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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

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.

IWB choice

If, like me, you use an interactive whiteboard (or IWB for the acronym obsessed) for much of the active content of lessons, then you’ll often find yourself feeling frustrated by the software developers behind such devices.

In the UK there are two varieties of IWB that have found favour in our secondary schools, abbreviated by teachers to the terms ‘Promethean’ and ‘Smart’. Of course each of these IWB ‘platforms’ has its own software to support resource development and lesson delivery.

In the case of Smart boards, this means using their proprietary ‘Notebook’ software and in the case of Promethean, ‘Activstudio’. Both have their merits. Travelling from school to school, I have had to make myself expert in each though this often means having two copies of the same resource depending on which board I’m using.

Smartech’s Notebook software is relatively easy to use and ‘feels’ much more polished than its main competitor’s effort. Currently in version 10, it uses a flip chart metaphor to produce lesson materials that can have multiple pages, attachments, simple animations, text and tables. Its most accomplished feature is its ‘gallery’ through which one can add interactive and multimedia elements that build very attractive active learning resources quickly. For example, using Notebook it takes less than 5 minutes to make a ‘vortex’ sorting activity that could be used as a starter for a lesson (see below).

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By contrast, Promethean’s Activstudio is much harder to learn but, once mastered, offers greater control and flexibility of page objects. It does give a user access to additional resources via its website, Promethean Planet, but to build interesting interactive resources with Activstudio is a labour counted in hours rather than minutes. In addition, no one could claim that the Activstudio’s interface is anything other than uninspiring and, let’s be frank, ugly. The software interface is highly reminiscent of Windows 98 and looks outdated to the modern eye yet it can produce some very pleasing results if you are prepared to stick with it.

The trouble is, of course, that many teachers are not in a position to choose which IWB or attendant software platform they would prefer. To most of us, we are restricted to whatever is screwed firmly to our classroom wall. We are stuck with whatever choice our school managers made when these devices became de rigueur.

So in a ‘betamax-versus-vhs’ sort of way, teachers are caught in a format war that pits ‘easy but limited’ against ‘compex but versatile’. For what it’s worth my vote goes with Smart. And my reasoning? Well, an interactive whiteboard is no more than a useful tool for teaching and in that respect anything that allows teachers to make engaging interactive content quickly and efficiently has got to be the better option.

Doing Lit. with reluctant learners

One of the joys of my teaching life is to find ways to bring the learner to the learning no matter where they start from. This skill has been tested recently as I have been working with a group of highly reluctant (some might say ‘resistant’ or even ‘out and out hostile’) learners.

In my school there exists a small group of learners referred to on the timetable as a ‘re-engagement’ group or ‘R-band’ class. These students are a very challenging group of individuals with extremely low self-esteem and a group identity based on hostility towards schooling (and teachers!) as well as all the familiar symptoms of disaffection. In lessons, they swear; they shout; they fight; they ignore; they truant; they resist; they challenge; they vandalise; they attack; they demand; they flaunt their bigotry; they verbally abuse; and they destroy what work they do complete. In short, they are as far from being receptive to learning as you can possibly imagine.


It was with this class that I was asked to plan lessons that would help them to understand some literary texts, namely two poems from the ‘different cultures’ section of the AQA anthology for GCSE. At this point I suspect ‘the youth today!’ lobby have just had all their prejudices confirmed about the sorry state of British youngsters and are reaching for their extreme solutions. But wait, did I mention that these same students are naive and frightened and damaged and desperately looking for structure (even though they will go to enormous lengths to kick against it).

Watching these students in class is fascinating. Yes, it’s an uneasy business of preparing for the next explosion and trying to make the most capital from brief moments of calm but it’s also oddly reassuring. In amongst all this damage are twelve or so distortions of what it is to be a child with all the attendant insecurities. There are also moments that would melt the heart of even the most cynical. For example, in one learning sequence they wrote picture books for five-year-olds and the care that the group put into the task together with their haphazard (but correct) discussion of the needs of such an audience were, well, charming.

Tackling the poems was going to be different though. I mean, its a well known fact that poetry is universally disliked by difficult and less able kids, right? Well… not exactly.

I began with the ‘stories’ of the poems. Here I presented the group with a prose narrative of each poem for them to sequence as a ‘cut and stick’ exercise. The challenge was ‘find the story here’. Next I gave a range of pictures that might illustrate that ‘story’. Then I asked the students to find anything in this poem that might ‘go with’ the pictures (and the narrative). The idea was to encourage the students to create a 2-D presentation of the poem with three different representations of its narrative: in prose, in image; and in the selection of fitting snippets from the text.

The results were remarkable. I braced myself for chaos – there were scissors and glue involved after all – and had prepared a standby option but it was not needed. Before putting these pieces on display, I photographed some as a record of what was achieved.


If you’d like the resources used, they can be downloaded below.

Blessing narrative

Blessing flipchart

Blessing photosheet

How to write a scheme of work

Whether its the renewed Secondary Framework or the revamped National Curriculum, I have found that much of my outreach time in recent weeks has centred on writing schemes of work. And yes, I do agree that they should properly be called Schemes of Learning or even Learning Schemes but we teachers are an odd lot when it comes to name changes. In this season for remembrance let’s spare a thought for the recently departed NC tests – NC tests? Well, that’s ‘SATs’ to you and me. Thus I find referring to ‘planned-sequences-of-learning-activities’ as a ‘Scheme of Work’ is a reassuring and universally understood ‘teacher shorthand’. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that we can’t slowly shift our terms of reference…

Schemes of work, however you dress them up, serve the purpose of providing teachers with a thinking pathway through a section of the curriculum. They take the unit of teaching, the lesson, and transport the learner from one place to another via sequences of activities that stimulate thought. To be wholly successful a scheme of work must seem as clear and obvious as any other sort of map, simultaneously making the reader aware of complexity but at the same time making it easy to navigate. To produce one is a tricky job and it’s no wonder then that there are so many poor examples out there. Not convinced? A quick trip to one or two of the best known teaching resource websites should prove the point.

tired The trouble is, like many elements of a career in teaching, writing a scheme of work sounds easy. I mean surely it’s just about planning a lesson and then another and so on? It’s seen as one of those ‘self-evident’ parts of our job, so self-evident in fact that teaching managers routinely suggest it on a department’s development plan without necessarily giving sufficient support to the teachers who are faced with the task of writing one.

Understandably, teachers are stressed by the scale of this task. So, what’s the big deal? Well, it’s just that there is little official guidance out there about precisely how to go about writing a scheme of work. Examples of that one can find all look different or contain different elements or highlight different features as significant. At their simplest, they are glorified lists of (largely pointless) tasks, and at their most complex they are overly prescriptive, needlessly specific and unusable outside their immediate context. Whenever I support hard-working and committed teachers charged with writing them, it is these confusions of form and purpose that hover behind our conversations. And no wonder, after all thinking that the task is to encompass all the teaching possibilities and all learning opportunities inherent in a body of content is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

So, when I worked recently with a group of teachers in Barnsley I spent some time devising a clear and logical route to help them to devise their new learning schemes. The task was to present the process of writing schemes for learning as a sequence of steps, to break the larger task into smaller and eminently achievable steps. It’s this work that I’m sharing in the link below. My hope is that this guidance sheet might just help some teachers feel more confident about tackling such a large task and, if nothing else, may serve as a starting point for discussion.

Writing a scheme for learning.doc