On being PiXLated


Yesterday I travelled, along with approximately 1599 other English teachers, to the Big Smoke to attend my first PiXL English conference. I doubt there has ever been so many English teachers all in one room which was quite something in itself* (even if parallels were drawn to that scene in ‘The Witches’).

Every conference gets its own metaphorical title; previously the organisers have gone with ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Oh Brave New World’. This time, however, they went with ‘Touching the Void’. The intention, of course, was for us to make the connection with mountain climbing but, call me puerile, to me it sounded a little… ahem… rude. I wonder what they will go with next – perhaps ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ or ‘Country Matters’?

In the first keynote speech, Rachel Johnson explored some of the lessons we might learn from mountain climbing (e.g. it’s difficult to sleep when you’re hanging off a cliff’s edge) and characterised PiXL as our Sherpa guiding us through the climb and making things a bit easier. Lindsay Skinner followed with the best title I’ve seen for a keynote yet: Tracking in the Year of Doom. Lindsay made the point that, as English teachers, we are responsible for 30% of Progress 8 and consequently we are now the single most important subject in the school. She also shared this very concerning table showing how many students will no longer be achieving a good pass.


If we didn’t already know it, the message is very clear: this mountain of a year is likely going to end with tens of thousands of our year 11s failing to get to base camp. It makes for sobering reading.

Main Takeaways from ‘Approaches to the most difficult questions (AQA)’ with Jo Heathcote

Jo focused on Paper 2 Questions 2 and 4.


This is an AO1 task and is a test of basic comprehension – something which Jo reminded us students have been doing since Key Stage 1. This is clear when you look at the mark scheme:


The key words: ‘inference’, ‘reference’ and ‘difference’ should guide how we teach students to approach this question.

Example Curve question: You need to refer to both source A and source B for this question. The places which Alain de Botton and Mary Shelley visit are very different. Use details from both sources to write a summary of the differences.

Jo gave some great advice that I’ll be taking back to my team:

  1. Guide students to summarise their ideas using clear statements of the differences, supporting quotations and inferences to show their understanding.
  2. Give students the confidence to put their pen down and think before they start planning and then writing their answer.
  3. With practice questions, get students to list the differences – they’ll soon find that there’s loads e.g. one is a quiet place and one is a town.
  4. Ensure that students use the focus of the question in their answer e.g. place.
  5. With students who are struggling, work on the basics by getting them to make a statement supported by a quotation e.g. Alain de Botton visits a quiet place. He tells us, ‘It was as quiet as a library’.
  6. With more confident students, work on developing inferences e.g. The place where Alain de Botton is staying is very quiet. He tells us it is ‘as quiet as a library’. This could suggest it is very peaceful but also perhaps that there is very little happening there.
  7. For our most able students we need to work on encouraging them to make perceptive inferences – seeing things others might not.
  8. Remember Statement + Quotations + Inferences.
  9. This is NOT a comparison question.
  10. This is NOT a language analysis question.


Unlike Q2, this is a comparison question and is about the writer though not just about what the writer is doing but what they are thinking, feeling, imagining and experiencing. It’s about the methods they use to show those thoughts, feelings, imaginings and experiences.


The key words ‘compare’, ‘methods’, ‘textual detail’ and ‘perspectives’ should, again, guide how we teach students to approach this question.

Jo’s great advice for Q4:

  1. Just because the question says ‘whole of the source’, the students should NOT feel they need to write about everything that is there – they need to be selective. Selection is the key to success in the time that students have to answer this question.
  2. Students should ask themselves: What is the writer’s intention in each text? What message is each writer trying to give me?
  3. Challenge students to boil down each text to one quotation that encapsulates what the writer is trying to say. Jo suggested blowing the source up to A3 so that students can cut out their ‘boiled down’ quotation (I’ll be doing this next week).
  4. When they’ve boiled down the text to a quotation students should ask what the writer is thinking, feeling and experiencing before considering HOW the writer shows those thoughts, feelings and experiences.
  5. For students who are struggling with this question, work on getting students to build their response using one well-selected quotation from each text.
  6. More able students can work with two quotations form each text whilst our most able students will look for subtle differences and shifts in tone.

The clarification on these two questions was really helpful and I’ve come away with a practical activity I’ll be using with my students next week to help build their confidence with some of the more tricky questions they’ll be faced with this Summer. Thank you Jo!

Main Takeaways from ‘Approaches to writing for the most able’ with Lindsay Skinner

I’ve seen Lindsay speak a couple of times now – most recently at #TLT16 – and I always enjoy her presentations and come away with ideas I want to use in the classroom. Here’s a few of her approaches to teaching writing for the most able:

  • For the narrative questions, teach students the narrative arc and get them planning answers to a variety of questions. I’m sure my students will enjoying planning my death in a car crash very soon too… I love Lindsay’s challenge to her students of, ‘make it matter if I die’.
  • Students tend to get their understanding of narrative from longer forms e.g. films and novels. A good thing to do might be to get them to find short animations to look at condensed narrative forms e.g. ‘The Present’ with its clever moment of revelation.
  • Ensure students don’t rant in their viewpoint writing – they ought to give strategies and be deferential to their audience when appropriate.
  • DON’T start viewpoint writing with a rhetorical question.
  • Teach students to be subtle and nuanced – it’s OK to tell students that animal metaphors such as, ‘His heart was racing like a cheetah’ are RUBBISH! Students should write imagery that is appropriate to the tone and should aim for originality.
  • Teach students what the point of a simile or metaphor is (to create atmosphere) and then explore HOW to create that atmosphere.
  • Move students away from their fixation on including particular devices and instead focus their attention of the effect they want to achieve and HOW they might do that.
  • Get students to rank similes and metaphors for the same image to evaluate which are the most effective.

All in all it was a really useful day and I’ve come away with a lot to think about and some new strategies to use in the classroom and share with my team. It was also really nice, albeit brief, to catch up with some of my Twitter pals. I’m looking forward to the next PiXL English Conference already.

* I’m still waiting for a definitive answer on what the collective noun is for a group of English teachers. Current suggestions include… an anthology, a worry, a hope, a grammar, a poem, a novel, an excellence, a rhyme and a scuttle (thanks to @LPLFlippedEng, @FionaFellows, @SimonMurray2012, @bellmanclaire and @heymrshallahan).



On writing essays people actually want to read…


This week I collected in some homework essays from my delightful top set year 11 class. The question asked them to explore how Shakespeare presents the witches in Macbeth at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 3 and in the play as a whole (AQA Lit Paper 1 Section A). The class has made real progress with writing well-planned, well-structured, well-focused essays and are improving with their analysis. However, although competent, lots of the essays used formulaic topic sentences and the introductions were dry. I read time and time again that, ‘In Shakespeare’s Macbeth the witches are presented as….’. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, I want to push my students to work on developing a voice and writing in a way which makes their essays interesting to read. I promise this is not an entirely selfish pursuit (though I am the person that has to read them all).

In the past, top grades in English Literature were awarded based on mark schemes that used words such as ‘originality’ and ‘flair’. These are now gone and to achieve a Level 6 in the mark scheme students’ work needs to be a ‘convincing, critical analysis and exploration’ (AQA). Whilst there’s no mention of the words, being original and writing with flair will help students to write essays that are convincing. As English teachers we’ve always been good at knowing when we see a top level response but it’s difficult to define exactly how the student has done it which is why we saw those woolly words appear in mark schemes. I can just picture those poor mark scheme writers scratching their heads and saying, ‘Well, we can’t just say you’ll know it when you see it – can we? Let’s pop the word ‘flair’ in there and be done with it’.

So it was that on Wednesday morning, as I was getting ready for school and thinking about my lessons, I scrapped my original lesson plan and decided to tackle the issue head on. And this is what we did…

1. You only get one chance to make a first impression

I gave my feedback to the class and then asked them all to write a new first sentence for their introduction. I explained that, in the Summer, their essay was going to be read by a real human being who, probably, was going to be wading through hundreds of essays that began in exactly the same way. I explained that, probably, that person might be feeling pretty miserable and that their job was to give their examiner a little moment of joy amid the monotony of marking by starting their essay in a way that was interesting and maybe even exciting (aim high and all that).

I banned the following sentence starters:

  • In Shakespeare’s Macbeth… (we already know the play they’re being asked to write about so what’s the point in wasting ink on this?)
  • In this essay… (this has been banned since forever with my students but I like to remind them)
  • The witches… (by not starting with the object of the question they’re forced to do something a bit different)

After a few minutes, we picked a few to pop under the visualiser and analysed HOW that student had opened their essay and evaluated what the effect was. We then used this to come up with a list of approaches we might use in our future essays. They weren’t perfect but there was a huge leap forward from what I had read in their homework essays and I know that, with practise, the class are going to nail this.

Here’s some examples from my students:

Although presented as peculiar outcasts, the witches hold the audience in rapture and fear at their sadistic, manipulative and supernatural powers; an evil, all-knowing version of God.

Shakespearean audiences despised women who were thought to be witches, Shakespeare finds a way to perfectly present these contemptible beings.

Isolated, manipulative and physically repelling, the witches are the most mind-contorting characters with their complex plotting and foreshadowing of events.

Like mischievous puppeteers, the witches manipulate Macbeth and drive the plot forward.

A play written for James I, Shakespeare utilises the king’s interests and presents the witches as omniscient, omni-powerful and manipulative.

And our list of possible approaches to opening essays in the future:

  • Start with a subordinate clause
  • Begin with a link to the contemporary audience
  • Open with a triplet of adjectives
  • Start with a simile
  • End the first sentence with a triplet of adjectives
  • Begin with the Shakespearean audience
  • Make a specific link to context

Disclaimer: I did say to the class that if they were struggling to write a first sentence in the exam the best thing they could do was write something focused that used the key words e.g. Shakespeare presents the witches as…

2. Topic Sentences (AKA Signposting Success)

We then moved on to discuss topic sentences. It is a pet hate of mine to read essays from students that are flowery and lack the necessary focus. The job of a topic sentence is to signal to the reader what that paragraph is about. Therefore students do need to be focused and they ought to use the key words but topic sentences don’t have to be dry and repetitive. So, again, I gave the class a few minutes to write new topic sentences for one of their main paragraphs before popping a few under the visualiser to analyse and evaluate.

Here’s some examples from my students:

Interestingly, in this extract Shakespeare presents the wyrd sisters as masculine in both their physically repellent appearance as well as in their behavioural traits.

Warping the ideas and opinions of Macbeth, in this extract the witches are presented as manipulative to the extreme.

Mysterious old hags, the witches in this extract are capable of leaving the audience pondering the characters despite them evidently being fictional.

And our list of possible approaches to opening essays in the future:

  • Begin with an adverb to describe the effect the character has in the extract
  • Begin with a verb about what that character does to others
  • Start with an adjective that shows how the character is presented

Disclaimer: I did say to the class that if they were unsure, they should stick with focused topic sentences that are clear about the point being made in that paragraph and use the key words from the question e.g. In this extract the witches are presented as… In the play as a whole, the witches are presented as…

3. It’s good to steal (some things)

I want my students to have strong opinions about the text and to phrase these ideas in interesting and powerful ways. I want to see less of ‘might’ ‘may’ ‘could’ and see more of them presenting their viewpoint through powerful phrases and depersonalised writing (they are allowed to use ‘I’ in their conclusion only). To help with this we have recently started branching out into reading critical essays as a class. When I give the class some wider reading I ask them to do 3 things:

  1. Sum up the point that the writer is making
  2. Explain how the reading has had an impact on their understanding/ideas about the text
  3. Magpie words or phrases that they think might be good to use in future essays

And so, in my lesson on Wednesday, I reminded students of the latter. When they read something about the witches and they see phrases like ‘caricatures of the supernatural’ or ‘mischievous puppeteers’ they should make a note of them in case they want to use them in their essays. We haven’t made a bank of these juicy phrases yet but I’m tempted to do so for key characters and themes because it moves students away from hedging their opinions about the text and moving towards making bold statements that show their opinion without taking up several sentences. ‘Mischievous puppeteers’ not only has ‘flair’ but it also serves as short-hand for several sentences about the nefarious motivations of the witches and their manipulation of the eponymous Macbeth.

Time will tell if my students are now going to write essays I’ll enjoy reading – I’ll soon be looking through their next Macbeth essays to find out…

On valuing knowledge AND engagement

Disclaimer: The inclusion of this image will become clear – bear with me…

I’ve been spending a bit more time on Twitter since having my appendix removed on New Year’s Day and have enjoyed reading a wealth of blogs. It’s always fascinating to see which posts have the biggest ripples and Sue Cowley’s post Bigger Than Yours, about memory and the use of knowledge organisers in primary, caused quite a Twitter wave. Unusually for me I was pulled into the waters too – I couldn’t help getting my feet wet (and not just because I was stuck on the sofa feeling sorry for myself). My main contention was with the idea that knowing the context of a literary text could be merely ‘interesting’ but I also felt that Knowledge Organisers or those that use Knowledge Organisers were misrepresented.

A confession: in the past I would probably have agreed with Sue because I used to under-value the teaching of context of texts. I struggle, now, to understand my thinking as a new teacher on this except to say that oftentimes ‘teaching’ context appeared to involve packing students off to research. For example, at the start of any Shakespeare unit there would invariably be a research lesson on The Globe which seemed to have very little impact on students’ understanding of the play. Of course, taught well, understanding The Globe and Shakespeare’s stagecraft DOES lead to a better understanding of his plays but those FOFO* lessons were, in my opinion, a time filler/waste of time. I also accept Sue Cowley’s argument that some students struggle with writing about context and might therefore shoehorn some boring autobiographical details into their introductions (I ban my students from doing this) rather than using their knowledge of context to inform their interpretations. However, it seems to me to be setting a pretty low bar for whether we should be teaching something to make a determination based on the poor teaching or the poor application of that knowledge. We need to do better.

Doing better involves pinning down which knowledge informs our understanding of texts. It’s the difference between knowing that The Globe was built, for the first time, in 1599 and knowing the limitations on stagecraft of that building which leads to a better understanding of scenes like this from Hamlet (Act 1 Scene 5):


Hamlet’s reverence for his late father is replaced by quips and insults such as ‘boy’ and ‘old mole’. If we knew nothing of the context of production we might misinterpret this as Hamlet disrespecting Old Hamlet but if we understand something of The Globe we understand Shakespeare’s inability to suspend his audience’s disbelief that the shouting is coming from a hellish ghost. Shakespeare’s joking with his audience – a comedic nod to the fact that the best he can do is have an actor shouting from beneath the floorboards. Here is just one example, the one that came quickest to my mind, of where understanding the context is not just ‘interesting’ but absolutely vital to understanding what’s happening. Context is a vital lens through which we understand a text; to reduce the idea of teaching context to the memorisation of dates is to entirely miss the point. If we really know our stuff as teachers then we know which knowledge will unlock students’ understanding of a text.

Doing better involves defining what we really want students to know about any given topic or text and doing this before we start developing our medium term or individual lesson plans. Taking the time to really think this through has had a profound effect on what I’m doing in the classroom (and, by extension now, my department); it has made the knowledge that students learn central, not incidental. My thinking on knowledge has been influenced primarily by the posts of Joe Kirby (a couple here and here) and my understanding of Knowledge Organisers is that they set out the essential knowledge of any given topic; they are explicit about what students need to know.

Some of the challenges made whilst debating the subject of Knowledge Organisers were about who decides what goes on them. Well, we do. As teachers we are selecting and refining and repackaging knowledge as lesson content all the time. The knowledge I choose, or am able, to impart about a text in my lesson will undoubtedly differ to some extent to another English teacher in my team let alone an English teacher elsewhere in the country (and that’s certainly the case if we haven’t agreed what we all want students to know). And, unless I became a literary expert on all of the authors that I teach it is unlikely I’ll ever be able (ignore willing) to cover everything and therefore I have to be selective. So Knowledge Organisers are just an example of something we do every day – it’s our job to be selective for our students. What that doesn’t mean, however, is that what’s on a Knowledge Organiser is ALL I want students to learn about a topic.

Doing better does not mean setting limits to student knowledge and I don’t think Knowledge Organisers are limiting. Imagine, if you will, that game where somebody wears a Velcro hat and you throw balls at their head. Now imagine that all of your students are wearing one of those ridiculous bonnets (I think I need to make this happen…). On those hats is written the contents of your Knowledge Organiser because you’ve determined that knowledge to be essential to unlocking understanding – students wear it every lesson because you’ll keep coming back to it e.g. through spaced retrieval. Now imagine that in any given lesson you’ll continue to throw knowledge balls at the students and some of them will stick – assuming they’ve got their head in the right place. Some of the balls might even remain stuck when students come back in a following lesson; others may have fallen astray with some vigorous head movements (but can be retrieved with a reminder). These bonus balls are great – and worth even more if stuck right in the middle of their head – but if all knowledge was delivered in this way we’d run the risk of having an even bigger gap between the knowledge rich (and thirsty because knowledge begets knowledge) and the knowledge poor.

Doing better does not mean endless dry lessons in which I merely thrust the Knowledge Organiser in front of my students and quiz them relentlessly. Whilst my thinking about knowledge and what learning really is (thanks to seeing David Didau at #TMIslington) has evolved over the past couple of years, I haven’t wavered in my desire to have students engaged and enjoying their learning. To see Knowledge Organisers as indicative of dry teaching is reductive. I still want to hook my students into lessons, engage and challenge them. I don’t see knowledge and engagement as dichotomous but harmonious; having more knowledge leads to greater engagement and engagement leads to greater knowledge. I’ve even spent time this past week defending Marketplace activities – I just won’t be pigeonholed…

Now how much for a class set of Butt Head?

* Picked up from Geoff Barton and too rude to define here.




On appendectomies and being a bad patient

Me being admitted on New Year’s Eve – the anti-sickness drug in the drip made me feel quite a bit better!

On the morning of New Year’s Eve I attended a spin class and then went home to get showered and changed. Just before I was about to leave to visit my mum I was taken ill and before I knew it I was being admitted to hospital with suspected appendicitis. This was not how I’d planned to see out 2016 (which had, incidentally, already been a pretty challenging year – I became a Ms and lost my dad). And so it was, on New Year’s Day 2017, I had my appendix removed.

After the operation I was transferred to the Day Surgery Ward (because the hospital was so stretched they had to use what space they could find) and was the first person to be wheeled into a bay. Over the morning I was joined by five other ladies all of whom were pushing 80. To begin with they were quite quiet but as the day pressed on they began chatting to one another. I say ‘chatting’ but what really happened was that Phyllis, two beds down from me, and Gladys, directly opposite me, were the especially talkative ones and so they shouted across the ward at each other. I soon learned: how they liked to take their tea; what they thought of the Queen; their views on the NHS; their opinions on the state of marriage in 21st century Britain; that Gladys had been one hour away from death just last week and that Phyllis had once been offered a cup of tea by Prince Edward (‘that’s why I like them – they’re so down to earth’). On and on and on.

Soon all five septua- and octogenarians got involved in the small talk and shared anecdotes and opinions until the lights were unceremoniously switched off just after 10pm. Through the night they were thankfully quiet but the shouting began again soon after sunrise. They also took an interest in each other and would direct a nurse to one of their fellow patients when they felt it necessary. These veteran patients had clearly mastered the art of patienting; they knew how to play their part. By contrast, I had pulled the curtains around my bed as soon as I’d arrived and had no interest in talking to anyone – I just wanted to sleep. I realised this makes me sound like a right misery… Perhaps I should have been nattering away with Phyllis and the Bay 5 gang?

Being anti-social when I’m unwell is just one of the reasons I make a bad patient. Another is that I just don’t really know what to do with myself. I’m not often ill, this is the longest stretch I’ve had off work in my entire career, and I’m feeling a bit lost. I’m one week into my recovery and have been signed off for another week. I know I’m not fit to return to work yet (not least because I still look pregnant with the swelling – something confirmed to me by a doctor’s joke on Friday*) and I should concentrate on getting better but it’s easier said than done. I was appointed as Head of English at a new school last September so was very much looking forward to getting stuck back into things this January; work isn’t far from my mind.

I long thought I’d relish the time to lounge about and watch TV but, as it turns out, that’s enjoyable for a matter of hours and then it gets pretty tedious. Of course I could turn my attention to the pile of marking I was meant to tackle last weekend but somehow I’m not sure I’m up to that just yet…

* The Joke:

Me: I’ve come in because I’m a bit concerned about the swelling – my tummy really does look pretty big.

Doctor: (grinning) When was your last period – seven months ago?

Post 2 of #WeeklyBlogChallenge17



On spinning and the importance of modelling

This summer I started doing something quite extraordinary (for me): spinning. For those of you who have managed to miss this fitness phenomenon let me just briefly explain what spinning is. Spinning is a merry kind of torture. The instructor will play a medley of cheery tunes whilst 25+ adults sprint, climb and ‘jump’ through 60 minutes of sweatiness on a static exercise bike. I invariably look up hopefully at the clock to find that a mere 5 minutes have passed when it’s felt more like 20 (the same kind of time trick that also seems to happen whenever I take my children to soft play).

It was in one of these spinning lessons, probably during a ‘climb’, that I started to draft this post as I realised several parallels between being in a spin class and being a student in a classroom (the most obvious parallel being that there were about 30 of us packed into a room all facing the same way). Here I was, a novice spinner, cast in the role of learner; at the front there was a lycra clad, heavenly-bodied, instructor cast in the role of teacher. Around me were a mixture of other learners in a differentiated class ranging from the new or inept (me) to the expert. There was no seating plan but you can spot the ‘less able’ and the ‘more able’. The former tend to position themselves toward the back of the room whilst the latter don’t shy away from the mirrors at the front and also bedeck themselves with all sorts of fancy kit (I can only think of cleats right now but you get the idea).

Despite our differing starting points, this is clearly an ‘options’ subject in my analogy: we have all chosen to be here. Furthermore, we’re a motivated bunch. There’s no terminal exam or assessment but we all have our own personal goals. Mine is more immediate, making it to the end of the class without dying, whilst others, I assume, have visions of bikini bodes or healthy hearts or some such.

As a novice, my eyes are regularly drawn to the instructor. I watch how fast his legs are rotating, I pay attention to the position of his hands on the handlebar and I try to copy. He’s modelling what I’m meant to be doing and I’m struck by how powerful modelling is. Not only can I see exactly what I’m aiming for but I can also see how hard it is. I can see the sweat dripping off of my instructor’s brow; I can see him panting for breath. When we reach a climb and he tells us to ‘add more on’ I can see him grimace as he pushes his legs down and my expression matches his. This is hard work!* He’ll also tell me what I’m meant to be feeling or how I can adjust the exercise to my ability (invariably this means I adjust it to make it easier but there are those in the room that actually want to make it even more of a challenge) and he’ll warn me when it’s going to get really difficult.

As an English teacher, except in the heady 30+ degrees days of summer, I rarely break a sweat in the classroom. In the past this has especially been the case when I’ve been modelling writing for students because I’ve tended to prepare something in advance and then I’ve pretended that I’m writing it for real. I did this in the interest of producing a half decent model for my class but also, perhaps, because I was worried about making myself look like a tit. I was valuing a polished performance over proper modelling. However, I think this was a mistake. Firstly it was a mistake because it suggested to my students that the writing I was doing was easy and involved little effort – if they then found it hard themselves to write their own then they might have thought they just weren’t good at English (instead of thinking they needed to keep working at it). Secondly it was a mistake because it kept the implicit process of writing implicit. My job as an English teacher is to make the implicit explicit.

Like my spin instructor I’m now spending more time in lessons modelling live for students with no preparation on my part. If I’m struggling for ideas I’ll think aloud and show students how I work through that challenge – in a real exam I would have to come up with something and so will they. If I make a bad start I’ll explain why I now think it’s not the best way to start and talk through how to start again – I might even ask the students for a better idea. I’ll read back over what I’ve written and edit my vocabulary and I’ll pick up where my sentence structure can be more fluent. The best kind of modelling is messy and sometimes it can be a real struggle but if the students see my metaphorical sweaty brow, I feel I’m in a stronger position to expect to see their furrowed brows as they attempt to have a go themselves.

Being back in the role of learner gave me a very vivid idea of how powerful modelling is and it’s a lesson I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

* Confession: sometimes I pretend to ‘add more on’ and I mimic the ‘this is hard work’ expression.

Post 1 of #WeeklyBlogChallenge17