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How to engage students in lessons.
Dream team

As a History teacher, or any other subject teacher for that matter, how many times have you thought how you can “jazz” up a topic? There are some topics that just generate teacher and student enthusiasm and some that even an experienced History teacher thinks are dull. So here are a few tips of bringing that “lust for learning” into the classroom.  They are all tried and tested and guaranteed to motivate and enthuse. Why not give them a go?

Tarsia Puzzles

These puzzles are brilliant for motivating and engaging pupils. This is because the students are competing against time and each other. They are really good for independent learning but students do often find it much easier to work in pairs. Students are given a series of questions and answers on a topic and they need to match them up by either using prior knowledge (revision exercise) or by using textbooks, information sheets or the internet. This doesn’t sound too hard I hear you say! However, the activity is to test the higher order thinking skills as the questions and answers need to be placed into a hexagon shape and this requires a lot of logical thinking.

The puzzles are extremely easy for teachers to make. You simply download the programme from the Tarsia website, input your questions and answers and the programme does the rest for you. This is an excellent resource for differentiation – you can use less questions, resulting in a smaller hexagon or even change the shape of the puzzle completely. My students of all abilities love this challenge.




Topic competition 

This is another lesson that is based around competition and students do become a little frantic during the lesson, so be prepared for some noise. This is probably not the best lesson to try when another class nearby are sitting an assessment.

Students need to be placed into groups of three or four. Each group is given their own set of coloured cards but those cards are kept on a desk in the front of the classroom. One student from each group comes to the desk, collects their first card and returns to their group. The card contains a question. Again, this could be used as a revision exercise or the introduction to a new topic. Together the group find the answer to the question and write it down. The answer is brought to the desk by the second person in the group. The answer is checked, if correct the second card is given, if incorrect the student returns to the group and they try again. The first group that completes all the questions correctly are the winners. This is where the noise comes in as the students are frantically running backwards and forwards in the room. However, there is always a “buzz” in the room and it is a fun and different way of learning. This activity also lends itself to differentiation as you can have mixed ability groups, ability groups, a MAT group with more challenging questions. The possibilities are endless. The only downside to this activity (apart from the noise) is the preparation of the cards beforehand. However, as with all resources, once you have made them you can use them over and over again.


Motivating students into writing extended answers.

Once upon a time this generally just applied to those students who took History at GCSE. This is no longer the case as with the new curriculum changes there is a greater emphasis on extended writing for everyone as well as spelling, punctuation and grammar. So as a teacher how can you possibly make this task engaging? My exam board love questions that allow students to explain a series of events. For example, Why was Hitler able to gain complete power in governing Germany in the years 1933 – 1934?

This lesson needs to be completed as a series of lessons. Around the classroom I place a lot of topic information that the students need to cover in their answer. Then begins the information hunt. Students are given the opportunity to work alone or in pairs. They circulate the room and complete a headed table by collecting as much information as possible about each topic. Information can be differentiated.

Many of our students have no idea of how to revise for exams, so this is the next part of the lesson.  They are all issued with six small postcards. The idea is to use the information that they have collected to design revision cards. For each topic, the information should be bullet pointed, short and snappy and contain key words and dates. Students are only allowed to use one side of the card for their notes forcing them to choose the information that is the most important.

The following task is the extended writing task. For this, students need large sheets of sugar paper, coloured pens and to work in partners. In pairs, they write the first paragraph to the question – this is their introduction. After five minutes, every pair swaps their paper – this is much easier if you go clockwise around the room.  The new pair of students reads through the work, they correct any factual and SPAG mistakes, then they use their revision cards and information table to write the next paragraph. They will need slightly longer for this so I usually give seven minutes to each paragraph after this. This then continues around the class until the whole answer is completed.

The final part of this activity is for students to produce their own individual answers. All class answers are displayed around the room. Students need to pick and choose which paragraphs they believe will produce the best answer. This is another form of differentiation as it allows lower ability students to see how to write a higher grade answer. They can then use this model to answer similar questions in the future.

Engagement for boys – but not just for boys!

This was originally set as a homework task to encourage students to complete research and explain their reasons for their choices. It became the most popular piece of homework that I have ever given. Enthusiasm went through the roof. I had students stopping me on the yard, coming to my room at break and e-mailing me to tell me their ideas. I have to say that there were a lot of parents involved in this task as well.  The task was simple. Students were asked to create a historical football dream team. They could choose any one from history but every person they chose had to be given a position on the team and this needed to include an explanation of why that person should play in that position – what qualities did they have? Students were given the option of e-mailing their homework to me or simply just writing it down. I was absolutely inundated with ideas. The results were all read and I used my tutor group at the time to help create the final “Dream Team”. This was then developed into a display in the classroom and it always generates a lot of interest.

Dream team

As a teacher, I have to say that developing lessons that create so much enthusiasm gives me great pleasure. Despite the planning and the noise, I get great satisfaction when students leave the room with a smile on their face and say how much they enjoyed History today. However, what gives me the most satisfaction is when they tell me as they are about to leave in Year 11 “Miss, do you remember when we ……..?”

Lead Learners

I’m the G&T Co-ordinator at a sixth form college and am exploring different strategies to improve provision for our most able students within a classroom setting. I’m working with a wonderful group of teachers to develop new approaches and revisit old ones. After a lunchtime discussion with colleagues, I set up a lesson this week where students acted as teachers and was taken aback at just how successful it was. I selected 4 of the most able students in each AS class – although I also selected a couple who, on paper, are not quite so high achieving, but who have real enthusiasm for the topic we’re doing – and gave them the task with resources and ideas attached. I told them they’d be teaching up to 4 of their classmates and also told them they’d be scored (by their classmates) on how well they explained, answered questions and how much progress was made in the lesson.


To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect, particularly as I’d given the students the instructions on a Friday to be delivered on the following Monday morning. I had also chosen a student who is very able (target grade A) but who makes little effort to concentrate and work in class. I was particularly interested to see how she would tackle the task after she commented “oh great – so I get extra homework?” when I explained what I wanted her to do.


Several emailed me resources to be printed off for the lesson over the weekend and I was really impressed with the understanding the resources showed and the effort they had employed in the task. One asked for scissors and glue (that always makes my heart skip as a Geography teacher!) and two more asked for mini whiteboards and pens. I was feeling very optimistic and excited about the lesson and I wasn’t disappointed. Each group started by assessing their level of confidence in the topic on a scale of 1 to 5 (they revisited the scale at the end of the lesson) and then spent the next 40 minutes being taught by their peers.


WP_20150323_10_16_52_Pro WP_20150323_10_14_58_Pro WP_20150323_10_14_36_Pro

I was amazed at the quality of explanation and questioning that ensued. For 40 minutes the classroom buzzed with discussion, demonstrations, quizzes, sketching, card ordering and, most impressively, sustained student engagement with the task. I had organised mixed ability groups for each Lead Learner and made sure personalities were balanced as well. One outcome which I had hoped for (and which did actually happen) was that the quieter, less confident students would ask their Lead Learner as many questions as they wanted. What happened was that if they weren’t satisfied with the answer, they asked the question again and again until they understood. This would never have happened in a whole-class setting.


The Lead Learners clearly enjoyed the experience and so did the rest of the class. The written feedback the students gave showed significant progress made in the lesson and they all voted to repeat the exercise again with a different topic. After the 40 minute group work, I gave the class a hinge question test with some deliberately misleading options. Each group continued with the same level of discussion and engagement and every student got every question right. They’re now writing an essay on the topic for homework.


And which was one of the most lively and productive groups in the room? The one lead by the student who didn’t want extra homework! She blushed when I praised her for the effort she had made and reluctantly admitted that she had enjoyed the experience.

String Thing – A way to stretch , challenge and engage

Last week staff who are part of the GO Barnwell coaching project @GOBarnwell were each set their respective GO Gold teaching and learning missions. Some staff were allocated ‘string thing.’ I deliberately kept the title rather vague so that it could be open to a variety of interpretations allowing for creativity and an individualization of the task. My colleagues, Emma , Jackie and I have written up three different activities we devised within our own subject specialisms. We all found that our individual string thing activities stretched our students ,encouraging them to develop and use their high order thinking skills.


String thing – MFL

This string activity asks students to use thinking skills and categorise vocabulary. I prepared six grammatical categories (verbs, cognates, false friends, nouns, adjectives, pronouns). Each category must be linked to another with a piece of string. On this string students must place an individual item of vocabulary (which had already been cut out and placed in an envelope). For example, if one of the items were ‘visiter’ to visit, students attached this word to the piece of string that connected VERB and COGNATE. The task became harder when students had to use translation skills, discuss grammar and watch out for false friends (words that look/sound like English words which do not mean the same thing). Students had to use a range of skills involving, dictionary use, knowledge of grammar (both in French and English), guess work and team worThis activity was a huge success, students felt motivated, challenged and each had a role to play in their team. All Groups discussed grammar at length which enabled me to ask more challenging questions about the grammar system or play devil’s advocate. After preparation of this task, the whole activity was student led and independent. I would highly recommend this activity with the following advice: include sticky tape in your packs for vocabulary/ string to sit properly, include blank cards for students to write their own vocabulary (I gave bonus points to students that could include as many of these as possible)




String thing – Geography

My GCSE Geographers were at the end of the Urban World topic which had included a large number of case studies. I was keen to draw out the similarities and differences between the different locations. I colour coded the case studies to show if they were in the developed or developing world and then stuck them to the two rows of tables. I then connected the locations to each other with string forming a sort of web. Students were then asked to come up individually throughout the lesson on a rotation basis and either note a similarity or difference between examples. Similarities were recorded on yellow and differences on green. Students then stuck their respective post -it notes onto the string which connected the two case studies they’d been asked to compare and contrast.I was able to differentiate by asking different students to work on particular combinations which were more tricky. This activity encouraged them to not only think about content linked to the current topic but also material we’d covered in the rest of the syllabus previously.

 String thing GeogGCSE 2

String thing Geog GCSE 1

String thing – Biology

My gold mission was to complete a “string thing” activity. I chose to create knowledge webs with year 11 to support their revision of the B1 and B2 units and help them to develop a deeper understanding of how biology “fits together”. I separated the students into pairs and gave them a topic within the units. They had 10 minutes to create a mind map of information about that topic. I then asked students to link their map with others with string and explain the link they had made on a placard stuck to the string.  They found the concept challenging and initially found it difficult to understand how the topics linked together. The students were really engaged in the activity and worked hard to find the links. Upon reflection, I think I left the task too open, I might improve it next time by providing some links that students can then put in the correct places to begin with. I will certainly use this activity again, it was an enjoyable and visual way to link concepts together to develop an holistic understanding of biology.





Stop motion videos to demonstrate learning
Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 20.26.54

We recently have been lucky enough to get the use of five iPads in our biology department and we have been trying to integrate them into the classroom.  I recently came across the Lego stop motion app when making movies with my own kids and thought about applications for use in the classroom.  The app is free and I very easy to use.  My s4 class has used it to create videos to show their understanding of pyramids of energy, biomass and numbers.

My advanced higher class have used the app to demonstrate their understanding of cell and tissue culture.  

Both classes loved it.  They were very engaged in the activity and were on task throughout.  They shared ideas about what to add to the videos and showed me a few new features in the app that I didn’t know about.  

The advanced higher class worked in groups of 3/4 each choosing a different cell type to culture. They then shared their video with the rest of the class (using a vga cable and adapter linked up to the projector).  It made a great explanation tool for each cell type as well as a good revision tool.  It can be used in so many areas of the course and I plan to use it more and allow pupils to be creative in explaining what they have learned.  I have added a few of the videos (the ones without the kids in them) to let you see what they did.  We have to learn how to slow the videos down a bit but I’m sure the pupils can teach me this! Hope this helps

Sarah Clark

Arts learning resources from The Fruitmarket Gallery
Installation view Possibilities of the Object at The Fruitmarket GalleryInstallation view Possibilities of the Object at The Fruitmarket Gallery

The Fruitmarket Gallery is an art gallery funded by the taxpayer displaying exhibitions of work that are not for sale. The Gallery brings the work of some of the world’s most important contemporary artists to Scotland. We recognise that art can change lives and we offer an intimate encounter with art for free. The Gallery welcomes all audiences and makes it easy for everyone to engage with art. Gallery facilities include a bookshop and café. The Gallery is physically accessible and family-friendly.

As part of our learning programme, we produce free resources to help teachers, families and community groups to get the most out of each exhibition. Links to our resources are below.

The Learning Through Exhibitions series helps schools and community groups to explore exhibitions before, during and after a visit to The Fruitmarket Gallery. They can also be used for arts activities at any time alongside our other resources documenting the exhibition. Developed with artists and teachers, the series suggests ways to think with and through art and be inspired to make it. Creative Challenges are open-ended and adaptable to any age group. Covering artists including Louise Bourgeois, Gabriel Orozco, Jim Lambie and our current group exhibition of modern and contemporary Brazilian art Possibilities of the Object, resources cover curriculum areas including Expressive Arts, Literacy, Social Studies, Religious and Moral Education, Health and Wellbeing and Languages. Activities include dance, storytelling, poetry, drawing, sculpture, installation, music, film and photography.

Little Artists are activity sheets for families and primary school groups to explore and respond to the exhibition together. Activities include colour poems, storyboards and designing a display of sculpture.

Possibilities of the Object:

Stan Douglas:

Jim Lambie:

Tania Kovats

 Louise Bourgeois

 Gabriel Orozco

“I am very impressed by the learning resources available which accompany the exhibitions. They are comprehensive and motivating as well as being relevant to the curriculum.” Kathryn Malcolm, Teacher of Art and Design, Inverkeithing High School

Marking Grids
March 8, 2015
photo 1 (12)

I saw this post by Fiona Old on twitter about marking grids and thought that it would be useful in science. Recently I set my Y7 groups a takeaway homework on particles. I had some wonderful examples of work handed in : comic strips, 3D models, songs, posters and cake! I wanted to provide detailed feedback as the students had put in so much effort – but found myself wondering why I hadn’t thought about the marking when I set this homework to two classes in the same week.

photo 1 (13) photo 2 (12) photo 3 (11)

I decided to try using a marking grid. I looked through the homeworks to get an idea of comments that I would give and what pupils would need to do to improve. I also looked at some level ladders for the topic and the ‘I can’ objectives for the unit and came up with some statements for the grid. I think that some of the statements probably need to be modified but as a first attempt I think it was successful. I highlighted 2 things that I thought that students had done well and I also highlighted something that they could do to improve their work. I then left them a question that they could answer related to the improvement in DIRT time. I found that the grid made marking much quicker – but hopefully the quality of feedback for the students is not compromised. 

An example:

photo 1 (12)

I have used this approach with my Y7 and Y8 classes so far and the response from pupils has been positive. They find it easy to see the things that they have done well and what they need to do to improve their work.

Originally posted on my blog here.

Wonderful word towers!
German word towersGerman word towers

With a bottom set Year 9 German class, we had watched the film ‘Lola rennt’ (Run Lola, run) and were using the perfect tense to describe what had happened in the film.  We had spent quite a few lessons on this (it felt like an eternity!) and the class seemed to be getting it, slowly.  They had started to adapt the sentences to say other things too  The only problem was, they were getting really sick of it; any mention of the film title and their groans would fill the room!  As I entered the classroom on this occasion, I had some exercises planned, some whiteboard activities, even a cartoon strip, but I must admit that even I was starting to grow weary.  I spied a couple of bags of big ‘Mega Blox’ style building bricks that I had bought very cheap from Wilkinson at Christmas and on the spot I decided to change my plan and an idea started to grow!  I asked them to write on their bricks with dry wipe marker, using one brick per word and see who could create the longest sentence and therefore, the tallest tower.  They had also just learnt how to use connectives, so their towers had the potential to grow to quite a height!  They were mainly working in pairs (it is only a small class) and I dished out a handful of bricks per pair.  Once they got going, they started to get quite competitive and almost forgot that there were creating quite long and complex German sentences in the past tense; something that causes headaches for quite a few pupils!  They were even going around ‘borrowing’ bricks off each other to make their towers taller!

The atmosphere was, although competitive, quite serene; you could almost hear the quite buzzing of busy brain cells.  At the end of the activity, I took photos.  The pupils were so proud of their towers that they asked me to wait until they had run out of bricks!  On this occasion there was no prize.  They were simply happy to have the glory of creating the tallest tower in the class, and in doing so, creating fantastic, complex past tense sentences.

I learnt that you’ve sometimes just got to go with it; take a risk and wait to see what happens.  Also, I learnt that you should keep your eyes peeled for cheap children’s toys; I’ve got quite a collection now!

Original tweet here

German word towers

German word towers

Using Discussion Trees

Last Friday I posted a #pedagoofriday comment about how pleased I was with my bottom set work on discussion trees. This is a simple method I use to help students consider the strengths and weaknesses of any statement. in RE the discussion of such statements counts for a significant number of marks and so is an important skill for us to work on.

On the desk the students blue tack a prepared picture of a tree that then has a statement printed on the tree trunk. On Friday the statement was “It is reasonable to believe that God does miracles”

Without any ‘fresh’ input from the teacher the students consider points to support the statement  - these are represented as roots for the tree, and challenges to the statement – these are represented as gusts of wind.

In the photos below you can see one table group creating a desk full of challenges, as well as a group who are just beginning the process.

IMG_0790 IMG_0796

An important part of the process is getting the students to represent the strength of each argument through the size of the root or gust of the wind. This evaluation of each argument should be achieved as they engage in discussion in their table teams.

I then extend the task by introducing some philosophical arguments. In this case it included arguments from Hume, Swinburne, Aquinas and Wiles, plus a little info on quantum physics. The students decide whether what they are reading is root or wind, they summarise key points and write down accordingly.

The final part of the task is for the students to then discuss and agree on the final state of the tree. They indicate this by using a ruler and drawing a line to indicate if the tree remains vertical, or blown at a greater angle. They may even suggest it has in fact been felled. Obviously they are considering whether the arguments against the statement are more effective than the arguments for the statement, and most importantly, to what extent this is the case.

I then photograph their group work. The following lesson students get a copy of their group work for their own books but also to use as they provide an exam response to the discussion statement that they have worked on.

This approach works well with the whole range of abilities and can be modified based on the material you give each group to work with.

by @lorraineabbott7

See more on my blog at https://lorraineabbott.wordpress.com

Pedagoo Xmas Party 6th Dec: Literacy for Life session
December 13, 2014
Pedagoo Xmas Party: Literacy for LIfe

The Pedagoo Xmas party is over for another year, but hopefully the spirit of Xmas sharing will stay with us a while! I chaired the “Literacy for Life” breakout session where we shared ideas and discussed how they could be adapted.

Read the write-up here.

Using Hexagon Learning for categorisation, linkage and prioritisation
Students at the International School of Toulouse studying the rise of Stalin using the hexagon approachStudents at the International School of Toulouse studying the rise of Stalin using the hexagon approach

Hexagon Learning Case Study: The Rise of Stalin

The ability to select, prioritise, categorise and link evidence is a valuable skill that students learn in History. It is also highly transferable to other subjects.

Using hexagons is a particularly simple and effective way of developing these skills, as the following case study seeks to demonstrate.

Historical Context

How Stalin was able to emerge as leader of the USSR against apparently overwhelming odds is one of the most intriguing questions which we study at IB Level. In the years that following the Bolshevik Revolution, due to a series of blunders and miscalculations, Stalin had lost the support of the party leadership: so much so that on his deathbed, Lenin dictated a formal ‘Testament’ describing Stalin as a liability who needed to be removed from his post. He was also hated by Lenin’s closest ally, Leon Trotsky, who was widely expected to step into the leadership position after Lenin’s death. Yet just five years later Stalin was undisputed leader of the USSR and Trotsky was in exile.

The story of how Stalin transformed his fortunes so dramatically is a great story revolving around Stalin’s treachery, cunning and downright charm. But the danger of this is that the essays that are then written become mere narrative, storybook accounts which do little more than provide a step-by-step account of the main events between 1924-1929.

The Hexagon Approach

After a study of the events culminating in Stalin emerging as leader of the party, I made a list of factors which could be used to explain why Stalin became dictator of the USSR. I then put these into my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator to create two single-page documents containing a total of 40 hexagons.

Stage 1: Selection and Categorisation

The class was divided into pairs for the activity. Each pair of students was given a copy of the first sheet of hexagons, which they cut up and started to organise on their desks into categories of their choice. This process, involving the categorisation of 25 hexagons, took about 20 minutes. Students were encouraged to come up with no more than five categories overall. They could also choose to leave some of the hexagons to one side if they were considered less important than the others.

We then spent five minutes comparing the different categories that students had identified. Each pair of students took turns to suggest one idea for a category heading until all the ideas had been shared.

Following this, I gave each students a blank sheet of hexagons. The challenge was to identify other factors which could help to explain Stalin’s rise to power and write these directly into the hexagons. After five minutes, each pair of students took it in turns to suggest an idea. If this was a valid (and fresh) idea, then the other students copied it into their pair’s version of the sheet, and the students who shared the idea were each given a sweet (we had a bag of these left over as a result of our ‘Rise of Stalin through sweet-eating’ lesson which had preceded this lesson!). This process was repeated until the students had run out of ideas.

Each pair of students then cut up this new sheet of factors and used them to develop their existing diagrams. In some instances this involved merely adding fresh evidence into existing categories. Sometimes though it involved adding new categories, or amending earlier categories.

Finally, each pair of students was given the second sheet of hexagons and the process of categorisation continued.

Stage 2: Linkage and Prioritisation

By this stage, the students had decided upon the main factors to explain Stalin’s rise to power, organised into key categories. Each of these categories could form the basis of a paragraph in an essay. However, it was still necessary to decide two things.

Firstly, students would need to decide in which order to deal with the points in each paragraph. It would not be enough to simply introduce the category title, then randomly write about each piece of evidence from the hexagons in that group. This is where the hexagons are particularly useful. The six sides mean that factors can be placed alongside each other in various combinations to highlight connections between batches of factors within categories. After students rearranged their factors in this way, they stuck them down onto sugar paper with a glue stick. They could then write the title of each category over each batch of hexagons, and annotate around each group of hexagons to explain why they were arranged in that particulary way.

Secondly, students had to decide how to connect their main categories together to create an overall thread of argument. They did this by drawing arrows between the factors and explaining their connections over them. For example:

“Economic problems in the country > created > Divisions in the party > exploited by > Stalin’s Cunning”

Stage 3: Essay preparation

The final part of the process was to use the completed diagrams as an essay plan. I photographed each of the diagrams and shared them with the students. Their task was to use the diagrams as the basis of their essay on “Why did Stalin become leader of the USSR?”. Each paragraph was to focus on separate categories of hexagons, and the points made in each paragraph should have some logical order and ‘flow’. Moreover, the order of the paragraphs should be dictated by the arrows linking the categories, with the opening sentence of each paragraph after the first one being based on the explanation over each arrow.

Reflections and Conclusions

The ‘Hexagon Approach’ worked very well. It steered students away from a narrative approach and into an analytical frame of mind. It helped them frame categories of analyis, build up their command of the material step-by-step. It provided them with the opporunity to easily change their initial assumptions, connect factors together both within and between categories, and give them a very effective basis of an accomplished written piece.

It is also a very simple approach that can be transferred to other topics and other curriculum subjects. All that is needed is an initial list of factors – contributed either by the teacher or the students – which can then be written into a blank hexagons template or turned into hexagons automatically using my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator. Thereafter, all that is needed is a pair of scissors, some sugar paper and a glue stick. And, ideally, a bag of sweets!