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    Andrew :)
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The Word Bag Strategy

Sometimes I don’t know where a classroom strategy fits – it is ‘differentiation’ or ‘improving climate for learning’ or just ‘good practice’? This one may even be all three. The idea is simple and stems from my dislike of sentence stems dressed up as a ‘writing frame’. All you do is draw the large outline of a bag on a whiteboard and place within it single words that belong to the type of language that you would expect in a really good student response. Be ambitious and select a few words that challenge their vocabulary or introduce precision or new technical terms. The drawing has to be no more than an outline that suggests ‘a bag’. I usually draw a cartoon sketch, you know, the type of thing that in my youth would have featured in the Beano and had ‘swag’ written on the side.

Then, when students are engaged in a task – spoken or written – ask them to use some of the words from this ‘word bag’. Make a game of it if you like. The result is that students’ responses shift to include the new words and progress is made. Easy.

There are perhaps a dozen variations on this idea but what I like about it is that the words are visible throughout the lesson and relevant to a task. I also think that, unlike sentence stems, this is not a heavy-handed approach and does not result in those same-y responses that bludgeon the individuality of the learner. If reaching for a richer way of expressing the world is part of your teaching, why not give ‘the word bag’ strategy a try.

Photos for Climate

Part of the success of The Guardian’s ‘Eyewitness’ photographic series is that arresting images never fail to create a powerful talking point.  If you have yet to come across these, each day The Guardian publishes a large and provocative image from some of our best documentary photographers. The picture editor’s aim in selecting these, no doubt, is to make readers stop and question their understanding of the world.

The image series has been a remarkable success. So much so in fact that there is now a free Eyewitness ‘app’ for apple devices including the iPad as well as android smartphones where users can access these images without the need to fork out £1.20 each day. And of course there’s the web. A browse to http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/series/eyewitness will allow access to Eyewitness images from the last few months.

And what has this to do with teaching? Well, our IWBs are great devices for displaying large images and it strikes me that a teacher who wants to create a positive climate for learning could do a great deal worse than develop a routine of starting lessons with a truly arresting photograph. This might be discussed. It might not. It might simply form a backdrop for students’ entry into the learning space. More creative minds than mine will develop their use this ‘freesource’ as a way to establish, far quicker than through language, the fact that their classroom is a place to think.

How do you feel today?

Working at a school this Friday, I came across a resource that I really liked but I could see that, with a few tweaks, it could be even more useful. So, I’ve made my own version of it.

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Each ‘emoticon’ has beneath it a strip of five boxes that could indicate intensity or that could be used to track emotion over a period of five lessons. The sheet is purposefully made using outline drawings so that colour might also be used to develop an emotional pattern.

I imagine that this resource could be used to encourage students to reflect on their emotions say, as part of a SEAL learning objective. It might also be used to reflect on the emotions of others perhaps as part of engaging with a writer or speaker.

The link is below; I hope you find it useful.

How do you feel today.pdf

20 Minutes for Change

Welcome to a recording that might change the way that you think about neglected and abused children. Press the grey play button to hear it (and make sure that volume isn’t muted). The recording lasts 20 minutes.

Exploring deductive reading

This is a resource that is part of the Teaching Inference and Deduction materials that I presented at our English Conference recently. It’s function is to serve as a thinking chart during an activity that simulates the fact that able readers frequently predict and reflect on reasonable reading conclusions.

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At the conference I used a (very) short story which I separated into paragraphs and projected using PowerPoint. At the end of each paragraph, I invited pairs of readers to reflect on the main character and to write their thoughts in note form on the chart, placing them in an appropriate zone. This brought to the fore discussion on what exactly is a reasonable reading conclusion given the material. It also supported analysis of this aspect of reading to deduce by making the usually invisible, apparent.

Target Map.doc

Tracking Characters

Here’s one of my resources from the recent Conference (see previous post). This is an exercise that helps students to explore one of the skills of reading to deduce: how able readers can track multiple characters in a text.

The important element in using this piece of work with a group is not to focus on the ‘right’ answers but rather to highlight the strategies that students have used to deduce them. It can be a very enlightening reading activity to use with pairs of readers and exposes some of those invisible reading skills that seem so mysterious to less able readers.

It’s an A3 resource so download and print accordingly.
Sykes & Nancy Chr Tracking.doc


DCP 1521aHere, as promised, is the PowerPoint from my session at our recent Regional English Conference.This is an annual event hosted in Doncaster to support the teaching of English in the north east of England.

For those of you unable to attend, it was another excellent event chock full of ideas for teaching English. There were brilliant sessions from Tara and Catherine on Writing to Describe; Charlotte on supporting ‘radical readers'; and Joy, Beth, Judith and Audrey gave us an amazing range of active strategies for teaching poetry.

Below is the link to download my notes on teaching deduction and inference in reading.

Teaching Deduction and Inference.ppt

I shall add copies of the resources that I used as part of the session soon. Check back to this blog in a few days for more!

Oh, and the tree? Well, that was our plenary activity. I’d assembled a few prunings in a pot at the front of the conference venue. At the end of the session, delegates wrote ideas on cut-out leaf shapes and were invited to add them to the bare branches. As you can see, those teaching ideas are blossoming in Doncaster!

And if you’re doing WJEC

A quick post to add the Welsh Board version of the GCSE structure activity from my previous post.

I’ve used the piece in a few schools now and it serves to remind (or inform!) students of the shape of their course and of the necessity to give more focus to the exam than they did the coursework element. It makes for a good starter to a revision session and has a very positive effect on the students’ level of confidence.

English GCSEs 2009 Structure Activity WJEC.doc

Understanding AQA English GCSE

Here is a resource that I made today to help my students understand the structure of their examinations in GCSE English. It gives you a way to teach ‘the big picture’ in an active fashion by presenting the students with a partially completed chart of the two examinations. They are then asked to use the cut-ups provided to add extra information such as the dates of the exams; the assessment objectives; the primary focus of the test; and whether their anthology is required.

By thinking about the pieces of information given, students can deduce where the extra information goes. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

Print the Word document on A4 and copy to A3 paper with two sheets per side if possible.

What the students will end up with is hopefully a useful chart and, by actually processing the information, a better understanding of the structure of their assessment. You never know, it might even make them feel less stressed.

English GCSEs 2009 Structure Activity.doc

In praise of Portable Apps

For almost all of the time I have been teaching, I have been spoilt. Of course I didn’t realise this until things changed but having one’s own teaching room is an enormous advantage in a teacher’s pressurised working day. Working from one room means there are a vital few minutes between one lesson and the next when the learning space can be reorganised to fit a new group.

Sadly, I no longer have that luxury and this means that it is I who have to move between rooms, carrying everything I might conceivably need for the next group of learners. Fortunately, each teaching room in my new school has a similar setup and is well equipped for sound, visuals and interactivity. Still, I’m always on the lookout for anything that might speed these transitions and when I came across Portable Apps, I knew it was just the sort of thing that could help.

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Most of us now use USB pen drives and think nothing of keeping lesson resources on them that can be opened by a ‘host’ PC. However, we have all experienced the problem inherent in this when a file that we’ve created on one computer steadfastly refuses to open on another.

The problem of course is to do with what programs are installed on which computer. Say I make a PowerPoint presentation on my home PC and save it to my memory stick. I then take that memory stick to a classroom and expect my presentation to run as it did on my PC at home. This may or may not happen as I expect due to the different versions of PowerPoint available or indeed whether it is installed at all on the PC into which I plug my USB stick. These kinds of problems seem demonstrably worse when one is working with sound and video as there are so many different formats available for these types of files.

What Portable Apps offers is a way to change your pen drive into a mini-computer. The idea is simple, why stop at storing data when these pen drives are fast enough to run tiny versions of very useful programs. Thus, instead of carting about a laptop with your specific programs installed and connecting it to a projector or interactive whiteboard, you run your vital applications from a humble pen drive.

If you investigate the excellent PortableApps.com you will find that your pendrive can have a start menu not dissimilar to the Windows one. This menu will automatically run when you plug your pendrive into a new PC. Into that menu you might add programs such as VLC Media Player (a piece of software that allows you to play almost any video format) or Coolplayer (a very fast, easy-to-use audio player). Now you are no longer at the mercy of software installed on your institution’s PCs; you can work safe in the knowledge that your saved file will indeed play as expected.

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And while we’re on the subject of Portable Apps, one of the programs that has been made portable goes by the moniker of PNotes. Once run, it places virtual post-its on your screen that can be typed on, saved and set to display on top of any other window or programs that you run. I use this tiny but essential program to display the learning objectives for my lessons, making the ‘post-it’ that contains them slightly transparent so that students can select whether they are looking at the learning objectives or indeed the material behind them.

It has long been a gripe of mine that those people who make interactive whiteboard software have not included an easy way to achieve this relatively simple effect: having learning objectives visible to students no matter what else is one screen. PNotes running from your pendrive makes this a very easy trick to pull off and your learning objectives are saved for next time too.


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