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Michaela’s Blog

Posted on January 28, 2016 by Dani Quinn

Long-Term Solutions (Or: Why Make a Textbook)

This is my sixth year of teaching and I think it’s the first time I have taught equations properly to a KS3 class. I was almost there last year, and thought I was doing it well, but I now know there are several topics where I completely let the pupils down. This post is about how I could have been better-prepared earlier in my career, and avoided leaving later teachers with a mess to clean up.

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Naveen Rizvi’s piece yesterday in the TES caused a stir that surprised me. Many people had a negative reaction beyond what I would have expected (I won’t link to them) and was followed by some negativity – or at least concern and alarmed questions – when Bodil subsequently shared an example of two pages from the booklets we give to pupils.

As I see it, these are some of the main barriers preventing pupils from achieving their potential in maths that CAN’T be dealt with by better resourcing:

  1. Limited working memory (i.e. there is a limit to how many new concepts the pupil can form and connect in a single lesson
  2. Fear of maths; strong and paralysing anxiety around maths

 

 

  1. Poor mathematical foundations from primary age
  2. Poor literacy (insofar as it limits their access to everything in education, and their ability to practise independently)

 

 

  1. Unsupportive home environment that leaves the pupil unprepared for school in a practical or emotional sense
  2. Low attendance
  3. Fixed mindset around maths, often meeting its first major challenge at secondary
  4. Passive behaviour. This could charitably be called low motivation, or disengagement. It could less charitably be called laziness.
  5. Disruptive behaviour and avoidance techniques
  6. Their peers’ disruptive behaviour
  7. A class culture that doesn’t value effort and hard work
  8. A class culture that penalises mistakes and revealing or discussing errors
  9. A class culture that makes it uncool to want to see the links between ideas in maths
  1. A weak teacher who isn’t trying to improve (either wilfully, or due to disenchantment borne of circumstances)
  2. A weak teacher who is trying to improve but isn’t there fast enough (typically an NQT, a teacher transferred from another dept (usually PE or geography), or a teacher who has been neglected in terms of development)

 

Possible solutions:Improved teacher pedagogy and understanding of how memories and connections are formed.

Improved teacher understanding of what fixed and growth mind-set actually is (not just a gimmick to console pupils when they underperform… my heart bleeds for Dweck).

Possible solutions:Effective intervention and catch-up programmes in school (ideally supported at home).

 

Possible solutions:School leadership foments a culture that challenges this (supported by classroom culture created by individual teachers), either through super-high expectations/tough love or alternative approach that challenges and changes issues that hold pupils back in school. Possible solutions:Head of Department leads maths-focused CPD
Caveats:This is not easy. ITT doesn’t seem to cover this adequately, and it appears to be a relatively new part of most teachers’ pedagogy*, relatively complex to understand and highly complex to begin to incorporate into practice (particularly for the weakest pupils).

* This is, of course, excluding some very experienced and successful practitioners. In their case, it appears to be something they’ve come to understand intuitively and isn’t easily shared as it isn’t codified.

Caveats:There are many programmes that appear to have high impact in closing the gap between pupils’ reading and chronological ages, or the gaps in their mathematical foundations. In particular, direct instruction programmes such as Connecting Maths Concepts (McGraw-Hill scripted direct instruction programme) and Lexia appear to be effective ‘off-the-shelf’ interventions (based on my own experience!). Caveats:Really brave leadership on school culture, especially in challenging circumstances, is too rare (in my limited experience). Many bloggers have written about the gap between their school’s behaviour policy and the ‘real behaviour policy’ (teachers are left to defend their own classrooms, with little or no back up). In the best cases I’ve seen, there is total clarity about the positive, learning-focused culture the headmaster/mistress seeks to embed, and the behaviour policy serves this and is always upheld. Caveats:This is incredibly time-consuming. Most HoDs simply don’t have the capacity to do this well. The number of conflicting interests they have makes this difficult: teaching as many of the critical/tricky classes as possible (as they are, hopefully, one of the strongest teachers), writing SOWs, managing staff shortage (it is maths, after all), retaining staff and keeping them happy, improving teaching quality. And, ideally, reading widely to prepare for new exam specs and maths education research…!

However, there are more issues than this that are – I think – relatively neglected outside of the rarefied atmosphere of online edu-chat and conferences.

Barriers created in lessons:

  1. An capable but exhausted teacher who can’t prepare adequately for lessons (their department is under-resourced and teach a full and varied timetable)
  2. Confusion about what they should be covering to prepare for the end of Y11 (it is unclear what the pupils covered in Y7-9, or in how much detail; there is uncertainty about what should *actually* be taught when they see ‘averages, 1 week’ on the SOW… Does it mean calculating the mean, median, mode and range only, or complex questions where some values are missing and then one value is changed?).
  3. Painfully optimistic allocations of timing to teach topics (expressions – 1 week; fractions – 2 weeks), due to insufficient clarity about what should actually be taught.
  4. A gap between what they cover in lessons (superficial) and the rigour of the exam (increasingly higher, hopefully). A recent example of this was the GCSE question: Solve for a: 2a + a + a = 18. This question is beyond trivial, but many teachers had not prepared their class for the possibility that simplifying and solving could be used in the same problem.
  5. Unclear explanations, or rule-based explanations, that makes it difficult for pupils to use their knowledge flexibly or to ask useful questions (e.g. “change side, change sign” to solve linear equations because it seems quicker and easier, or convoluted steps to solve simultaneous equations).
  6. Inadequately scaffolded and varied practice in lessons that doesn’t prepare them for the variety of forms maths can take in the real world (or in exams…) (We all suffer from textbooks that escalate the difficulty of questions too quickly, so that your weakest pupils get only 2-3 questions practising questions in the form a+3=10 before they’re moved onto the other three operations).
  7. The practice gap (i.e. getting much less practice than pupils in other schools). Most textbooks DON’T HAVE ENOUGH QUESTIONS. At all. Most of the newest books boast how many more questions they have. It is not enough. If a pupil has only just begun to grasp a procedure, they need to do it many times to build their confidence and then begin very careful and gradual variations.
  8. Pupils forgetting that they have learned something (“I swear down they never taught us that”). This comes from haphazard, or no, continuous revision or interleaving (weaving old topics into current topics).
  9. Pupils doing what seems obvious to solve a problem, rather than what is mathematically correct (e.g. writing that 3/4 + 1/2 = 4/6). As above, an absence of revision and interleaving.
  10. Pupils knowing they’ve learned something, but muddle it (e.g. calculating the mean when asked to comment on the median). Also as above…

I am increasingly convinced that a good textbook would begin to address these ten problems. A good textbook:

  1. Offers interesting talks and prompts for pupils to have high-quality discussions in pairs and with the class. These can range from puzzles to problems that provoke cognitive dissonance (e.g. which is closer to 1/2, 1/3 or 1?)
  2. Offers worthwhile questions that allow pupils to use multiple strategies to solve a problem or to calculate (e.g. 4.5 x 24)
  3. Plans for revisiting old topics, particularly those that are high impact (directed numbers, fractions, equations, manipulation, mental maths, calculation) or easily confused (e.g. minimally different topics such as perimeter and area)
  4. Has carefully and thoughtfully sequenced content in the big picture (e.g. equations preceding graphs) and in the fine detail (e.g. breaking down directed numbers into the many strands of understanding and procedure that pupils need to grasp).
  5. Has identified key examples that a teacher might want to use with a class, covering the most important problem-types for a concept or procedure.
  6. Offers clear and highly accurate explanations of WHY something works.
  7. Has distilled clear steps to scaffold pupils’ work as they begin to tackle a new procedure.
  8. Offers memory devices to help pupils retain and recall concepts or steps (Chants for the 7 times tables, or mnemonics such a KFC for dividing fractions (Keep the first, Flip the other, Change to times, it’s no bother).
  9. Offers LOTS of practise at each level of difficulty in a procedure.
  10. Has lots of interleaving available, but sectioned off, so that the teacher can judge the level of complexity students should experience.

None of this replaces planning lessons. You still want to share enthusiasm, build excitement, anticipate common errors and misconceptions, explain clearly, model explicitly and unambiguously, check for understanding, grow their confidence in the face of setbacks, celebrate success, maintain pace and focus in a safe and happy environment and – of course – go back and refine the plan and resource after you’ve taught it. This all takes planning, deep thought about your classes and huge love of maths. I don’t understand how the existence of such a resource would compromise the idea that teachers tailor their teaching to their classes.

Sadly, such a resource doesn’t appear to exist. That’s why we’re making a textbook. Please get in touch, have a look, and help up improve it!

Posted on 12 November, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

I could care less: detentions for pens

Pen (n) an instrument for writing or drawing with ink, typically consisting of a metal nib or ball, or a nylon tip, fitted into a metal or plastic holder.

Who knew so many tweets could be generated by such an inoffensive item?

It all began with my disagreement with this tweet:

View image on Twitter

140 characters were certainly not enough to explain my stance. So here are 4000 more.

High standards, high support

Have you noticed how no one uses the phrase “false dichotomy” anymore? Edu-twitter debate tropes have moved on since 2013.

Nonetheless, I’ve been breaking out the well-worn phrase a lot over the past couple of days. Retro.

Some common responses were:

“A conversation is better than a detention”

“Supporting the pupil with their organisation is better than a detention”

“Giving the pupil a pen is better than a detention”

“School-wide systems to provide equipment are better than detentions”

You can give detentions and still do all of the above. I know that – because that’s what we do at Michaela.

We have sincere conversations explaining our standards, upfront at the beginning of year 7 and constantly reiterated. Staff devote hours and hours to improving motivation and changing mindsets through one-on-one chats.

Struggling pupils have daily check-ins and check-outs from a City Year mentor to get them into good habits regarding attendance, punctuality, homework and equipment.

If a pupil turns up a lesson without a pen, we give them a damn pen and get on with learning.

Our school shop is open every morning before registration for pupils to restock on equipment they need.

We have high standards, but we also have high support.

Nudging, signalling

Fine, but can’t you just have the support without the detentions?

No.

A detention is a slightly unpleasant half-hour experience. It’s enough to give pupils that nudge to check their equipment the night before. Pupils aren’t especially bad or lazy, but they are human. As a human being, we don’t enjoy unnecessary effort. A detention tips the balance in favour of sorting your pencil case out.

Detentions also signal that we say what we mean, and mean what we say. Our words (that it’s important to be prepared) are backed up with something that shows we really do prioritise it. Unless you have a completely consequence-free discipline system, what you sanction matters. It tells pupils what you really care about. It speaks far more loudly than words could.

The whys and wherefores

Still, why do we care about them bringing pens?

A school has to make a choice about what they provide and what the kids sort out. Calculators in maths are a classic example. In some schools, there are class sets. In others, the pupils bring their own. It would be absurd to sanction a pupil for not bringing a calculator in a system where they are provided. So sure, at Michaela we could all provide pens and avoid the whole detentions-for-equipment thing altogether.

Why don’t we?

Firstly, just doing what’s always done, I suppose. I’ve never known a secondary school where pens are provided for pupils. When we were setting up, it’s not something that was ever questioned.

Secondly, minimising faff. When pupils are moving about from classroom to classroom, making sure pens don’t go walkies, replacing them when they’re broken, and so on is more hassle than it’s worth.

Thirdly, pupils are more likely to look after and value something they own than something that’s a public good. Again, not because they’re bad, but because they’re human: the tragedy of the commons is not the preserve of inner city teens.

Fourthly, it sends a message about personal responsibility. We won’t sort everything out for them all the time.

Fifthly, it’s a gentle introduction to good habits of organisation that will prove most useful in life.

Care is a doing word

We show we care about our pupils through our actions. I’m giving a detention for a pen because I care. Maybe that’s a different choice from yours – but it’s still driven by wanting the very, very best for those I teach.

I give a detention because it doesn’t stop me from providing support. I give a detention because it encourages pupils to make the right choice. I give a detention because I think having a pen is important. I give a detention because I care.

 

Posted on 11 November, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

What do you want to get out of twitter?

What do you want to get out of twitter?

Do you want to self-promote? Do you want others to congratulate you when things are good and commiserate when things are tough?

Do you want to be intellectually stimulated and challenged? Do you want to debate and pull apart your ideas? Do you want to be forced to defend your stance so you question things more closely?

If you want to do the former, the strategies suggested by Sue Cowley and Teacher Toolkit make perfect sense. Mute, block, ignore. (Everyone does this a little: you tire of engaging with a certain line of debate or individual and stop responding.)

But I believe you are missing out on a massively beneficial side of twitter if you do so as a general policy. You’re missing out on the chance to develop your thinking.

What I’d like to challenge, though, is the perception that people who engage in robust and forthright debate care less. They (we?) are often painted as uncaring and emotionless. That’s simply not true.

You do not have a monopoly on emotion simply because you choose to ignore or react badly to forthright discussion.

I have emotional responses to tone that feels off. I have my fair share of mental health issues. I have received tweets where my instinctual reaction was one of anger, or sadness, or frustration.

But I know that’s just an emotion. I can control my reaction to it. I can control my thoughts stemming from it. I can certainly control the actions I take – including what tweet I send in response.

I think it’s a real shame if your choice of action is to block, or to respond emotionally rather than engaging in the substance of the argument. I think it’s a shame if your choice of thoughts is the least charitable interpretation (“that person doesn’t care about children” rather than “I wonder what’s led them to think that”). I think you’re likely to learn less and grow less.

But. As I said. Your choice.

Posted on November 8, 2015 by Katie Ashford

Grammar and the Art of Writing: ResearchED Literacy

Here is a write up of the presentation I gave at ResearchED Literacy in Swindon yesterday, in case anyone missed it and is interested in what I have to say about grammar (feel free not to be!).

What makes a good writer?

When I first began teaching English, I thought carefully about what it meant to be a great writer, and how I might be able to help my pupils get better at writing themselves. At the time, I was reading ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates. It has since become one of my favourite books, and I re-read it at least once every year. The story is good, but I adore Yates’ writing style. There’s something beautiful about the way it flows. Struck by a couple of wonderfully rich, yet concise, sentences of his, I came to a conclusion. I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses. So that is what I needed to help my pupils get better at: controlling clauses. By beginning with a clear goal in mind, it is easier to understand the direction and purpose of grammar teaching. From there, I began working out what knowledge pupils needed to know in order to be able to control clauses effectively.

Parts of Speech

Joe Kirby began sequencing a grammar curriculum into three parts: the parts of speech, syntax rules, and punctuation rules. I agreed that these were helpful categories.

One of the main criticisms grammar receives is that parsing sentences is a waste of time. I hear some teachers say that knowing that the word ‘run’ can be both a noun and a verb is unnecessary. I can understand why some may see it this way. On the surface, knowing the parts of speech doesn’t appear to be particularly useful. However, since I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come across a number of examples that demonstrate why this knowledge is in fact extremely helpful.

Take the following examples:

He married an intelligent, charismatic woman.

 He wore a bright red coat.

 Why is a comma necessary in the first sentence, but not the second? The parts of speech hold the answer: ‘intelligent’ and ‘charismatic’ are two adjectives and therefore should be separated by a comma. ‘Bright’, however, is an adverb modifying the adjective ‘red’, so no comma is necessary. Knowledge of the parts of speech also enables us to understand why we say a ‘bright red coat’ rather than a ‘red bright coat’. Red does not qualify the adjective bright; rather, the adverb ‘bright’ tells us how red the coat is.

Whilst most people will intuit this knowledge, many people will not. As teachers, we should be as systematic as possible to ensure that every pupil knows how to punctuate sentences properly. Even the humble listing comma cannot be applied correctly without an understanding of the parts of speech.

I gave more examples of this during the talk. I’ve attached the presentation to the bottom of this blog post if you’d like to read more on this.

Sequencing

Sequencing a grammar curriculum is key. I argue that it ought to have 20% of curriculum time at KS3. Over three years, pupils ought to study 9 units.

Year 7: The basics of the parts of speechsyntax and punctuation. These units should provide a broad overview. For example, when teaching the parts of speech, you wouldn’t want to go into the detail of types of nouns (proper, common, abstract, etc.) as this will overload pupils. Instead, simply teach them what a noun is. Come back to nouns in year 8 and then teach the different types.

 Year 8: Detailed breakdown of the same three units. Here is your opportunity to teach the more nuanced aspects of what was taught the year before.

Year 9: Deepen pupils’ knowledge of the complexities of grammar. A strong emphasis should be placed on its impact on meaning.

A Grammar Lesson

Grammar lessons should be ‘DEaD’ good: that is, it should contain a clear definition, illuminating examples and unrelenting drills.

For example, when teaching adjectives to year 7, I would begin the lesson with a recap of the parts of speech that I have taught previously. I would do this by giving pupils a few phrases to parse, for example:

Our house

Lucy’s kite

A window

The door! Jamie!

Karen’s doll.

 Next, introduce the concept. At Michaela, we have created a short story about grammar. In each chapter, a new part of speech is introduced in the form of a personified character. The Adjective Ladies are the eponymous heroines of this lesson. They are a group of gossipy old women who sit around and describe people. The story contains several examples of adjectives, all italicised.

The next step is to learn the definition. Pupils learn that adjectives describe nouns and we chant this together as a class. This is quickly followed by a sequence of examples and non-examples.

Once pupils are consistently giving correct responses to the question ‘adjective or not an adjective’, they are ready to practice. Begin by asking them to circle the adjectives from a list of simple words. Increase the challenge in subsequent activities by asking them to circle the adjectives in simple sentences, then more challenging sentences. Increase the challenge further by asking them to tell you which noun the adjective describes in every example.

Finish the lesson by carrying out further parsing activities, this time including adjectives. For example:

Our lovely house

Jane’s delicious meal

The music? Wonderful!

Matilda: a reader

Frightening, that ride.

 To ensure pupils don’t forget this in between grammar lessons, and to increase the chances that they will apply grammar to writing across other lessons, carry out daily drill exercises. For the first five minutes of every lesson, pupils parse a few sentences/ underline all the subjects/ punctuate sentences with non-restrictive clauses, etc. as appropriate. On the whole, these should be aligned to the unit you are currently teaching them, but recap of previously taught content is also helpful.

Thanks to Tom Bennett, David Didau and Ruth Robinson for organising what was a brilliant event. I’d highly recommend looking into the work of James MurphyEric Kalenzeand Dianne Murphy. I attended their talks yesterday and all three were totes amaze!

Here is the PowerPoint I delivered yesterday, which includes the sample lesson I have explained above: ResearchED Literacy Grammar

Posted on October 18, 2015 by Jessica Lund

Discovery Learning: The Story of the Rubik’s Cube

Starring the inimitable Bodil Isaksen, the amazing Sarah Clear, the redoubtable Katie Ashford, and the wonderful geeks of Michaela Community School

In a bid to make my lengthy commute more enjoyable, I have been experimenting with a range of pastimes on the tube: listening to audiobooks; playing (losing) chess against my phone; ensuring a liberal distribution of croissant crumbs about my person.

I found a new activity a week ago. While talking to the excellent Ms Isaksen in her classroom, I noticed the small pile of Rubik’s cubes she keeps there as prizes for exceptional performance in Maths. She lent me one to play with, and a new obsession was born. I had played with Rubik’s cubes in my early teens, although I had never learned to solve one.

In the following week, I muddled and fiddled and shuffled my way around the cube. I got really good at solving one side, but was utterly flummoxed after that point. I thought that either it was a matter of time until I cracked it, or that I just wasn’t Rubik’s cube material. Meanwhile, my colleague Ms Clear solved one in fewer than 3 minutes in front of my form, to the awe and applause of the kids.

It was then that I bit the bullet and looked up the solution online. I figured that if I wasn’t making any headway in solving one myself, I could learn from the experts. So, I wrote down the algorithms and, lo and behold, I solved the cube. And then I solved it again. I started to see the interrelation of the movements to the positions of the pieces, and the first few steps at least became completely automatic. I was soon able, with the help of the algorithms, to solve a cube in less than 6 minutes. It felt like a real triumph.

A lovely side-effect of my determination was that a group of about 15 pupils would ask to play with the cube every break time, and huddle together helping one another to put certain pieces in certain places. They were all wonderfully confident in their ability to solve the cube, even though they never had before. This confidence usually wore off after about 20 minutes of play.

I realised that my pupils, Ms Clear and I fell into three distinct categories.

Ms Clear has a well-developed understanding of the interrelation of the pieces on the cube, and a seemingly innate sense of how to solve one. She can solve a cube with ease.

The pupils have boundless enthusiasm, but no real understanding of how the cube works or how to solve one. Without guidance, they become quickly disenchanted when their efforts go unrewarded.

I had no real understanding of how the cube worked, but I was shown the answer by somebody with expertise, and as a result came to understand and be able to solve the cube. I was then able to practice until the steps became embedded and automatic.

While showing off my new skills to my fellow teachers, I explained that I was ‘cheating’ – that I’d looked up the algorithms and followed them, because I was fed up of not knowing how to do it. Ms Ashford chimed in that this was an amazing analogy for discovery learning, something that we have quite strong feelings about at Michaela. She had, in just a few words, summarised exactly what was going on.

In a discovery learning classroom, you have two kinds of pupil – the pupils who get it (Ms Clear) and the pupils who don’t (me). The pupils who get it feel clever; the pupils who don’t feel stupid. This is hugely damaging. It lulls the pupils who get it into a false sense of security (“I got it on my own because I’m smart”) and reinforces to the pupils who don’t get it that they never will (“I don’t get it because I’m stupid”).

Neither of these states are necessary. I chose the alternative: learn how to do it from people who know how. I found (was given) the necessary information to complete the task and to be, and feel, successful. It had nothing to do with ability, and everything to do with practice and assimilation of the new material. Now, no layperson would be able to tell the difference between me and somebody who intuitively ‘gets’ how to solve a Rubik’s cube.

My housemate, when I related this story, said that I was cheating – that I couldn’t really solve the cube by myself because I’d learned using the algorithms. This is arrant nonsense. The end result is the same: I can solve a Rubik’s cube. I got there with far less pain and frustration than if I’d tried without guidance. I don’t feel any less smart for not being able to intuitively solve the cube: I feel accomplished because I’ve gone some way to mastering the tried-and-tested technique.

If we give the kids who don’t get it the algorithm, we give them the key to success. If we give the kids who do get it the algorithm, they get to practise and make it automatic. Tell the kids everything they need to know, and then give them lots of opportunities to practise. Only then will everybody be able to ‘solve the cube’.

Posted on October 4, 2015 by Jessica Lund

Spring Clean

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

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

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

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

Today I threw them all away.

I figure that the following is true:

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

Posted on October 3, 2015 by Katie Ashford

Give him a break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on 27 June, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Let’s create something awesome – part 2!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Optimise our calculation bootcamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on June 27, 2015 by Katie Ashford

Knowledge is Power

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

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

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

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

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

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

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

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on 16 June, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Maths teachers. Let’s create something awesome.

Summer project: Codifying the knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

Express an interest here.

Full time teaching post: Catapulting our highest attainers

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

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

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

Interested?

Cross-school collaboration: Brent Maths Network

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

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

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

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

Visiting

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

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