On John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat: An introduction to Narrative Writing


You may not have read this beautiful little story before (I urge you to get your hands on a copy if you haven’t). I hadn’t come across it before Sue Brindley chose to read it to us, her final cohort of PGCE students, about a decade ago as part of a session on encouraging students to offer up their interpretations of a text. It has stuck with me ever since and it’s a book that I’ve enjoyed reading with both my boys.

Today I had a double lesson with year 10 to introduce narrative writing and I chose to begin by reading ‘John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat’ to them. If you don’t know the story, John Brown (the big sheep dog) and Rose have been on their own for a long time when the Midnight Cat appears. Whilst Rose is keen to invite the Midnight Cat into their home, John Brown refuses to let it in. Rose, disappointed, takes to her bed and finally John Brown realises that to make Rose happy he needs to let the Midnight Cat join them. The story ends with all three sat around the fire and the Midnight Cat purring contentedly. Whilst the students and I enjoyed the novelty of a bit of story time, it proved a really useful starting point for introducing narrative writing. I outline our double lesson for you below in case you fancy a bit of storybook time with your GCSE class…

Discussion: Exploring what makes a story

After reading the book, I began our discussion by asking the class to share ideas about what they thought it was a story about. Interpretations ranged from it being about not being selfish to the idea that the midnight cat represented death and that John Brown needed to accept it. Following what proved to be an interesting little conversation about interpretation, I challenged students to tell me what made ‘John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat’ a story and what ingredients needed to be included to make something a story.

When sharing their ideas, I wasn’t surprised that the class already have a very good understanding of narrative. After all, we’re natural born story tellers and we’ve been told stories ever since we’ve been born (and even before – I read Dr Seuss to both my bumps…). Our teenagers, even if they don’t write fiction, are telling the story of their life all the time through the medium of Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook. It’s in our blood.

Introducing the Narrative Arc

My next step was to draw a crude Narrative Arc on the board and walk through an explanation of each of the key terms: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Denouement. I think it’s essential that students have this foundational knowledge (though they know it implicitly through experience) to enable them to understand the integral purpose of each part of a narrative. Without it, students may write stories that are all exposition and no rising action or, more likely, all rising action and climax.

Students created their own versions of this in their book and we applied examples from ‘John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat’ to each part of the Narrative Arc.


I love this moment of rising action in ‘John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat’ when John Brown confronts the Midnight Cat.


And the denouement when they’re sat around the fire and the Midnight Cat is suitably satisfied with how things have been resolved…


Identifying the Narrative Arc in Short Films

Unintentionally carrying on the pet dog theme, I then showed students The Present which is a graduation short from the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany (I got the idea of showing it, as part of teaching narrative, from Lindsay Skinner at the PiXL Conference at the beginning of the year). It’s a gorgeous little film and only 3 minutes long.

After watching, students drew a Narrative Arc in their books and identified the bits of the film that matched up e.g. one part of the rising action comes when he throws the dog to the floor in frustration (cue gasps of horror from my year 10s!).  What’s really interesting is the depth of discussion that can be had when students feed back what they think constitutes the exposition or where they think the climax is.

We repeated this process with another three very short films:

Alma (recommended to me by Lyndsey Dyer @RealGingerella – thank you) A jaunty 5 minute short with a great climax. 5 minutes.

Virus Although somewhat dated now, it won the Best International Short Film Award in 2003 and has a great twist and tension despite the lack of dialogue. 5 minutes.

Gravity Use this with caution because of the gun violence and use of language (though the BFI included it in a collection of short films to use with 12-14 year olds which is where I first came across it). Surprising and horrifying resolution. 5 minutes.

Here’s an example of one student’s notes for Alma (excuse the Elma):


With each short film, students’ confidence grew with their understanding of the Narrative Arc and being able to identify the key parts in each film. There was a little bit of lively debate too, which is always good, and a developing awareness of the ways in which storytellers make different decisions about the length of each part of the Narrative Arc e.g. a really short or a really long exposition.

Using the Narrative Arc to plan a response

I showed students the following question from one of AQA’s Sample Assessment packs and asked them to use the Narrative Arc to plan a whole narrative.

sams 1.png

Although the question only demands an opening, I think it’s important that students spend a couple of minutes planning where the narrative would go. We don’t want students to simply keep writing until the time runs out (especially if we want them to meet the requirements of a ‘consciously crafted’ structure). We want students to write a developed exposition followed by rising action but withhold the climax. Critically, if students know what the climax would be it will enable them to write a far better opening because the narrative is actually going somewhere. The rising action is arguably the most important part of any story because it sets up the climax – if students have no idea where the story is going that’s going to be obvious to the examiner and the rising action will be flawed (what is it rising towards?).

After sharing some plans and discussing ideas, I gave students this question which does demand of them an entire story.

sams 2.png

Again, they planned a full response and I talked through my guidance that each paragraph of their response would constitute a part of the Narrative Arc e.g.

Paragraph 1 – Exposition

Paragraph 2 – Rising Action

Paragraph 3 – Rising Action

Paragraph 4 – Climax

Paragraph 5 – Falling Action and Resolution

The beauty of this planning, is that not only do they know where to go (and they have something ‘consciously crafted’) but, if they run out of time, they could skip a part of the rising action or have a very short resolution – the examiner would be able to see what was intended – and this would be easier to manage because they would know the structure they were working with.

Here’s some example planning from one student:


There’s clearly more work to be done (this was an introduction) in follow up lessons about making details matter and unity of time/action/place. Some of the plans indicate a tendency to over extend the reach of a short story and an obsession with tsunamis (I must ask Geography what they’ve been teaching recently…) but I’m confident they left the lesson with a more grounded understanding of the key elements of a narrative of any length; even one that lasts just 3 minutes.

A bit of writing to end

To wrap things up, I asked the class to write the exposition for one of the short films we had watched. I wanted them to demonstrate their understanding of what should be included in the exposition of one of these narratives but also show the skills we’ve been developing this year of writing something compelling with a variety of sentence structures, punctuation and ambitious vocabulary etc. I was pretty impressed.


On Power and Conflict Pub Quizzing

pub quiz main image

Last week Chris Curtis (@Xris32) shared a great Power and Conflict resource on his blog here. This week I’m sharing my adaptation (though lots of the questions are still the same) with a PowerPoint to use in class that includes answers. Because I like a bit of pub quiz jeopardy, I’ve also added a little twist with students having to pick a round to double and a round to pass (before they’ve seen the questions).

Fancy giving it a go? Find it here.

Thanks to Chris for sharing. My students loved it. Here’s how we were doing at the halfway point (I don’t have a photo of the final scores because I broke my phone but #teampoetlaureates won by quite some way). #teambaeonetcharge won the prize for the best pub quiz team name!

leader board


On scaffolded descriptive writing openings

bournemouth beach

My low attaining year 10 class (average aspirational target of a grade 3) have been struggling with descriptive writing. I have provided some structure (e.g. using zoom boxes to focus in on areas of the image) and we’ve explored what makes good descriptive writing, with lots of modelling and practise, but, invariably, students in this group have found it difficult to move from writing with ‘some success’ to producing writing that is ‘consistent and clear’. In timed conditions, they have been struggling to get started and some have barely managed a couple of paragraphs in the time allowed.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about cognitive load theory and I’ve come to the conclusion that, for these students, the cognitive load in our descriptive writing lessons has been excessive and therefore their learning has suffered. They’ve been battling a plethora of demands: starting effectively; structuring sentences accurately; using paragraphs; using a range of punctuation; spelling accurately; using interesting words… Their lack of written work is not, I think, wilful disobedience or laziness but the product of cognitive overload – I’ve been making too many demands of their working memory.

So, for this class, I’m trying something different: I’ve given them a scaffold for opening every descriptive writing piece so that they can ‘get in and get on’ next time they complete a timed piece of writing and access some parts of the mark scheme in their very first paragraph (e.g. variety of sentence structures and a range of descriptive devices). We’re going to use this every time we open a piece of descriptive writing and I want them to get to automaticity with it.

Here’s the scaffold I’ve given them:

  1. Begin with a simple sentence about the setting (time/weather)
  2. Use a simile about the setting e.g. The light was like… The wind was as…
  3. Describe the sound – what can be heard?
  4. Use an embedded clause about the sound
  5. In the distance…

I’m not saying that this is the perfect way to open a piece of descriptive writing and I’m certainly not advocating it for every student. However, I think that it serves the purpose of giving these students a starting point (getting going is where mine seem to struggle most) and a way of setting the scene in their descriptive writing. In subsequent paragraphs I’d expect them to zoom in on parts of the image and focus on other aspects of effective descriptive writing.

In the first lesson I introduced this scaffold to students I picked an image of a beach (I think the Geography department were at Lulworth Cove that day which inspired me) to practise with and I modelled the first attempt with them and they copied it down:


I then allowed a student to pick the next image (the picture of Bournemouth beach at night at the top of this post) and they had a go.


night 222

We looked at a few of these under the visualiser and talked about what worked and what didn’t work well. Finally, in the same lesson, students had another go with an image they chose of the Eiffel tower.



The writing they produced was far better than that which they’d produced before – though they’re clearly not all following the scaffold. Partly this is because it doesn’t always work well with what they want to say (and the scaffold shouldn’t be a straitjacket) but partly it’s because they don’t always understand how to meet the demands of the scaffold which has highlighted areas we need to cover again.

We’ll keep practising using this model and I’m hopeful they’ll get to the point of automaticity with it so that they’ll be able to start their descriptive writing with confidence.

Here’s a link to a Dropbox folder with some beautiful resources made by Grainne Hallahan (@heymrshallahan) using this idea. I like to call her the resourceasaurus!




On what stuck from #rEDlang

tom bennett
‘We can do better than folk teaching.’
(Sorry about the picture, Tom, it was the best one I had of you…)

Two weeks ago I attended the ResearchED English and MFL Conference which was held in the stunning Examination Schools. Since then, there are few sessions and key messages that have stuck with me and which I thought might be worth sharing.

Session 4: ‘Bridging the gap: transferring classroom knowledge to examination contexts’ by Jude Hunton (@judehunton) and Chris Peirce (@peirce_chris)

jude hunton

I was particularly interested in Jude and Chris’ ideas about ‘exam literacy’. They made several references to the ‘giants whose shoulders may have been bruised by repeated clambering upon’ and who have informed their approach (e.g. Willingham; Bjork and Bjork; Brown, Roediger and McDaniel; Dunlosky; David Didau).

They also shared this tweet from Tom van der Zee:

Tim van der Zee

Chris made the point that classroom displays are cues in a physical context which can’t be used in exams. Perhaps, if we want students to practise recalling from memory, we need to strip back our beautiful displays and instead do what Ashlawn’s English department have done: bedeck the rooms with whiteboards. Chris talked about a range of ways in which they make use of these whiteboard walls in lessons including interrupting learning for students to move to a whiteboard and write up what they know. It’s an idea that stuck with me because we’re about to move into a new building and I’m wondering about the utility of displays. Whilst I love having a prettified classroom, and have always thought display cues a useful tool, perhaps there’s a few reasons why whiteboard walls might be a sensible idea: it reduces teacher time spent beautifying classrooms; it means that students actively engage with their learning environment and it encourages students to use their memory/practise retrieval rather than relying on context cues.

Another idea that stuck from Jude and Chris’ session was their use of regular ‘exam literacy’ sessions where classes are collapsed and put in the hall. These sessions are not simply ‘walking talking mocks’ but involve students, sat at exam desks, being led by a number of different teachers. Creating opportunities for students to transfer their knowledge in a different context was part of the reasoning behind this approach but also demystifying that experience of being in the exam hall. I know that these spaces are in demand in schools but I can see why using the examination hall as a context within which to build exam literacy makes sense.

Session 6: ‘Leading the Evidence-Based English Department’ by Lyndsey Caldwell

lyndsey caldwell.pngLyndsey is the Head of English at Cherwell School and her session has really stuck with me and I’ve been reflecting on it a lot over the past fortnight.

I was particularly struck by Lyndsey’s PlayPumps analogy. PlayPumps are a well-intentioned idea that combines a borehole pump with a roundabout to provide water for African villages. It’s also a well-endorsed idea which is supported by the likes of George Bush, Jay-Z and DJ Mark Ronson. PlayPumps seem like a dream solution to Africa’s water problems: playing, happy children being provided with play equipment whilst simultaneously pumping clean water.

play pumps

The problem, Lyndsey argued, with these well-intentioned PlayPumps was that they continued to be funded even when the data questioned their validity. They are less effective than normal pumps, children were often unavailable at times of water demand (you know… ‘cos school) and women often ended up pushing the roundabouts round themselves when a traditional hand pump would be far easier.

Lyndsey argued that there were several English play pumps – well-intentioned ideas that we thought seemed like a great idea but which were questionable. For example:

English PlayPumps

  • Thunks
  • P4C
  • Teacher autonomy
  • APP
  • Learning Styles

With this in mind, Lynsdey talked through her leadership of Cherwell’s English department in which she has: shifted an established culture of teacher autonomy and picked strategies that have the most impact on students in the long term with low impact on teacher wellbeing but high-leverage.

Some of the things that stuck with me that Lyndsey’s English team do under her leadership:

They do less better

  • Lyndsey has decided that her English department ought to reduce the focus and do less, better. Therefore, they have reduced the content of the curriculum but have made it rigorous and culturally enriching. Students at Cherwell study two units per year in KS3 whereas most English departments across the country are doing anywhere from 3 to 6.
  • Part of the rhythm of these two units involves a feedback lesson every fortnight. Teachers are able to manage this because they are NOT expected to mark books in the way we might expect i.e. they are not expected to write anything in a student’s book but, instead, are expected to read a class set of books to inform the feedback lesson and give whole-class feedback. Lyndsey argues it takes about an hour to read a class set of books which is a huge time saver for teachers whilst ensuring more regular feedback to inform planning and give students timely support and guidance.
  • Lyndsey has reduced the variety of tasks in lessons by stripping out low value tasks entirely by asking: where’s the excellence in that task?
  • The focus in lessons is discussion followed by annotation and then writing.

They manage distractions

  • Lyndsey argued that she wanted to help teachers to manage distractions by moving away from a ‘quiet working atmosphere’ to silent writing.
  • She argued that teenagers have such a heightened sense of self that they avoid embarrassing themselves (by, perhaps, working hard instead of chatting to their mates) and so removing the social element allows them to focus on their work.

They focus on crafted direct instruction

  • Team meetings are spent modelling how to model and talking about how to explain things to students effectively.
  • Lyndsey’s team film and store direct instruction videos onto YouTube for students to access.
  • Lyndsey’s team model extensively and skilfully in lesson for support and challenge.

They use standardised formative assessment

  • Formative assessments are placed two weeks before summative assessments to allow for a feedback lesson in between.
  • Lyndsey’s team use regular low stakes knowledge tests, in particular multiple choice, the results of which they analyse (e.g. by tracking the letters given to a multiple choice question to help spot common misconceptions across a class).

I feel like Lyndsey’s session came at a crucial moment in my thinking as I’ve been reviewing our current KS3 offer (which I introduced in September) and been considering the idea of doing less but better. Her prioritisation of doing things that have a high impact on student outcomes with low impact on teacher wellbeing also struck a chord.

Session 7: ‘What Research Should English teachers Know About?’ by Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick)


carl hendrick.png
‘It is a debased view of teaching that we can only engage students through the prism of their own interests.’

Carl managed the graveyard shift exceptionally well by giving an engaging run through the research we English teachers should know about.

Carl referred to the Semmelweis Reflex which really stuck with me – the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms. Carl told us the story of Ignas Semmelweis who realised that two maternity clinics at a Viennese hospital had distinctly different maternal mortality rates due to puerperal fever: 10% in one and less than 4% in the other. The difference? In the first babies were delivered by medical students and in the second they were delivered by midwives. This led to him concluding that the medical students were carrying ‘cadaverous particles’ on their hands from the autopsy room into the maternity clinic. Semmelweis introduced hand washing which reduced mortality rates in the first clinic from 18.3% to 2.2%. The problem? His findings challenged established medical opinions and his ideas were rejected: ‘Doctors are gentlemen and gentlemen’s hands are clean’.

This made me think about teachers and institutions that are reluctant to change practice despite what new evidence is telling us. Whilst we shouldn’t change what we do on a whim, we should be reading, evaluating and implementing ideas that will make a difference in our contexts.

cognitive load theory

Carl shared this tweet from Dylan William and talked about how important Cognitive Load Theory is. He pointed out that if the cognitive load in a lesson is excessive then no learning happens. He gave us an example of a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ extract and talked through the layers of demand put on students to interpret the text (let alone anything else). I loved his wheelbarrow analogy with regards to this – that a student, carrying a (cognitive) load in his wheelbarrow is unlikely to gain much from having a 5 minute discussion with another student about what they think the extract means. The chances are those students will put down their heavy wheelbarrows and talk about how heavy they are. Carl said there were two ways in which we could reduce excessive cognitive load: get them to know stuff and worked examples.

Carl shared an anecdote from his training in which he observed a fellow teacher delivering an ‘engaging’ lesson in which she entered the room covered by a sheet to imitate a ghost and asked students to note down their feelings. When students were asked, a while later, what they had learnt all they could remember was that their teacher entered the room with a sheet on their head because students remember what they think about. We need to stop distracting students under the guise of engaging them and, instead, focus on what they need to learn and know. Engagement is a poor proxy for learning and we cant con students into learning.

Carl’s message about what we English teachers should do:

  • Read research as opposed to doing research
  • Create a journal club – create a space to collaborate and reflect
  • Focus less on what teachers are doing
  • Defend our professional dignity from fads and gimmicks


I had a great day and came away with lots to think about – and I’ll be exploring implementing some of the ideas after I’ve thought and read some more. It was also an opportunity to catch up with some fantastic people from #teamenglish. I’m really looking forward to my next ResearcED event in Rugby on the 1st of July (though I will be speaking so we’ll see how much I’ll be able to enjoy it…).




On second chances


134 (1)
My dad (that I wrote about in November here) and my boys.

I suspect we can all picture a student, present or past, with whom there came a point where we felt that we weren’t making a difference. Where we felt exhausted by the effort of trying to battle against them because we could see what they couldn’t: their potential; their progress and the possibility of their success. A point where we began to believe that no matter what we did, we wouldn’t have any impact. The problem is, if we allow ourselves to believe that the cost of continuing to try is greater than the chance of success, we might excuse ourselves the effort.

Research studies into adolescent brain anatomy suggest that the part of the brain that regulates foresight is still developing at a time when students are undertaking exams that may well determine their future. Therefore, getting these students to see that what they’re doing now might have far reaching consequences is going to be a challenge – and a frustrating one given that the benefit of our experience shows us all those students that have come before and trodden the same well-worn path to disappointment. Let’s stop the pep talks and quiet chats and discussions about long-term consequences (even though we know they’ll kick themselves in the future) because the chances are that their foresight isn’t suddenly going to kick in. Instead, let’s put all of our efforts into believing in those students and not giving up on them. Let’s not allow ourselves to say, ‘John will never achieve a 4’ and instead believe that he might. Because if we stop believing in him then the golem effect means that John’s outcomes are likely to be poorer as a consequence.

If we see exam success as opening doors and the obverse as closing them, our job with these students is to jam our foot in the threshold of the door they appear to be slamming despite themselves. My contention is that we need to keep trying and keep giving those students a chance of success (even if that chance is only as wide as the foot you have squished in the door) because they won’t have a second chance at this and you won’t have a second chance with them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about second chances recently. Last November I wrote about my dad dying suddenly, aged just 56, of a massive heart attack whilst on holiday with my mum. Nearly six months later, I often find myself replaying the last day I spent with him and thinking about what I might have done differently. How I might have hugged him a little longer before he left my house that last time. How I might have taken up Mum’s offer to pop over for a cup of tea before they left for their flight. How I might have called him after I found out he’d gone to hospital with a suspected heart attack but sent back to the hotel with a diagnosis of indigestion. And so on and so on. But the sad reality is that there are no second chances for me to get that right. In life there are times, without us knowing, that the last time we do something is simply the last time ever.

Being educators, we may not want to see students completing their exams as being some kind of death but there are parallels: we get one shot with each cohort of students and we need to do what we can to get things right for them. And that’s true even for those students who really challenge us and push our buttons. Those students who don’t seem willing to try or are difficult or who seem wilfully incapable of acting on feedback. Because even the most unlikely of individuals can surprise us…

My dad that I wrote about in November was, officially, my step-dad. He came into my life when I was 9 and raised me as his own. He was the man who looked after me when I was ill, taught me to drive and walked me down the aisle. All that and more. However, I also have a biological dad who I thought I’d never see again. A man who cut all contact with me when I was about 13 and who kept trying to slam the door on any chance of a relationship with me. A man who took me completely by surprise this January when he asked to come and see me and meet my boys. A man I decided to give a second chance.

I can’t put into words how pleased I am that I did give my dad a second chance. He’s shown me that people can and do change. He’s shown me that even the most unlikely of characters can suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, turn things around. He’s shown me that having belief in someone doesn’t make us weak or stupid or pathetic (even when they repeatedly let you down) because it takes real strength to keep your foot wedged in a door it would be easier to let close. He’s shown me that giving second chances is one of the most important things we can do.

So, when you return from your Easter break and you’re faced with that student who you feel you’re not making a difference with, stick with them. Don’t give up on them even when they’re giving you good cause to because they may just surprise you. Keep believing they can succeed. Keep believing that they will turn things around. Be ready, with your foot jammed in the door, to be let in because you can and you do make all the difference. Keep doing what you’re doing, and I know it’s tough, because you know that they won’t get a second chance at this and you won’t get a second chance with them.