Something tells me I’m into something good

Lesson Study. It’s an exciting time to be involved in what appears to be the observational process of choice, certainly if the people I follow and admire on Twitter are to be believed. And you should believe them; they are great! I bought in to the approach following some exceptional CPD with the inspirational @murphiegirl (see my blogpost here: as well as posts/blogs/emails from such Twitter heroes of mine such as @hgaldinoshea and @headguruteacher.

So, with backing from my Head, I set up a Lesson Study pilot group at my school, asking for volunteers when I launched the project at a full staff meeting just after October half term. It has been such a fantastic process and we’re now considering the question: where next for Lesson Study at our school? The energy and effervescence at our meeting this week to feedback on the process makes me determined that this must continue in one form or another.

I don’t want to speak for my colleagues. I can say, however, that their reactions have been positive, that they are each writing up what they feel they have gained from the process, and that there was a real sense of ‘the positive power of reflective practice’ as we talked about our experiences.

For me, it was a thought-provoking and invigorating process. Leading the pilot as well as participating has been good for my work in the classroom but has also given me the privilege of a whole school Teaching & Learning focus as I seek to amass the experience which will project me towards a senior leadership role. I don’t think I got everything right: I could have provided more reading materials or perhaps set more rigid guidelines upfront but, on reflection, I’m happy that this was a speculative pilot which has reaped such positive results.

I decided to focus on stretch and challenge for all. I found the focus quite difficult to select – I haven’t been observed for a while so had no perspective other than my own from which to draw a ‘research question’ (I use that term loosely; I don’t know that what I’ve done qualifies as research in its purest form). I chose my Year 10 class – but that was more as a result of when my LS partner had non-contact time (this was all completed by volunteers who gave up their own time to participate) and selected my three ‘focus’ students.

Our co-planning had to take place via email. I teach English and my LS partner Geography, so we were working more at a general practice level than from a subject-specific perspective. I imagine that had I been working with an English colleague, a face-to-face discussion would have been essential; as it was, perhaps we somewhat marginalised this part of the process.

To cut a long blogpost short, what have I gained from this and why do I think it is a valuable process?

1. Just simply stopping to think was a treat. Having an observer in the classroom made me self-reflective as the lesson progressed. Of course, I think I do this a a matter of course in my lessons after 10+ years of classroom practice but there’s nothing quite like making it explicit and working from a more ‘outside-looking-in’ vantage point. I’m a believer in having an open door policy; now I just need to think about how best to effect that.

2. I work a lot on co-constructing notes with my classes, gathering ideas on the board and developing summaries outward from there. Interestingly, something that emerged from the feedback was the students’ wish to write their own notes sometimes so that they can learn and remember it from a more personal perspective. I need to take that into account and consider not only how to build that in to future lessons but also how to ensure the quality of what they are recording. I embrace my inner control-freakery but need to find ways around it while not accepting students’ potential versions of ‘good enough’. The DIRT-related phrase ‘If it’s not perfect, it’s not finished’ springs to mind.

3. Aside from my own future practice, I have gained the amazing feeling of collegiality which emerged from a group of disparate teachers, at various stages of their careers and from different subject areas, coming together to share something of themselves with such an overwhelmingly positive purpose. As Dylan Wiliam says, we have to ‘love the ones we’re with’ (see his post here: and this LS pilot has certainly helped me to feel that sense of love, not only for what I’m doing but also for the sheer joy of the shared endeavour it brought to the surface.

Lesson Study. Try it. It’s good.

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‘I hold with those who favor fire’

From the smallest spark…

On Sunday 19 January, I came across this tweet from @wellylearning


I clicked the link, read Doug Lemov’s blog entry and was struck by how something so apparently simple might lead to complex thinking and articulation of ideas. I let it percolate for a while and then, on Wednesday 22 January, I did a lesson on Chinua Achebe’s ‘Vultures’ with my Year 9 class.

They had been asked to prepare the poem before the lesson, looking up any words they didn’t understand and trying to find at least one thing to say about the poem. It was one of those ‘free form’ lessons: no whizzy activities, nothing to tick any particular boxes. We chatted. They bounced ideas around the room and reacted to each other’s comments with great enthusiasm… ‘Oh, yes, and you could look at it this way…’, ‘It’s really like ‘Frankenstein’ isn’t it?’, ‘And it connects with ‘Animal Farm…’ – the discussion was vibrant, intelligent and had me gasping with gleeful wonder every so often.

It was a homework night and I didn’t really have a firm plan at the start of the lesson about what I might want them to do. I wasn’t entirely sure how far we would get with ‘Vultures’ and I didn’t want to move too much further with our experiments with PETAL paragraphs until we had completed the lesson I had planned for Friday.

And then suddenly Doug Lemov’s blog popped back into my head and I was ready! They had explored and expanded so much in their discussion of ‘Vultures’ that I wondered if they could summarise their thinking in a single sentence. I loved the idea of beginning with ‘At first glance’; this text seemed perfectly poised for that one. So, I set them the challenge.

On Friday, I collected their work. I have asked their permission to include a sample of it here, promising them that no one will ever know who they are. Having typed up and mixed up the sentences, I now cannot recall which one belongs to which student. I am extremely pleased with what they have produced, not only from the ‘succinct summary’ aspect but also from the grammatical perspective which has enabled them to grow as writers of complex sentences.

So, here is a selection of their fabulousness:

At first glance ‘Vultures’ seems to be about the brutal nature of a bird of prey and the way it compares to the philosophy of the Nazi troops but upon further inspection it seems to explain that a kernel of love can be found in even the most inhumane of creatures.

At first glance the poem ‘Vultures’ appears to be about the comparison between man and vultures; however, as you read between the lines you will notice that it is more about the surge of anger or death that walks hand-in-hand with love.

At first glance, ‘Vultures’ appears to be about how a vulture lives and about concentration camps; however it is actually about the good in evil, the evil in good and about love and death.

At first glance ‘Vultures’ is a poem about evil, ugly, dark things like carrion-eating vultures or evil concentration camp guards; however really it is a poem about love and how even evil and disgusting things have love in their hearts and have a gentle side which only a few can see.

At first glance ‘Vultures’ is a poem about death and how cruel it is; however if you look deeper it is about how love can appear in even the strangest of places and scenarios.

At first glance ‘Vultures’ seems to be about hatred and evil; however it really shows that inside everything that is evil, there is love and light.

At first glance, ‘Vultures’ seems to be a poem about love and how on the outside a person can seem horrible but there is always a light in their heart and affection to be given.

Thank you to @Doug_Lemov and @wellylearning for providing the spark. And thank you to Year 9 for continuing to fuel the teaching and learning fire…

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Canons’ Pedagogy Leaders Network Day: a hit, a palpable hit!

‘Why pamper life’s complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?’ asks Morrissey in The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’. How is this relevant, you may be asking, to a post about a day of CPD at a school in Edgware? Stay with me…

So often, we are treated to CPD which is ‘bolted on’, ‘parachuted in’, brought in from the periphery to tell us how to be better. It’s as if others have the answer to this riddle called ‘teaching’; they pop in, get paid (a lot!) and wow us with their solutions to our problems. I know that’s potentially an overly reductive view of CPD and I hasten to add that not all such sessions are dreadful. However, see what Rachael Stevens (@murphiegirl) has to say about teachers’ responses to CPD here:

So, it seems to me that sometimes we do ‘pamper life’s complexities’ by making things seem more difficult than they are, by looking for a BIG solution to something that might not even really be a problem. We throw money at things, indulging in ‘external expert’ CPD because we’re following a pattern that’s been in existence for as long as we can remember.

Today, I had a fantastic CPD experience. In a school. It was about sharing good practice. Right next to me, in neighbouring classrooms and nearby schools, there’s learning to be done. If pedagogy is my craft then so is it someone else’s, someone else who operates in the classroom every day of their working life, doing the things that I’m likely to be doing, albeit in a variety of contexts.

Listening to the staff at Canons talking about their experiences of the Pedagogy Leaders programme (read about it here: was simply invigorating. Because it’s there and it works and the people involved came in to the room and told us about it face-to-face, it *is* a reality which may just be transferrable into my school, or yours. Getting out and about on a Learning Walk, seeing those ideas in action and interacting with students & teachers who clearly have learning at the top of their agendas certainly was the ‘Demonstration’ phase of today’s ‘Active Learning’ cycle.

And what I *really* liked was the ‘Impact’ session – what a fantastic idea! Why doesn’t more CPD take us down the route of showing us tangible evidence of ‘how it works’? Maybe because the people delivering it never stay long enough to see what happens? Harsh, I know. But possibly true? Investigating the soft, medium and hard impacts of the project means I feel so much more confident about ‘selling’ this to my school now. Not in its entirety, of course – it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach and neither should it be.

So, if you get the opportunity to sit alongside a teacher or group of teachers who have already started driving the bus, get in and check out the upholstery rather than calling in someone to pimp your ride for you.

Thank you, Canons, for a superb day. 



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Through the looking-glass…

‘Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare!’ (Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll).

Yesterday – 23 October 2013 – I had the great privilege of spending a day at Christopher Whitehead Language College, Worcester. Having followed Rachael Stevens (@murphiegirl) on Twitter for some time now and attended her sessions at Pedagoo London (March 2012) and Teaching and Learning Takeover (October 2013), I was keen to see in person the development of classroom practice in action and, in particular, the ‘Big Brother’ classroom ( I am about to launch a Teaching & Learning whole school project at my workplace and know that I need some help and support to clarify my thinking. Rachael’s tweeting, blogging and presenting always strikes a chord with me so it seemed logical to see if I could pay her a visit to learn more.

This blog is likely only to cover the beginnings of what I learnt yesterday. I suspect that I will carry forward with me so much of what I witnessed and that more learning will emerge as I reflect further and begin to lead my own project. But it’s a start…

With a programme covering an Open Lesson, some Lesson Study and a Walk Through in place, I was excited about how much I could gain from the day. Aside from the formal CPD aspect though, came the extra learning which happens simply from being in a school other than your own. From the welcome at Reception to every interaction I had throughout the day – whether with staff or students – I felt like I was in a pretty special place. And I know that ‘mindset’ is a term being bandied about freely in the educational world at the moment (and I know that I have been challenged in relation to my ‘buy-in’ to Dweck’s work) but mindset seems the most pertinent word here – everyone was open to my presence, my questions and my interest in what is happening at CWLC: fantastic!

So, I started in the observation classroom, watching, from behind the glass, Rachael teach a Year 10 English lesson. What a superb resource. Not only can a diverse collection of colleagues meet in the observation room, watching and discussing while the lesson goes on (at no risk of causing a distraction to students or teacher) but also the glass can turn ‘all soft like gauze’ and staff can enter the room to interact with teacher and/or students – it really felt like the possibilities are endless with a resource like this on hand. The Deputy Head was able to point out significant features of the lesson, identifying key aspects of the teaching and learning while simultaneously enabling a range of colleagues to comment and question or simply sit and watch. The CPD opportunities emerging from a single session like this spiralled in my head like crazy fireworks – imagine the potential for subject-specific discussions; NQT & NQT+1 discussions; Behaviour for Learning discussions; cross-curricular discussions… and all those lights and colours and flashes spelt out ‘PEDAGOGY PEDAGOGY PEDAGOGY’ as I sat there and marvelled at the beautifully intertwined simplicity and complexity.

One of the strengths of this model is that staff are able to discuss immediately. It was particularly lucky that this open lesson took place immediately prior to break, so we were able to remain in the classroom and talk about what we’d learnt from the process. To hear people across all stages of the profession happily discussing what they would take away and why was such a positive off-shoot; I had no doubt that I was in the midst of a learning culture. For me, the takeaway was and will remain the notion of progress being made on both sides of the glass – a ‘sort of mist’ had, I am sure, cleared a little for everyone.

Lesson Study was my initial reason for wanting to visit CWLC – it’s going to be the starting point for my own whole school project and I wanted to know more about it. (Rachael has blogged on Lesson Study here: I love the non-threatening aspect of it, the collaborative endeavour and the ongoing potential for growth. Rachael explained the process with great clarity and I feel well-set to establish a pilot group of willing volunteers who will, I hope, experience the positive impact of looking closely at the planning, observation and feedback stages while focusing specifically on three students in the class, rather than directly on the teacher. Thank you to Stephanie M who allowed me to spend time in her classroom observing three Geography students. It’s enlightening to realise what can be gained from watching the students rather than the teacher, by questioning them and considering their perspectives on the lesson, and then taking the ideas generated by this process back into the planning discussions and considering how directions might be changed or tweaks made. As Dylan Wiliam writes, ‘Teacher quality can be improved by replacing teachers with better ones, but this is slow, and of limited impact. This suggests that our future economic prosperity requires improving the quality of the teachers already working in our schools. We can help teachers develop their practice in a number of ways; some of these will benefit students, and some will not. Those with the biggest impact appear to be those that involve changes in practice, which will require new kinds of teacher learning, new models of professional development, and new models of leadership’ (Teacher quality: why it matters, and how to get more of it).

Lesson Study, it seems to me, is one of the key ways in which these ‘changes in practice’ can be explored and, more importantly, teacher-led: the personal investment is high and, therefore, from my perspective, the impact will be greater. We all know how we feel about being ‘told’ by ‘experts’.

Following the Lesson Study, I did my first ever Walk Through and I am left in no doubt whatsoever that this is going to form part of my ongoing plan for developing Teaching & Learning at my school. (Rachael’s blog on the Walk Through process is definitely worth reading: It certainly felt odd heading off with no paper or pen and no real sense of what I was looking for. Armed only with the knowledge that I would need to write down something under the headings ‘Questions, Favourite and Feelings’, I set off with a sense of curiosity. Thank you to Matt S for accompanying – I liked it that this was ‘real’ CPD, not something staged for a visitor – and to Paul G, Matt W, Abbie A and their students for being so welcoming. (How I resisted joining in with the dancers in the final lesson remains a mystery – it felt so infectious!)

The post-Walk Through process is such a brilliant and uncomplicated idea – it baffles me why anyone might be resistant to it (I have no evidence of such resistance but imagine it’s out there, somewhere…). The opportunity to open up and engage in a dialogue about your classroom and to understand what colleagues love about what you’re doing seems to me an immensely humane way to build on good practice and to collect evidence for a CPD file or similar. I guess what it does rely on is people being willing to spend a little of their free time doing something which not only has potential benefits for observed colleagues but also for the observer (to steal from Wilfred Owen, there’s surely some ‘eternal reciprocity’ here?).

And I suppose that’s the key to what I left with yesterday, an overwhelming sense of shared commitment to and real interest in being better. I am not naive enough to think that this is some kind of magical formula – no doubt hard work and time has gone in to fostering this environment and inevitably there are those who buy-in more rapidly than others; there is always more work to be done. Nevertheless, I’d be back at CWLC like a shot of time allowed and I know the invitation to visit with my colleagues is a genuine one. Although the title of this article – Collaborate or Die: The Future of Education – seems somewhat extreme (, there’s definitely something to be said for sharing and spreading the word of the great stuff that’s going on out there in schools all over the country. I’m very lucky to have been part of that sharing process yesterday and, like a good Brownie Guide, I promise that I will do my best to keep on sharing.

Thank you Rachael and colleagues.




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Let’s start at the very beginning…

An 8 o’clock meeting this morning. I am given the reins of a new project: it’s time to make Teaching & Learning (or Learning & Teaching – whichever way you choose to pitch it) a central focus of our INSETs and staff-led CPD over the next 18 months. Having made my interest & enthusiasm clear since being appointed at the school (I’m in my 3rd year), I am thrilled to be handed this opportunity and am extremely excited. I have loads of ideas bouncing around and can hardly wait to head to Southampton for the T&L Takeover day next month. I’d also like to try and fit in a couple of school visits between now and half term if possible, to see some other models in action – anyone fancy a well-behaved and keen-to-learn visitor?

I have to launch things at our next staff meeting and have been invited to look for a speaker who can come in and enthuse us about a teaching & learning focus.

So, if you were in my shoes, where would you begin?

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A question of progress

The title of this blogpost may be slightly misleading. The ‘p’ word. That Ofsted-sought holy grail of classroom practice in 2013. I’m afraid I won’t necessarily be addressing that issue explicitly here.

I haven’t blogged for a while. I’m never convinced that I have anything that interesting to say, particularly in the company (on Twitter) of such prolific and talented teacher bloggers. However, this week’s been a tough one for lots of reasons but in the midst of the rough stuff came a moment of sheer ‘grinnability’ which has sustained me and remained with me into the weekend.

My Year 8 class is amazing. I love my lessons with them. (Actually, I’m really enjoying all of my teaching at the moment so I probably shouldn’t just single them out. However, it’s their moment I want to write about so I’ll just do that, rather than digressing unnecessarily.) At the moment, they are engaged in an independent reading project, completing a range of tasks based on a book of their choice (from our school’s prescribed lists) and they’re brilliant at getting on at their own pace, aware of upcoming deadlines. I’ve been running these lessons for about a week now: I list the tasks on the board and let each of them choose which to tackle. They know I am there if they have questions they can’t answer but they also know that they can ask each other, collect dictionaries, use the internet or simply work entirely independently, not needing to interact if they feel happy with what they’re doing.

Because there’s a deadline when they will all have to stand up in front of the class and present their findings, I’m confident that they’re all on track. I have taught them for almost two years now and trust them to do what is necessary. They have been given the assessment criteria; they know how their work will be ‘judged’; they know I have great confidence in them.

I’ve long been aware of research which suggests that playing classical music can aid concentration and I know that I often listen to Radio 3 when I’m working. In my 10+ years of teaching though, I’ve never got around to trying that in my classroom. I don’t really know why; I just haven’t. So, last week, I settled down with my own book while they got on with their work and I clicked ‘play’ on a YouTube playlist of classical music. The students were slightly sceptical at first: ‘What’s this?’, ‘What if it distracts me from my reading?’, ‘Why are you playing this?’ I explained my thinking and asked them to give it a go. If it really did distract them, I would turn it off. For the rest of the lesson no one mentioned the music.

The next lesson I did the same and this time there was very little comment. I did hear a quiet, ‘I really like this music; I find it helps me to focus,’ but decided just to log that, rather than open discussion.

In our next lesson, the school’s internet connection was down and I couldn’t access the playlists. I had no alternative plan, so we began the lesson in silence and the students settled down to work. ‘Please would you put on the classical music?’ asked a boy from the back of the room, and the nods and pleas of agreement came at me from all sides. I explained why I couldn’t and there was no protest, just a smatter of disappointment.

For me, that represents progress. Perhaps not in terms of literacy or analytical ability or understanding of context…but it is educational progress as far as I’m concerned and it made me smile. Perhaps I’ll try it with Year 10 next.

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Leave your bananas at home…

The ‘fruit poetry’ lesson I learnt about and trialled during my PGCE (1994) has remained a favourite, being adapted over the years as the fruit is replaced variously with chocolate or marshmallows… 

It was a textbook-inspired thing, I seem to recall, centring on a Judith Nicholls poem, ‘How to eat a Strawberry’. I’ve long lost the original materials but feel happy to swim freestyle with this one.
Students are asked to bring in fruit (ideally an apple or satsuma – no bananas in my classroom…I have an irrational shiver-down-the-spine reaction to them). I always have a few fruity spares, just in case.
Step-by-step, they build an ideas bank, progressing through the senses. I time-manage this, making them look, touch and sniff for long enough to get them tantalised. They might be writing single words or brief phrases, nothing more structured is necessary.
Some senses need to be revisited. As they peel their satsuma they need to think of smell as well as touch; as they bite into their apple they need to explore sound and texture as well as taste. Once they’re munching, I leave them to it for a while, letting their imaginations reign.
The next stages can be extended as required – combinations of class and homework, individual and pair work can be used to fit the students and the time available.
Initial ideas are built into lines of poetry. Similes and metaphors are encouraged. Precision of description and vocabulary is a must. Students are reminded to ask themselves and each other (I often create critical pairs for this activity) why they have chosen certain words and/or phrases. This reflection is not only relevant to their own writing but is designed to instil confidence when responding to others’ poetry.
The drafting process is vital. Students usually write at least three versions – again, it’s versatile and flexible. We learn about line divisions, end-stops and enjambment. We think about emphasis and impact; the art of positioning words carefully.
But mostly, they just write and discuss and question and edit and continue in a glorious spiralling burst towards some of the best poetry I have ever read. 
Yes, it can be messy. Yes, it can be a bit risky. And yes, it doesn’t always go according to plan. So what?
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