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Michaela School Wembley London
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Posted on April 16, 2016 by Katie Ashford

How can we get kids to read widely?

Getting kids to love reading is difficult at the best of times. Reading is hard, particularly for children who, for whatever reason, aren’t exposed to new language or reading in the early years. By the time they arrive in secondary school, many reluctant readers hate books: they see reading as dull, pointless and arduous.

 

One way round this is to give reluctant readers books that appeal to their interests, or are relevant to their lives. The view tends to be that so long as children are reading something, then it doesn’t really matter what it is that they are reading. In lots of schools, this means that ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’, ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ and ‘The Story of Tracy Beaker’ are the most popular titles.

 

This is something I have gone back and forth on over the last few years. On the one hand, we do want children to enjoy reading, and starting them on books they like seems to be a good way to do that. But I’ve always wondered what happens next? I’ve seen kids get into ‘Wimpy Kid’ and ‘Tracy Beaker’, but struggle to transfer that to other books that might be more challenging or different.

 

Ultimately, it is really important that children read as broadly as possible. Reading is one of the primary mechanisms we have for learning new things, and if we don’t promote wide reading in school, it is less likely that children will become wide readers in adulthood. So whilst I do think that children should be allowed to read books they like (obviously), I want to make sure that this doesn’t limit the breadth of their reading. At Michaela, we have several programmes in place to support children to read as broadly as possible.

 

Class Readers

 

At Michaela, we believe that reading is all about habit. For that reason, we read every day with every pupil. Our class reading programme is designed to give even the least able readers daily access to great works of literature. Books are carefully sequenced, and all titles have been chosen precisely because they aren’t the kinds of things that pupils would typically read on their own. We believe that reading with an adult is a powerful way to get through books that are difficult or out of kids’ comfort zones. When the class reads together, the teacher can pause and explain difficult vocabulary and concepts, and can ask questions to check for understanding.

 

These books – titles such as ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, ‘Silas Marner’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ don’t tend to fly off the shelves in our school library, but pupils read them in class and, with the support of their teacher- get a lot out of them and end up really enjoying them. They may have enjoyed them had they read them alone, but it’s unlikely they’d pick them up in the first place! Class reading is a way to broaden pupils’ reading by pushing them out of their comfort zones.

 

Reading Club

 

Our least able readers stay for 30 minutes after school every day for Reading Club. Jo Facer, our wonderful Head of English, has created a brilliant sequence of Reading Club books. These books are more pupil-friendly, with titles that are a sort of halfway house between ‘classics’ and the books they’d pick up on their own anyway. They tear through ‘The Red Pony’, ‘Farenheit 451’, ‘The Woman in Black’ and many others. Again, these books are challenging for the least able readers, but with the support of their teachers, are made more accessible. Importantly, this means that the least able readers in the school are reading the most books with adults, and are reading even more broadly than other pupils.

 

Friday Reads

 

Jo Facer came up with this brilliant idea. We found that lots of pupils (of all abilities) were struggling to choose books from the library. Jo suggested that we recommend our classesone book every Friday. These are from all sorts of genres and appeal to a wide variety of interests. So far, we’ve had ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’, ‘My Sister’s Keeper’, ‘Gone Girl’ and many others. We hold the book up, talk about it a bit, and then it goes in the library. At lunchtime, loads of kids turn up to grab one of the coveted ‘Friday Read’ books.

 

Team Reads

 

Following the Class Reader theme, we have lots of full class sets of books in the library that pupils can take out together and read in groups. These are called ‘Team Reads’. These are a mixture of classics and modern novels, and pupils are welcome to come in to the library at lunchtime and read them together, or take them home to read and discuss. If you’re stuck for resources on this one, check out the Penguin Classics offer for schools– you can get loads of books for a relatively low sum.

 

Personal Reading

 

Finally, our pupils are all expected to have a library book with them every day. They read this in silence in morning tutor time and at home in the evenings. This gives kids the flexibility to choose anything they want to read. Interestingly, pupils often choose books related to the topics they are studying in lessons. So we see lots of kids reading about Ancient Egypt or Astronomy, for example. ‘Tracy Beaker’ is still popular, but lots of our pupils challenge themselves to read more widely and push themselves out of their comfort zones.

 

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Like the sound of this? We’re hiring! More information here: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/

 

Posted on April 16, 2016 by Jo Facer

Tiger Teachers

In Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, there are two key messages for parents and teachers. The first: hard work pays off. The second: strict discipline is the best way to ensure our kids succeed. Statistical evidence shows that Chinese kids are ‘stereotypically successful’: in 2014, Chinese children were the highest performing ethnic group, with 74.4% achieving 5 A*-C EM compared with the national average of 56.6%. What is the secret?

Chua notes: ‘In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that ‘stressing academic success is not good for children’ or that ‘parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.’ By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt that way.’ The idea of learning as ‘fun,’ ‘discovery’ or ‘exploring’ does not seem to exist for Chinese parents. Throughout the book, Chua makes references to poor teaching methods holding Western children back: ‘While the other kids were learning to count from 1 to 10 the creative American way – with rods, beads and cones – I taught Sophia addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals the rote Chinese way.’ When Chua talks about skills, she explains: ‘I don’t mean inborn skills, just skills learned the diligent, disciplined, confidence-expanding Chinese way.’ Underpinning this comment is the highest of high expectations: children can learn anything, as long as they are taught it explicitly and drilled enough in it.

To those who may argue that not all children can be successful with hard work, Chua cites her sister Cindy, who was born with Down’s syndrome: Chua’s mother ‘[spent] hours patiently doing puzzles with Cindy and teaching her how to draw. When Cindy started grade school, my mother taught her to read and drilled multiplication tables with her. Today, Cindy holds two International Special Olympics gold medals in swimming.’ As the mother of young children, Chua notes: ‘As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks, I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: 1. Higher dreams for their children, and 2. Higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.’

And by ‘how much they can take,’ Chua is referring not only to how much children can learn, but how much discipline they can handle. Each of Chua’s daughters, Sophia and Lulu, play instruments; Chua, a professor of law at Yale university, attends every music lesson and every practice session at home, coaching, guiding and, in reality, shouting. The extraordinary results are achieved through this disciplined and strict practice. She explains: ‘What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.’ Furthermore, while Western parents worry about self-esteem, Chinese parents: ‘assume strength, not fragility.’

Chua’s harshness has been condemned in the media, notably when given a sub-standard birthday card, hand-made by her daughters. She quotes herself saying: ‘I work so hard to give you good birthdays! I deserve better than this. So I reject this.’ In a later letter, her daughter notes: ‘funny how some people are convinced that Lulu and I are scarred for life. Maybe if I had poured my heart into it, I would have been upset. But let’s face it: the card was feeble, and I was busted. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel like you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.’

It is not easy to discipline children in this harsh way: ‘you have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you, and there’s just no letting up, no point at which it suddenly becomes easy.’ We believe exactly the same thing at Michaela. There are times when I really, really don’t want to give a pupil a demerit or a detention: I know how hard they are trying, even though they are still doing the wrong thing, and I love them so, so much. I’ve started saying in my head: ‘do I love them enough to give them a demerit right now?’ By turning our thinking from indulgence to discipline, I do think that in the long term our children will be more successful, not to mention more resilient.

For hard work is the gateway to future success: if a child achieves lower mark than wanted in a test ‘the Chinese mother would get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough.’ Even on holiday, Chua insisted on daily instrument practice, telling her children: ‘every day that you don’t practice is a day that you’re getting worse.’ She reflects: ‘Will Sophia recall with bitterness the time I laid in to her at a piano in Barcelona because her fingers were not kicking high enough? If so, I hope she also remembers Rocquebrune, where the manager of our hotel heard Sophia practising and invited her to perform for the entire restaurant that evening, overlooking the Mediterranean, [getting] bravos and hugs from all the guests.’

She rails against the indulgence of choice in Western parenting: ‘they just keep repeating things like “you have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion” when it’s obvious that the “passion” is just going to turn out to be Facebook for ten hours which is a total waste of time.’ Children do not know enough to make the right choices, which is why indulgence will lead to lower academic success. Nearly half of young people are leaving school without even the minimum qualifications: this is a national tragedy, and something we need to take seriously. When Chua’s rebellious younger daughter gives up the violin in her most rebellious teens, her mother feels she has lost – but when she takes up tennis the coach comments to her: ‘she has an unbelievable work ethic – I’ve never seen anyone improve so fast. You and your husband have done an amazing job with her. She never settles for less than 110 percent.’ And today she, like her older sister before her, attends Harvard.

We want a happy ending for our children. But this means hard work, and discipline to ensure they do that hard work: ‘In Disney movies, the “good daughter” always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then run into the ocean or something like that. But that’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that’s freedom – not running into the ocean.’

Winning prizes, passing exams: these give children choices. In the short term it is so very, very hard to be strict, to be demanding, and to not settle for less than 100%. AtMichaela, we have very, very high standards, and are not afraid to tell our pupils: ‘that’s not good enough. Do it again.’ In the short term, it feels bad for them to have ‘failed,’ but the extra practice, and seeing the improvement in the second piece should stand them in good stead in the long term.

Chua writes: ‘All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.’ This resonates strongly with me: atMichaela, we do things totally differently. We all want our children to succeed, but we just have a very different approach.

Battle hymn

Posted on April 9, 2016 by Katie Ashford

How can we help the weakest catch up?

“So let me get this straight: we’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”- Bart Simpson

 

Our instinct is often to assume that a kid with a reading age of 7 couldn’t possibly be asked to sit and read a Dickens chapter in class for an hour.  So rather than cruelly forcing them to do so, we might perhaps choose to watch a film clip and draw a storyboard instead. On the surface, this seems entirely legitimate and reasonable. After all, pupils cannot be expected to run before they can walk. But this is where I think we have been going wrong with the weakest pupils for a long time. Our good and caring intentions have unwittingly lowered the bar for the pupils who struggle the most. By reducing the expectations we have of their behaviour and output in lessons, we limit them from ever being able to achieve the best possible outcomes. Weak pupils will simply never catch up if they are rarely exposed to truly challenging tasks and aren’t pushed to meet the demands of an academically rigorous curriculum.

 

The weakest pupils need more focus, more rigour and more practice if they are to stand any chance of catching up with their peers.

 

  1. More Focus

 

For some reason, we don’t expect weak kids to behave as well as we expect top set kids to behave. 7.1 may be a dream to teach, but why, in the same school with the same teacher, are 10.8 a complete nightmare? Bottom set kids are doubly disadvantaged: not only do they come in knowing the least; their lessons are often the most disrupted. They need to spend the maximum amount of time in lessons listening to the teacher, following rules and working hard, yet often they are surrounded by chaos.

 

Think about the precious minutes that are melting away whilst the weakest pupils sit in a chaotic classroom. Think of all the things they could learn during that time if they were actually listening. School leaders must do everything in their power to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn from their teacher every single lesson.

 

 

  1. More Rigour

 

When pupils find extended reading and writing difficult, there is a temptation to reduce the rigour in the content and tasks they are asked to do. It’s tough to give a kid with a reading age of 7 a full page of text to wade through, but surely it is better for them to struggle and come out the other side than to never even attempt such tasks. Again, we feel like it might be cruel to expect a bottom set pupil to sit and read a challenging text for an hour, but isn’t it crueller never to give them the chance? Reading texts in lessons with weak pupils is tough, but it isn’t impossible. If they get into the habit of doing it every lesson- perhaps, even across subjects- they will get better at it and will feel successful.

 

  1. More Practice

 

If a child has a reading age of 7 and cannot spell, they need to spend the bulk of their time in lessons reading and writing. They are literally years behind where they should be, and we simply do not have a moment to spare. Every planning decision we make gives us a choice: spend time doing things they can already do (drawing a story board), or spend time developing skills they desperately need to master if they are going to stand a chance of being successful in the future.

 

We must also remember that pupils only spend around 25 hours per week in lessons. This time is so precious. With such limited exposure to teachers and their expertise, we should strive to make the most of every second they have. They can watch films, make posters, do a bit of drawing and chat to their mates at home. They can’t work out how to solve quadratic equations or read and understand a Dickens novel without the support of a subject expert.

 

 

 

The weakest kids have the biggest mountain to climb. With the support of their teachers, a rigorous curriculum, meaningful lesson activities and focused behaviour in lessons, they stand the best possible chance of reaching their potential.

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If you found yourself nodding along in agreement with this post, why not apply to work with us at Michaela? We’re hiring English, Humanities and Science teachers. More information here: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/

Posted on March 30, 2016 by Katie Ashford

Women: Know Your Limits.

Growing up, I was fortunate enough not to have to worry about gender inequality. As far as I was concerned, I could run just as fast, shout just as loud, and be just as smart as my brother or any of the boys I knew at school. My dad was a Judo coach, so from about the age of 8 I spent weekday evenings throwing boys twice my size around a hall in the local community centre. Of course I had heard about gender inequality, but I saw it as a thing of the past. From my perspective, the women  who fought for women’s rights had given me the chance not to have to do the same for myself. Through their chastisement of the status quo, I was liberated from the limits that had been imposed on them for millennia, and for that I was grateful.

 

Over the last few years, as I creep steadily towards my 30s, a few things have helped me to see that perhaps I was naïve to believe that women were unquestionably equal to men. The usual stuff kept cropping up: woman are ‘emotional’ and ‘bossy’, must be married with kids before 35, should weigh no more than 8 stone, and should spend more money on hair cuts than rent to avoid being considered a slob. Bla bla bla. But I was most shocked when, recently, at an event hosted by an older man, I sat myself between two guys I know well and respect deeply; the host engaged sincerely with them, shifting his eyes from the man on my left to the man on my right, and yet overlooked me completely. I was more than a little annoyed. My inner Judoka wanted to leap up and thrash him to the floor in the names of feminism and good manners. Of course, I didn’t. I sat there politely and nodded along, trying occasionally to squeeze a word in or earn a second of his focus, to little avail. His loss. I’m great.

 

Explaining these lurking concerns to a devout feminist acquaintance, she declared: “Yes, Katie. Welcome to the Patriarchy!” She’s right. The Patriarchy does exist and it is terrible that women aren’t as equal as they ought to be. But I fear that looking at the world through this lens is problematic. I fear that too much acknowledgment of ‘the patriarchy’, and all the evils that go with it, renders women less powerful. In doing so, we place subtle, damaging limits upon ourselves, and I am not about to let that happen to me.

 

Maybe it wasn’t because I’m female that the host was rude. Maybe he was just rude! Maybe he didn’t like me because he disagreed with something I wrote in a blog once. Maybe I’d accidentally said something that annoyed him. Maybe he thought I was an arrogant idiot (a fair assumption). I’ll never know the truth, but by instantly jumping to the conclusion that his rudeness was a response to my gender, I actually did myself a disservice. Gender inequality isn’t the answer to all of life’s woes. I blamed abstract ideas – ‘society’, ‘the patriarchy’, ‘misogyny’. Ideas are easy to blame, but very difficult to change if they come to define us. It’s like we are all standing around pointing to a massive neon sign saying ‘PATRIARCHY’, giving it more credit than it deserves. By viewing the world through this prism, we subtly impose further limits on ourselves.

 

I may be great, but I cannot control the minds of others. I cannot control their thoughts, their prejudices, their attitudes, their ignorance. I cannot change history, either. Yes, men have had the power since time immemorial, but I cannot change that. Focusing on the fact that this is unfair won’t change it either. It’s a huge leviathan composed of an infinite number of moving parts. It’s extremely hard to pin down. Focusing on it too much risks removing women of their agency and ability to overcome the lingering barriers that society will inevitably present.

 

So I urge women not to allow the problems in society to limit them, but instead to move beyond them. So the next time someone says something that triggers your inner feminist, don’t allow that thought to limit you. Overcome it. Realise that you cannot change what is not within your control. Carry on as you would have, had misogyny never existed. Be brilliant, and work to improve the things about you that you can control. There are things that all of us need to work on, but don’t let gender inequality posses you. Know the limits that lie within, and ignore the limits that lie beyond, and perhaps one day the apparent need for ‘Feminism’ will cease to exist.

Posted on March 26, 2016 by Joe Kirby

I’m a teacher, get me out of here

Francis Gilbert describes his experiences of being a new teacher in a tough school with vivid candour. He agreed to let me share some extracts from the book, which is well worth reading.

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In a primary school I visited in my first year of teaching, children were pulling each other’s hair, tipping water on the floor, scribbling on each other’s faces and prodding each other with tongs.

In the secondary school I went to next, a boy was openly smoking in front of his teacher. He offered me a cigarette.

One teacher I observed, Jesse, seemed exhausted. He encouraged pupils to make their own films, discuss controversial topics and do anything but sit down and read and write. It was hard work, made even harder because the pupils knew he was a soft touch: they ate sweets in his lesson, swore regularly, had fights and verbal slanging matches.

My first ever lesson was with Jesse’s GCSE English class, and there was a play to read. ‘Now then,’ I said, ‘Could we have quiet, please? Could you put your hand up if you want to read?’ Everyone started shouting that they wanted a role, and then when I said they had a part they refused to take it. After ten minutes of trying to allocate roles, no one had a part. The kids were laughing and jeering at me. Sweat was beginning to seep through my shirt. I eventually got the play started, but the faltering voices were drowned out by the other kids who were still chatting very loudly. Daryl Jones was pushing and shoving the boy next to him. He shoved him so hard that his friend fell off his seat. He grinned as I approached and put his head on the desk with his eyes closed. ‘You have to follow’ I said in an angry voice. ‘Oh, f*ck off sir,’ said Jones, ‘I’m just trying to have a kip here.’ The class exploded in laughter. He had humiliated me, and there was nothing I could do.

 

In September, my life as a teacher in inner-city London began. After one appalling lesson with 9A, I was confused and anxious. I had 9A again that day and was none the wiser about how to teach them. I felt I only had myself to blame. I should know how to teach, I should know how to get them to behave…

‘Yer mum is a c**k-sucking whore who takes it up the bum’

‘Yer mum is a c**k-sucking bandit whore who takes it up the bum and more

‘Yer mum is a wh*re’

‘Sir, sir, Bulus just cussed my mum!’

‘He started it!’

Apart from this, my worksheet seemed to have done the trick: 9A was very noisy but nearly everyone was attempting to write the fill-in-the-gaps exercise.

 

A typical afternoon teaching 9A, who I’d been teaching for months now, looks like this. They are jostling against the corridor wall, prodding each other, guffawing and shouting as they wait to come into the room. One of the girls winks at me: ‘anyone tell you you’ve got a nice arse sir?’ She winks at me again. I pretend I haven’t heard. Wahid notes, ‘You got red eyes sir. Very red eyes! Anything the matter with you? You sick? You’re not infected are you?’ Others join in, ‘Red eyes! Red eyes!’ For some reason, since I started at Truss, I have suffered from red eyes. This isn’t from drinking, or form conjunctivitis; it is a Truss-related condition that neither I nor my doctor can get to the bottom of.

‘Now, 9A, I need you to listen. Could you listen please? Sharif, please could you stop hitting Bilal with your book. Your book is for reading. Jafar, don’t flick! I said no elastic bands! And stop tapping Fotik! Stop it! NOW!’ They start laughing at my explosion. Charlene snarls when I tell her to get on with the work, that it’s boring and she isn’t going to do anything. There is a tussle developing between Bulus and Mohibur. Bulus is having fun ripping off the cover of his book, rolling it into a cone and whacking Mohibur over the head with it. ‘You’re going to have to pay for that book,’ I say, realising that I wont being able to carry out this threat. Bulus shrugs and keeps hitting Mohibur. When the bell goes, the pupils suddenly disappear before I can set them imaginary homework. Homework does not happen at this school except in policy documents.

My observation feedback is this: ‘You need to do more groupwork. Their learning is far too passive at the moment.’

Another lesson began. ‘Right, now, quiet, and let’s get on with some work!’ I shouted. There were laughs. Hakim snorted and produced a pack of cigarettes. ‘If you light that I’ll have to send you out on call,’ I said. Despair and panic shot through every limb of my body. On call at Truss was a hassle and a shambles: the teacher had to log the incident in a book, and the senior team were never in attendance. Hakim lit the cigarette. The whole class jumped up and started running around the room. Then they began to move the furniture out of the room. I shouted at the top of my voice for them to stop, but it was useless. Desks, chairs and textbooks ricocheted into the corridor. ‘Want a drag?’ Hakim grinned at me.

I felt humiliated, angry and guilty. The guilt was the worst because I felt as though the whole incident was my fault. I felt so ashamed, I felt like I would never teach again.

 

I went to observe another English teacher. Sean Carson’s class was an oasis of calm and quiet. Sean was a disciplinarian. The riotous behaviour of the same students didn’t happen in his class. He never did any groupwork. In his view, the kids would just muck around. Pupils were either reading or writing. Amid the turbulence of inner-city London, he had built a world of peace. How did he do it? He had clocked up twenty years of teaching experience.

The thought of 9A last thing on a Friday filled me with dread. Yumin was forever jumping up and down and found it impossible to sit in his seat. Bilal asked me awkward questions about my private life: ‘have you ever had sex, sir? When did you last do it?’ Shadi told tales about gang fights and drug-running. I never got a grip on the class during that first year.

Slowly, there were days when I was able to talk without being interrupted at the beginning of lessons. Sometimes I could even get the children to work in silence. Little notes, though, were still being passed around the room.

In a nearby classroom, there were scenes of malign pandemonium, the behaviour malicious and angry. The kids were throwing things at the boards, turning over tables, sweeping Bunsen burners off tables, smashing test tubes and fighting each other.

I wanted to move on.

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Posted on March 26, 2016 by Bodil Isaksen

Going postal about posters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on March 25, 2016 by Jo Facer

Term 1 at Michaela: what have I learned?

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

Ego

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

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

Purpose

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

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

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Posted on March 23, 2016 by Lucy Newman

Starting at Michaela

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on March 23, 2016 by Jonathan Porter

Did it work? Year 8 history essays on medieval England

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

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

High ability paragraph on the Church.

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Mid ability paragraph on the nobles

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Low ability paragraph on the peasants

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High ability conclusion (typed out verbatim)

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

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Strengths: knowledge and memory

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

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

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

Improvements: explanation and judgement

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

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

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

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

Quality Music Education Remains the Preserve of the Privately Educated

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/music-theatre/2015/09/why-music-education-britain-so-poor

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

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

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

 

A typical child who is paying for music lessons will:

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

 

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

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

 

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

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