feel uneasy about imposing too much authority, for fear of being denounced as fascist. As a result, new teachers and supply teachers are being sworn at and abused by unruly pupils all over England; bullying is rife; and low-level disruption is prevalent, as hundreds of teachers as well as the schools inspectorate attest. Thousands of children’s lives have been damaged as a result of vilifying authority.

 

It is time to throw off the shackles of guilt about adult authority. To establish clear adult, expert and professional authority and orderly discipline is a moral duty of school leaders. Benevolent authority reduces disruption, bullying and abuse. We owe it to all the children we teach in this country.

Disruption of Teaching

“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.”

William Wilberforce 1791

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Reading Tom Bennett’s book about behaviour, based on his many years of writing for the TES about misbehaviour in schools, a common theme emerged: teachers encountering disrespect and disruption of their teaching. These anecdotes are from just 50 of the 100 or more teachers that Tom included in the book, that are in themselves a selection of over 1,000 written to him at the TES over the years. Collectively, they stand in for the many 1000s of teachers who over the years have experienced continual disruption, but who do not write in to the TES about it.

 

“The class just won’t do a thing I say. I’m constantly fire-fighting for the whole lesson. I love this job (loved?) but if I can’t actually teach then I wonder if I’m cut out for it any more.”

 

“Pupils steal my board markers and erasers, and blame me for their misbehaviour: ‘your teaching’s rubbish’ is a typical example. They are terrorising me.”

 

“My pupils chatter so much that it actually becomes impossible to teach. My lessons are being hijacked. I can’t remember a moment of silence in the room with them.”

 

“I have a small group of boys who won’t take any discipline seriously – they just giggle when anyone tells them off, even the head. This is driving us teachers up the wall. The defiance is exhausting!”

 

“Mobile phones constantly interrupt my teaching. Loads of my year 10 boys spend all lesson texting.”

 

“When I ask a pupil to step aside for a quick word, they histrionically explode with, ‘Why?! Why?! What have I done? God!’“

 

“When I try to gently put my pupils back on task, or remind them of the work set, they shout back angrily, ‘I’m doing it!’ This irritating habit is undermining me.”

 

“I try to plan fun things, but my form moan that everything is boring.”

 

“The class joker is attention seeking: throwing pens, flicking ears, distracting others around him. He doesn’t care – he breaks all the rules and says he doesn’t give a damn about any of the consequences.”

 

“In my class, some of the pupils gang up on one pupil in really subtle, invidious ways.

 

“My school isn’t big on discipline. I try not to shout, but I have to wait ages to get quiet. I also find it hard to get them to line up. It’s really hard to stop the rising tide of misbehaviour. Now fights are breaking out.“

 

“All my classes take advantage of me, even top sets. After being assaulted and not supported by the school, I resigned.”

 

“A year 10 boy humiliates me by ignoring me, turning his back and talking to his mates when I’m talking. This is damaging the respect the rest of the class has for me.”

 

“Behaviour in my class is awful. One won’t do anything he’s told, and the rest copy and join in. Listening lasts about ten seconds, then some of them get up and walk round, and I am completely ignored. Tidying up is non-existent and they throw things around. They don’t care enough to stop, or about sanctions.”

 

“My year 5s are giving me trouble with low-level disruption all the time. They get loads of detentions and give mouthfuls of abuse if you tell them off. I feel so deflated.”

 

“They just keep talking and talking! I had two days off work last week because of stress. I used to love teaching, but now I am starting to hate it.”

 

“Some of my lessons have terrible levels of misbehaviour: talking, rudeness to me personally, not finishing work. Detentions, consistency, withdrawals, nothing has worked. I am at the end of my tether and I’ve started to get migraines. I feel so depressed… but I don’t want my career to end!”

 

“My class tell me they ‘aint f**king bothered’. They get up and wander around, showing texts and hitting each other. They just laugh at detentions, literally, and those that set them. They actually make me dread coming to school. I’m just counting the days until I can escape to a job other than teaching.”

 

“I have a class of year 10 girls who are really nasty to me. ‘Sir, you aren’t teaching us properly’, ‘Sir, you aren’t explaining it properly.’ Like a pack they complained to my head of department. If I try to discipline them, they complain I’m picking on them.”

 

“My year 9s’ behaviour is appalling. In a 40-minute lesson they still couldn’t line up or let me talk for 10 seconds, even though the head of department was there!”

 

“My year 5 class has a group (about a third) who wont go along with anything. They refuse to work, hide under tables, climb over tables, ignore me, distract others and generally do what they can to ruin my lesson.”

 

“Some year 7 boys are throwing things at me, sweets and rubbers. One called me a f**king b******. They do not see their teachers as authorities.”

 

“My year 9 and 10 classes torture me. I can’t handle them. Anarchy in unleashed every lesson.

 

“I have one student who is being constantly bullied by another student – persistent flicking, name-calling, taunting, even pinching. The head of year has told the parents that its being dealt with, but it’s not. Nothing’s being done, and it’s driving me crazy.”

 

“Kids throw paper balls at each other when I’m looking the other way, and they do the same to other teachers round the school. But I don’t want to punish the wrong kids!”

 

“The school has no sanction system; offenders simply get sent to the head for a conversation. Kids are late to class and refuse to enter, run around rooms and corridors, leave the room when you tell them off, swear, watch rude videos on YouTube in lessons, ignore teachers, ignore punishments.”

 

“Should I wait for silence, no matter how long it takes? With my year 9s yesterday I realised I would be there until I grew a beard. ‘If he’s not going to start til we stop, let’s keep going and he’ll be quiet all day!’ they said. How long should I wait? It’s become a game to bait me.”

 

“The boys in my form make dirty jokes, swear and speak to classmates like they’re dirt. The have zilch respect and just see lessons as chances to catch up with their texts or insults.”

 

“I teach a pair of year 8 twins who get into fights like I get into showers. They will fight with anyone, regardless of age, even those far older than them. How can I stop them?”

 

“Every day I enter school I walk l past pupils smoking – even worse, some of them are in uniform. Ignoring them seems like cowardice on my part, but I feel uncomfortable as they’re Year 11 and can legally smoke.

 

“My SLT say that bad teaching is what leads to bad behaviour. This basically means it’s our fault for the misbehaviour of a class.”

 

“I was involved in an incident on Friday in which both myself and a TA were assaulted by a pupil. I was punched repeatedly in the back and my TA was punched in the chest. The child has not been excluded and I am expected to teach the child on Monday with the TA who was also assaulted.”

 

“A pupil was caught with a knife in school, but three days of exclusion later he is back in school! Next week he’s back in my lesson.”

 

“I have two pupils who repeatedly kick off and hurt other pupils and/or trash the classroom. They throw everything about and scream as loudly as they can in lessons.”

 

“In a year 10 English class I am about to start teaching, everything seems to degenerate into a riot. The teacher is told to go f*** herself, things are chucked, pupils graffiti the tables, the kids walk in and out of the class at will, and they show each other porn on their phones. There is zero respect for the teacher. At one point one of them hugged her and she looked terrified. I am terrified to and mortified for her.”

 

“A girl set up a facebook page dripping with venom for the school, with about 25 teachers slagged off. She got a couple of days in the isolation room.”

 

“I told off a year 10 pupil for play-fighting in the classroom. He pushed me in the corridor. The outcome is the Head wants restorative justice so I have to meet the pupil, who is lying and denying it. His word is being treated as if it is as valid as mine.”

 

“A few days ago, a nine-year old girl hit me when she was angry because I wouldn’t let her work with a friend. The head said I needed some witnesses to the assault before doing anything. I thought I was an adult and a teacher? The girl refused to apologise, and came into lessons the next day as if nothing had happened.”

 

“One of my year 9 girls told me to f*** off in a lesson today, and when I told the SLT he asked if there were any witnesses. None of the children said they’d heard it. She denied it, so he said there was nothing he could do.”

 

“I’m in a reasonable school but as I walk past the corridors some pupils shout out ‘gay boy’ and similar comments. If I raise this then I’m coming out to my colleagues, which I’m not ready for. How can I teach these pupils if they can say things like that to me?”

 

“A girl in my class said I was a rubbish teacher today. I tried to tell her I was trying my best. What do you do when students criticise you as blatantly as this?”

 

“Today I was called a c**t by a year 11 boy. As no one else was there it seems he won’t get any punishment. Is a student’s word equal to a teacher’s?”

 

“My whole class has zero respect for me. I’ve been in teaching for years and never had one like this. Even when I give them whole-class minutes they don’t stop talking. I’ve done seating plans, called home, written letters, detentions, all to no effect. They are spiteful, enjoying winding me up. They make stupid noises and smirk when I tell them off. I feel like I’m losing my grip. Help, please.”

 

“One child in my year 5 class is so difficult that the whole class is constantly disrupted by his screaming and outbursts. He hits people and throws things when things don’t go his way. When did we allow the expectation that teachers were to put up with assault?”

 

“One of my Year 9 classes is unteachable. They won’t be quiet at all, they throw paper at me and each other as soon as my back is turned, and they have no respect for me. None of them seem to want to learn. Hardly any have a school bag, and every lesson I have to give almost all of them a pen. They take their phones out whenever they want. This isn’t teaching – it’s wearing away my will to teach. I don’t want to go in anymore, and I’m thinking about giving up a career as a teacher.”

 

“In my reception class there is a boy who is more violent than any pupil I have ever taught. He started with lots of anger issues, but now it’s more sinister. He will deliberately walk over to another student and hit them hard in the face. He climbs on top of girls and touches them inappropriately and unpleasantly.”

 

“I was recently assaulted by a pupil; the school has said that after a few days exclusion, he can come back into school and lessons.”

 

“I’ve just started in a school with serious behaviour issues. The children expect to misbehave and don’t listen. Pupils assault each other frequently – hospitalized in one case recently – and sometimes staff if they get in the way. Swearing is commonplace. The simplest request gets ignored, or a fight breaks out. Children sent out just run away. Detentions don’t happen because they don’t come back. Senior staff don’t follow up on anything either, so nothing improves.”

 

“Students ignore me, refusing to do what I ask them, such as waiting outside before entering the room, standing outside when they’ve been misbehaving, not throwing paper aeroplanes, etc. I’ve been reporting it but the students keep reoffending.”

 

“Some year 9 boys are bullying my year 7 son, starting from last term. I never knew how bad it was til he came home in floods of tears. They mock him so much about how he looks that he has asked me seriously if he can have plastic surgery when he’s older.”

 

Team Mentality

Posted on November 19, 2016 by Jo Facer

 

‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

Western society prioritises individual achievement. Many of us spend our lives in this paradigm, and Western society applauds us for doing so. We are focused on ourselves: what grades can I achieve in my exams? What kind of degree can I get? How impressive can my first job after University be?

And teachers are not immune to this. We are surrounded by people climbing the ladder, reaching for the stars; young headteachers are showcased by the media and applauded. We are programmed to aspire and to achieve.

I’ve written before about why I chose to join Michaela. Doing so meant stepping out of the ‘ladder’ mentality: I was an assistant headteacher in two schools prior to becoming a Head of Department here.

But it also meant stepping out of the ‘individual achievement’ paradigm. Before I began, I thought: ‘let’s see how fast I can be promoted.’ But when I started, I realised that I was in utterly the wrong paradigm. It wasn’t about me anymore. In fact, it had never been about me to begin with.

When weighing up the decision to join Michaela, Katharine gave me some honest options: ‘if you want to be a headteacher quickly, stay where you are. You’re not going to be a head fast if you come with us. In fact, it will slow you down.’ How badly did I want to be a headteacher? Really badly. But why? I wanted to change the lives of thousands, not hundreds, of children. But was that all? Or did I also want the ‘glory’? The responsibility, the excitement of being in charge?

I forced myself to face reality. Would I be ready to be a headteacher in five years? Or maybe even less? What kind of mistakes was I liable to make if I was promoted too quickly? How many people – adults, children – would suffer because of my ambition?

At Michaela, it’s not about me – it’s about the team. And that is, of course, how it is in other schools, for people who have left behind their ego, as I have learned to. I may not go fast, but it’s not about that. We, as a team, will go far. Together, we can accomplish what I could never do on my own. How could I make an extraordinary science curriculum, as Olivia Dyer has done? What do I know about Geography, History and Religion? Nothing compared to Jonny Porter. I took A-level French, but I don’t have a hope of teaching people to teach languages like Barry Smith and Jess Lund. And Maths? I can barely add up without using my fingers to count. Dani Quinn has a degree from Oxford. I don’t even know the first thing about how to teach grammar, and I’m an English teacher with a degree in English! I need Katie Ashford.

At Michaela, I’ve stopped focusing on what I can get, and started thinking about what I can give. When I have extra capacity, I ask Katharine what other parts of school life I can contribute to. That’s why I have had the opportunity to help to shape our CPD sequence, which I write about in our forthcoming book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. I’ve been able to do so much more in a school where everyone works as a team, and the impact on the kids is beyond belief. With all of us ‘rowing together,’ the boat gets a lot further.

Our book is a great example of this. Individually, the teachers at Michaela write a whole heap of brilliant blogs. But this book is more than one person’s perspective. Instead, it is the perspective of twenty people, who all contribute to make our wonderful school the happy, productive place it is. We are a team, and team beats individual every time.

 

Posted on July 9th, 2016 by Jo Facer

Review of the year


In September 2015, I did not envision where I would be by July 2016. I had just joined a big academy as an Assistant Head. I hoped I would have made some positive changes, changed some minds, and have settled into my job happily. In reality, I left that school after one short (but very happy) term, because I realised that if I missed the chance to join Michaela Community School in its early stages, I would massively regret it for the rest of my life.

Do I regret it? Not a jot. But when I think back on this year, the high points are very very different from what I thought they would be.

A major high-point has been reading. At Michaela, I get to read constantly. With my classes, I have read Romantic and Victorian poetry, The Aeneid, Julius Caesar, Medea,Macbeth, Frankenstein and Northanger Abbey since January, along with other non-fiction and short extracts. With my tutor group, I’ve read Dracula, Wonder, Gulliver’s Travels,Boy, The Three Musketeers (very much abridged!), and Gombrich’s A History of the World. Then with reading group, I’ve read The Secret Garden, Farenheit 451, Matilda, Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, Educating Rita, An Inspector Calls and Pride and Prejudice. I spend the last hour of my day reading with children. There is nothing better in the world. I’ve also found more and more time to read myself, in the evenings and on weekends. Gone are the weekends and evenings of frantic work. Some weekends, I have spent the whole time just reading novel after novel after novel – my idea of paradise!

My tutor group have been an absolute highlight. When I was first told I would have a one, I was secretly disappointed. I’d always found it hard to manage a group of children I saw for 15 minutes a day. But having tutor time for 20 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon, coupled with the reading programme, has meant that I have really been able to bond with mine, and after a half term or holiday, it is their faces I long to see on the first day back. They were in terrible habits when I picked them up (and at Michaela, that means they tended to look over their shoulders a lot and whisper when they thought I wasn’t looking – we are very strict!), but they have really settled into a lovely group of young people who can have a laugh and ‘Slant’ the next second (‘slant’ is our acronym to remind pupils to sit up straight and track the speaker).

I’ve improved my teaching immeasurably. I’ve had constant feedback throughout the year. We don’t have strict structures of feedback, so I’ve had feedback from deputy headteachers, other heads of department, teachers and teacher fellows. In a place of no egos, you take advice from everyone, and it makes everyone better at their jobs. I’ve not had a formal observation since joining Michaela, but I (along with every member of staff, including the kitchen and office staff) have had a sit down (with biscuits) with the Headmistress, Katharine, who spent much of the time asking me what she could do to better support me, and if I was happy.

I can’t express how amazing it has been to work with the best minds in our profession: I can’t begin to list the things I have learned from my colleagues, in particular Katharine, Katie, Joe, and Jonny. Our debate at City Hall created conversations and challenges, exactly as hoped. We are all writing a book together about the ideas of Michaela, and I’m so proud to be a part of that (do come to our event in November when we launch it!). What feels like hundreds of visitors have come into my classroom since January, some respected colleagues from Twitter, and hearing their comments and challenges has been really helpful for me in thinking over what we do and why. I’ve also had some brilliant exchanges with people on Twitter. Challenge allows me to clarify my thinking, and often to hone and improve what I do. It feels like it is an exciting time to be in education, and Michaela is an exciting place to be.

Of course, it has not all been rainbows and sunshine. I’ve lost out on being part of an exciting turn-around school, and I’ve let down the colleagues, and even friends, I made there. I can guarantee I will never be welcome to work for one particular academy chain again. The guilt of that decision has not yet begun to fade. But we can’t expect to make everyone happy when we make a difficult choice. There are new vistas, new horizons, before us, and we’re only at the very beginning.

Teaching Vocabulary | Reading all the Books

If this blog had themes, I’m sure one fairly major one would be ‘Changing my Mind.’ And lest readers consider me a fully paid up zealot of the ‘Knowledge Devotees,’ let me tell you that I have only recently changed my mind about teaching vocabulary.

When I began teaching at Michaela, I picked up someone else’s timetable; someone else’s classes. I was totally at the mercy of those who had begun their learning, and it was my job to learn how to teach in the ‘Michaela Way.’ I knew what I was getting myself into, and bit my tongue when one particular sheet came my way. It was a sheet listing 45 difficult words, split into three columns of 15, each with a one (or very few) word synonym.

‘What do I do with this?’ I asked.

‘They learn one column a week – meaning and spelling – and then you test it,’ replied Joe Kirby.

Not wanting to be that challenging complainer on day one, I said nothing. But I thought: ‘no way will this work.’ Everything I’d read, everything I believed, told me that rote learning vocabulary was a bad idea. It was far, far preferable to read widely, flag up new words, and allow children to just absorb them.

The first week, almost every child in the class scored zero out of fifteen on the words. (Here is the test: Me: ‘what’s a better word for determined beginning with “t”?’ Kids: ‘….’ [Meant to write down: ‘tenacious.’) Part of me felt vindicated – this was too hard, and totally pointless. But I trusted Joe, and I’d been wrong before. I was prepared to find out if this was partly my fault.

‘Didn’t you test them orally first?’ asked Joe. I had not. ‘Did you do a few every day at the beginning and end of lessons?’ I had not. ‘Did you give them time to green pen afterwards, looking at a few they had got wrong to really work on them?’ I had not.

I drilled them the whole next week, and tested them again. Half of them achieved 5 out of 15. The other half achieved zero.

Was the idea rubbish? Was I rubbish? Were the kids rubbish?

With lots to do, I had no time to rethink the Michaela vocabulary strategy, not halfway through the year with already boggled children. I kept going.

And as the weeks went by something started to click. It wasn’t just that the kids were starting to achieve 10, 11, even 15 out of 15 – and they were. (I had even taken out my letter cues, saying: ‘what’s a better word for determined?’ ‘Tenacious,’ they would write, spelling it correctly.) It was their paragraphs that showed the impact. They were astonishing. And that’s when I realised that while part of writing an analytical paragraph is knowing about character, plot, quotation, technique and context and combining all of that knowledge to write about it; the other part is having the words in the first place. The good words.

One of my year 7 classes learned the vocabulary. Inexplicably, I didn’t teach the other class the words. The gap between their paragraphs has grown and grown. The difference? Vocabulary. I am teaching the same lesson to each class – usually one straight after the other – the same concepts and ideas. They are reading the same thing, and I am saying the same thing to them. But class 2’s paragraphs contain mediocre vocabulary.

And vocabulary loves vocabulary, like all knowledge loves knowledge. Class 1 are always on the look-out for new words. Supported by their extraordinary form tutor, Ms Clear, who notes down key vocabulary from their class reading (done in tutor time in the afternoon) and tests them on it, Class 1 have actually started teaching me words (not sure yet if this is a low or a high point of my teaching career).

Yes, the kids really struggled with this at first. And they still get it wrong in context – one said recently: ‘The Arctic is the zenith and the Antarctic is the nadir of planet earth.’ Obviously wrong. But the list isn’t everything – it is the beginning of their accurate use of these words. Having this list committed to memory means the kid can say the above sentence, be corrected in front of their peers, and learn more about the correct context for these words.

I used to believe that kids could absorb vocabulary. On some level, I still believe this – if kids read widely enough, their vocabulary will inevitably be better than their non-reading peers. But it isn’t enough, not for any kid, to rely on this. They need to learn words by rote. The more they learn, the more they use these words, and the better their vocabulary becomes. I was absolutely wrong and Joe Kirby was absolutely right – a common theme in my teaching career.

Here is a paragraph from a year 7 exam, done on Julius Caesar and entirely from memory.

image1 Click image to make larger.

I’ve typed out what it says below, and made bold any words this pupil has learned by heart through our vocabulary programme, or through other knowledge organisers he has had this year:

Moreover, Antony develops as the play reaches its crescendo into a choleric, manipulative and sophistical character. After the death of Caesar, Antony calls him a ‘bleeding piece of earth.’ He uses personification fused with the striking word ‘bleeding’ to display his sorrow but also his anger. Shakespeare now makes Antony speak his mind after Caesar’s death to portray Antony’s true character, a manipulative, magnanimous and mendacious individual. Antony then goes on to deliver an oration to the crowd by starting with the lines ‘friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears.’ By combining the tricolon of ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ and the metaphor ‘lend me your ears,’ Antony creates a false sense of camaraderie between himself and the crowd. By doing so, he achieves the attention of the crowd, proving that he is manipulative. Antony uses sophistry to prove to the audience that Caesar was not a tyrant.

This pattern was replicated throughout the essays I was reading. The difference between the great and the good was often the words they had in their memories to use.

There are two changes I would make to the Michaela Vocabulary Strategy for next year. The first is chunking: I’ll be setting five words a week for the first few weeks. Success builds motivation, and those first weeks were depressing for pupils and me alike. We can build up to 10 and 15 words as the year goes on. The second change is to make sure that every single class learns these words. As Wittgenstein says, ‘the limits of language mean the limits of my world.’ With every word learned, those limits expand just a little bit more.

Here is a grid for year 7, with thanks to Joe for letting me share it.

Vocabulary Y7