Category Archives: Education

Debating #Michaela Last Saturday: Time for a “7 Up” anyone?

I was there in the flesh on the front row of the #Michaela debates at London’s City Hall last Saturday. I loved it. It was great fun – a very polite interchange of views that made for much more engaging CPD than you’d normally receive by a series of PPT presentations on just one topic with perhaps 2 minutes for questions afterwards.

It was a shame to see that some who were not in attendance got huffy on Twitter because either they felt #Michaela as an event was dominating their Twitter feed, or perhaps they were just feeling left out, or miffed that #Michaela as a school was getting so much coverage. It’s true that #Michaela is a controversial school, have a look at their website at to find out more. They do seem to do stuff that has connotations of the Charter Schools in America, which we smile wide-eyed at and laugh and snigger at when we watch their YouTube clips online. The rumours, which may or may not be true, include children being made to walk corridors in absolute silence between lessons.

I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t have to worry about it, because 1) I don’t teach there, and 2) I don’t have a child attending there. Perhaps I should have a moral conscience about it or something, as it does affect the wider educational eco-system we live in. And who knows, some future extremist Minister for Education may use #Michaela as a precedent for insisting ALL schools in the UK may follow suit. That’d never happen though, would it? Would it?

The double clap made me laugh, which headmistress Katherine Birbalsingh playfully got us to do at the end of the day. We saw a brief video clip of students at their school doing it. Can’t hurt, I guess.

Katherine Birbalsingh was a superlative orator, and I tweeted so. Her entire team from #Michaela were a highly polished set of debaters. I wondered if they had rehearsed their gig together beforehand to give each other tips on where to put the intonation on particular words in their delivery. Katherine was very charismatic, a great leader no doubt. Her team of teachers all quite young and idealistic perhaps? If so, then it’d be understandable if what some teachers say might be true: is #Michaela a bit of a cultic school environment?

I don’t know if it’s true that they only have year 7 and 8 students at the moment, due to having started from scratch with admissions right from the get go only the other year. If that’s true, I think we need a BBC or Channel 4 documentary to chart the progress of this scholastic social experiment, a bit in the style of the “7 up” type series done years ago: “Show me the boy of 7 and I will show you the man”. I wonder if you compared students who went to #Michaela and a ‘normal’ school now, and then in 7 years, 14, 21 and 28 years from now, whether there would be any interesting trends that emerge in destination data and progress made through life. What would their choices and limitations in life be? Career wise and otherwise? Would #Michaela students be more or less successful, and how? Would they be limited in some ways? Would they tend to end up in highly structured environments? How many would be entrepreneurs and innovators? Would they be more or less rigid in their expectations of others around them once in the real world? How would they cope with lack of structure and people who don’t conform to society’s rules?

It was interesting that none of my tweets appeared in the live feed displayed to the room on a TV screen on Saturday. Maybe the organisers were filtering out based on some criteria for tweets that conformed to some rules unknown to me. Or maybe my tweets weren’t that interesting. I don’t know…

I think for me personally, my biggest take-home from the day was that debates with starkly opposing viewpoints represented by the debating party are an exceptionally valuable form of CPD. It mattered not whether the views represented were false dichotomies. The end result was that you heard something talked about from a variety of points of view, which provided an enriching and highly nuanced package of delivery. Most of the debates left you with a middle-ground feeling (PBL vs direct instruction/drilling, no-excuses discipline vs a more reasonable approach, personalised learning vs classes in sets receiving direct instruction without differentiation, schools doing whatever it takes and becoming social workers vs not getting involved much at all outside the classroom and putting teacher well-being first through prioritisation). Of course the last debate was hilarious – Jonathan Simons, a non-teacher, arguing in favour of performance related pay to a room full of teachers – even he changed his position at the end!

The middle-ground debates though covered most of the angles. If they had been turned into transcripts with rebuttals and audience Q&A too, it would probably read like an excellent exegesis. No turn really left unturned and all angles critiqued. I think you could compare it to a form of Socratic dialogue, where the audience takes the less vocal role of Socrates. The Socratic line of questioning seems to follow its own implicit and tacit course. The conclusion is, everything having been heard, there is rarely any black and white.

My own feeling on leaving was that as a unique environment and its own system, #Michaela probably works. As do any other systems with their own rules and boundaries. For a time. It’s where the actors within the system then have to leave and enter other systems that interests me.

#Michaela wasn’t promoted or marketed much on the day by the way, not explicitly. Just in case you wondered. I felt it was more about the discussion of the issues at hand that were the focus, and not the school itself.

It was an entertaining day. I’d recommend going if there is another opportunity like that.

GCSE English Language Revision Postcard 41:Writing to Inform (Time Travel Task…)

Here we go with another bit of writing to inform revision, for question 5 on the AQA foundation paper. See the postcard below for the task, and then carry on reading beneath for some tips and hints.

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As you may imagine, there are a few time travel summary lists already published on the web. For a writing to inform question you can easily borrow their basic style, which is very close to the “who, what, where, when” type technique, but still manages to go further than simply writing an extended list. For example, look at these three web pages:

Don’t just re-write their lists though! To get your time-travelling juices flowing, have a gander down this wider list and google a few things that take your fancy to find out more. You should talk about at least five in your piece of writing. Or maybe you already have a secret stash of well-read time travel books on your own bookshelf at home?! If so, write about those!

  • The Time Machine, by H G Wells
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Replay, by Ken Grimwood
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five, by Kurt Vonnegut
  • 11/22/63, by Stephen King
  • Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
  • Time and Again, by Jack Finney
  • The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov
  • The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier
  • Kindred, by Octavia E Butler
  • Timescape, by Gregory Benford
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
  • The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman
  • Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon
  • The Time Ships, by Stephen Baxter
  • The Best Time Travel Stories of All Time, by B N Malzberg, P K Dick, and R Silverberg
  • The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers

GCSE English Language Revision Postcard 32: Writing to Argue

Revision task for question 6 on the AQA Foundation paper, writing to argue. Also using @HeadofEnglish ‘s viewpoint discourse marker lollipop sticks that she kindly donated to the Twittersphere 🙂

Happy revising!

GCSE English Language Revision Postcard 31: Writing to Persuade -Foundation Paper

Here’s another revision task for question 6 on the AQA GCSE English Language foundation level paper, writing to persuade.

When I’ve said “powerful words”, read emotive as well as less common and rare vocabulary.

The aim of the game with persuasive writing is of course to get the reader to take on your point of view, and as such examiners like to see that a student can “manipulate the reader” – the easiest way to do this seems to be by using rhetorical questions to create a feeling of guilt or shame if the reader doesn’t agree with them. That’s something most foundation level students can easily do. It also seems more effective if the manipulative, guilt/shame inducing rhetorical question is attached to the end of an emotive anecodote. For example:

“My beautiful little sister, Gemima, was only 3 years old when she became ill and died as a result of passive smoking. She had the rest of her wonderful life before her: golden locks that curled around her dainty neck and bounced up and down as she laughed and played, rosy cheeks that burned with energy and happiness, and an intense love for a favourite teddy bear, named Fred. However, her precious life was cut brutally short. Why? All because of her next door neighbour’s disgusting smoking addiction. She would play with her dolls right next to the fence where the neighbour used to come outside to puff on his sticks of death. No-one thought anything of it, until it was too late. You don’t want to be guilty of killing beautiful little children, too, do you? No? The answer is clear. Stop smoking today.”

The revision task:


20 Questions: GCSE English Language Foundation Paper Exam Quiz

I’m probably going to use this quiz with my class before their mock exam next week. For them it will be a recap activity of things we discussed and went through at some length in class yesterday when they did the Exam Isle board game (see previous blog post). Feel free to use with your students too if you think it might be useful.

20 Questions: GCSE English Language Foundation Paper Exam Quiz

  1. How many marks is question 1a worth?
  2. How many marks is question 5 worth?
  3. What type of writing is required for question 6 (writing to…)?
  4. What are you required to identify, quote and explain the effect on the reader for in question 3?
  5. What type of questions are 1a, 1b and 2?
  6. How long should you aim to spend on question 6?
  7. Which question will you attempt first?
  8. What are you required to identify examples of from two texts and compare in question 4?
  9. List three examples of language features
  10. List three examples of presentational features
  11. What three types of writing might be required for question 5 (writing to…)?
  12. How many marks is question 6 worth?
  13. Which question will you attempt 2nd?
  14. How many marks is question 2 worth?
  15. I don’t need to write in paragraphs in section A, the reading section: true or false?
  16. List three examples of discourse markers
  17. List three writing to describe techniques
  18. How many marks is question 3 worth?
  19. List three writing to persuade techniques
  20. What is the difference between writing to inform and writing to explain?

Swap your answers with a partner and peer mark while answers are discussed as a class.

GCSE English Language Revision Postcard 30: Writing to Explain – Foundation Paper

Revision task for question 5 on the GCSE AQA foundation tier paper, writing to explain.

Happy revising! 🙂


Will you survive the terrors of “Exam Isle”? PGCE observation

I’m not sure how it went yet as I’ve not had extensive feedback, but today was my 6th of 8 observations that I have to have as part of my two year part time PGCE course. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed preparing for it. The students seemed to benefit (both from an engagement point of view as well as learning from their endeavour as well as their mistakes along the way). And, so far, I do know that the PGCE tutor who observed the session thought that it was “highly effective”. That’s what he’s written on the two pieces of paperwork he had to commit to signing off in my presence this morning anyway. I will get more extensive feedback later, which I’m looking forward to.

So what did I do? To be honest I ran a session that I loved preparing for but that I know I could never sustain that amount of preparation time on in the normal run of things. I prepared two board games, size A1 (Hobbycraft loves me – I spent a fortune!), to run with two separate groups of learners in one class. There were meant to be 4 students in each group but one didn’t turn up (attendance can be unpredictable in these instances!).

The board game took the students through a series of questions to help them reflect and discuss together what would help and hinder their preparation for the forthcoming exam, and then got them to get their hands dirty thinking, remembering and looking at a past exam paper in order to, literally, piece together the bigger picture of “Exam Isle”. I’d got luggage labels, lollipop sticks, card toppers, and “to do” lists galore. It was a veritable treasure trove for crafting.

Students had to discuss and decide which questions focused on information retrieval, language features, presentational features, writing to inform, explain or describe, and writing to argue or persuade. They had to allocate the right marks for each question, and decide how long should be spent on each one, and what order to do them in. They then had to decide which set of “to do” list instructions applied to each question. It took them about 1 hour 20 minutes to work through, and one group finished slightly earlier than the other. When they were finished they used a little note sheet to do a peer performance assessment and rate each other’s efforts during the game on: teamwork, communication, willingness to improve and knowledge. They then handed back the peer performance scorecards to each other and were asked to reflect on how they might improve on criteria they hadn’t been given 10 out of 10 on. The teamwork and communication criteria were relevant in our FE setting as employability factors. I like to think the willingness to improve could have helped them think about general effort they put in and also maybe the state of their “growth mindset”.

After they had finished this session they glued the board game pieces to “Exam Isle” and the huge A1 boards are now up in my base room for students to keep reflecting on over the next few weeks until the exam on June 7th.

That was the observed session. Part two then came after break when the observer had gone, students relaxed, and people got on with real work 🙂 (the real work included no poster activities at all, and just required students to start working through exam style questions, using marking schemes from past papers to peer and self-assess. I was impressed because everyone was very busy and on task for session 2. During this session I also gave feedback on the last two pieces of creative writing they did before the Easter holidays (“Write about a film you either love or loathe,” and “Use a season of the year as the title and idea for a piece of writing”).

Students have a good idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what they need to work on for SPaG between now and the exam, which unfortunately brought their marks down a bit in the grand total for all CAs done.

I dished out and explained the idea behind the metacognitive journal. They had a go, reflected on the points they were asked about on today’s page, and created a learning target for themselves, in addition to the targets they already have ongoing. I’m hoping it will serve to keep reinforcing what they themselves must do to prepare for the upcoming exam.

No revision homework was handed in from the Easter holidays. I encouraged them to re-start their 20 minutes a day revision resolutions from scratch. To be continued…

Image 1: Exam Isle (before class)


Image 2: Exam Isle (set up as two board games in class this morning before students arrived)

IMG_1458 (Edited)

Image 3: Exam Isle (finished – after students had put all the pieces on and worked their way around the island.


Image 4: Exam style questions on those postcards I’ve been pumping through daily on Twitter and elsewhere. Students used the real things in class this morning and then used past exam paper marking schemes to peer and self-assess.



GCSE English Language Revision Postcard 29: Writing to Inform

Revision task for writing to inform question 5 on the AQA foundation paper.

Have fun!


GCSE English Language Revision Postcard 28: Writing to Describe

Here’s another writing to describe revision task for question 5 on the AQA foundation paper. Again, I must issue a warning to those English teachers who despise use of the term “powerful words” – I’ve used it here and it’s bound to make some teachers puke, sorry, nauseate. To translate for their benefit, and to put this in terms of the exam paper assessment criteria, students should use less common and rare words and demonstrate the knowledge and skill to use linguistic features. There’s an Alka-Seltzer in the cupboard.

Happy revising.

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Also, I found this word list online at and thought it might help.

spooky words

GCSE English Language Revision Postcard 26: Language Feature Analysis – Foundation Paper

This is a short revision task for question 3 on the foundation paper, requiring students to read a source article and analyse it for language used (go straight to the images on the bottom of the page if you just wish to see the revision task).

It’s true that sometimes, some students have benefitted from learning and using the mnemonic, AFOREST, or DAFOREST, as an aid to help them remember what features of language they can look for. The only problem with this is, and it’s not insignificant, what if, when the student opens the source and they struggle to find alliteration, facts, rhetorical questions, and so forth? Unless students are aware of and have at their disposal a range of parts of speech or features of language to draw from, they may well come unstuck. For example, in DAFOREST, where is the reminder for similes, metaphors, personification? Or verbs, adjectives, adverbs and nouns? It’s my feeling that their job is made much easier if they have a bigger box of tools.

My thoughts are these: students should be able, in an ideal world, to read through said source and highlight the main points made in reference to the question being asked, and then they should be able to look at the sentence they have chosen, and pick out the main word(s) or phrases they want to work with, and then state the technical name of the language used, quote it, and then state the effect on the reader.

But, wait, what light in yon classroom breaks? Is it on the interactive whiteboard that has written on it, “thou shalt not use empty phrases?” There was a great image circulated on Twitter by @MissJLud a while ago (see below), where she reminded students to stop using empty phrases, such as “The writer uses language to emphasise,” “This makes the reader want to read on,” “The language is effective,” “This creates an image in the reader’s mind,” “The headline is in bold to grab the reader’s attention,” or, “The writer uses a technique to have an effect on the reader.” @MissJLud is spot on. Left to their own devices, many students do struggle to know what to say when it comes to stating an effect on the reader.

This is important because in question 3 on the AQA English language paper there are 12 marks: 1 given for each language feature identified along with a quote, and one for stating the effect on the reader. So students have to find 6 language features and state 6 effects. It’s easy to see where the student might go for quick, cheap wins and think they can race through this one fairly thoughtlessly. The mock exam does tend to iron out such issues though. It allows you to see what students are struggling on. It’s usually their lack of knowledge on technical names for features of language, and they do sometimes forget to quote how it is used in the text. However, they can also fall down in not actually saying anything at all when it comes to stating the effect on the reader, even though they think they have. So what is needed?

@MissJLud gives some pithy and useful advice with the examples in her image (again, see below). Students need to already be empowered with the skill to explain their ideas. This requires more consistent and in depth teaching throughout the school year and not just in the last five minutes before the exam, because, as you will see, the phrases require thoughtful adaptation and assumes the student has read and understood the text properly. And therein lies a problem. If the student can’t be bothered, is looking for quick wins, or gets in a flap because they think they don’t have time to give a few minutes to getting the real gist of the source the question is based on, they will revert back to empty phrases: “The effect on the reader is, the alliteration used emphasises the thing being said and makes the reader want to read on”. A student may resort to saying such stuff, or slight variations, repeatedly. It can be cringe worthy.

There is no pill a student can take to magic a solution to this problem. The answer is simply longer term, repeated teaching and learning opportunities to help the student make progress throughout the year. I hope and pray that my students this year are more empowered with a greater range of parts of speech and features of language to draw from – I’ve certainly been drip feeding the basics on verbs, adjectives, adverbs and nouns more. And I hope they have made some progress on finding ways to give more meat to the bones of stating the effect on the reader – I’ve reiterated these points many times and given feedback in homework and essay preparation where possible.

But at the end of the day we can’t beat ourselves up for it as teachers too much. If, like me, you teach a 9 month resit class in FE, for example, it’s all fairly rushed. I get students who have already had 11 years in school to try and improve and make progress on these issues. It’s great if they make any progress at all in the context of delivery of the retake GCSE.

So good luck to you and your students, wherever and whoever you and they may be.

I added a third image to my task today from “Key Stage 3 English Booster” (2001), part of the “Last Minute Revision” series. I included it because, for both the adjective/adverb and alliteration examples it describes, the final few sentences of each section can be used as examples for how to learn to explain the effect on the reader more effectively. As you will see, they are far from empty phrases.

And finally, thanks to @MissJLud on Twitter for sharing this, which I have also adapted into a poster for the wall in my baseroom at college.

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