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Grid(un)locked-inspiring creative poetry analysis

After 18 months in Special Measures and being constantly under scrutiny (a particularly devastating blow to our department – we’d just attained 81% A*-C against a target of 69% when it happened) we’re always looking for new and interesting ways to bring engaging ideas into our classrooms. This idea came about in February as we were bracing ourselves for another Ofsted visit and has been a massive success with Year 10 and Year 11.

Here’s how it works:

1. Students work in pairs/groups with a poetry grid and two dice (tip-use foam dice!)
2. Take it in turns to roll the dice and answer the question. Others can add to/ expand an answer to raise to overall level of response once they’ve exhausted their ideas
3. If a double is rolled, talk on the topic area for 30 secs without hesitation, deviation… (you get the gist)

It’s simple, effective and fun but there’s more to it than just being a grid with pretty colours. Firstly, the questions are all linked to the mark scheme descriptors for the exam. The one in the picture is designed for the AQA unseen question and I’ve also created an adapted version for the Anthology poetry. This allows students to respond to the poems in a way that is directly beneficial to the exam skills they have to demonstrate.

Secondly, The colours aren’t random. Each colour is linked to a different area: pink=structure, purple=feelings and attitudes/mood and tone, yellow=language, blue=themes and ideas, orange=talk for 30secs, green (without doubt the favourite with students)=creative connections and ideas (not directly linked to a specific mark scheme area but to access the poem in a different way and just maybe come up with something that unlocks the poem in a way they wouldn’t have considered).

Thirdly, the way they choose the question to answer is differentiated. Say they roll a two and a four. If they take the larger number horizontally across the grid and the smaller number vertically, the question will be more challenging than if they do it vice versa. All the questions require thinking about but I think that to access discussion and ideas at the highest levels students often need to ‘warm up’ and this is one way they can do it.

You’ll see in the picture I also made a vocabulary grid to use alongside the game. Eight of the boxes link to the question areas, one includes the tentative language (could, may, might, possibly) we’d encourage students to use when exploring Literature. Whilst the words on the vocabulary grid are pretty comprehensive, I also made sure they fully covered anything students might need for the ‘Relationships’ cluster in the AQA Anthology.

For Year 11 who have studied all the poems and are preparing from the exam, they have used the grid in a few ways. Sometimes we focus on two specific poems. This is particularly useful prior to writing a ‘powergraph’ (more on this another time but it’s transformed the approach for our more able students). I mentioned creativity earlier. Combining the questions with a pick-a-poem style (ie pick two poems randomly from a bag/spinner) has generated all sorts of links and connections that students might never have thought about otherwise.

In whole class feedback, there a couple of ways it can been taken further. I usually ask what the most perceptive point is that someone in a group has made so everyone can benefit from different ideas. I’ll also ask which question has promoted the best discussion in the group-it can vary for different poems. I’ll then give students extra time to continue discussions, possibly looking at questions mentioned in the feedback part but they can also look at questions of a certain colour if the dice have missed out any areas or even just choose a question they fancy.

One of the other benefits that my less confident students have found is that certain questions really help them unlock ideas. These are the questions they revise and when going into an exam they can consider them if they are stuck. Many of my Year 10s reported this was the technique that helped them the most in their recent Unseen Poetry mock.

It’s interactive, fun and relevant. The responses are genuinely worth it and encourage students to think in a way that isn’t gimmicky but genuinely higher level. That’s been my experience anyway!

I’m happy to email the resources via DM.


Jamie’s Flipped: (almost) a year with a flipped classroom

There are lots of different ideas about Flipping your classroom, see this TED talk for more. But essentially you provide your learners with resources and videos to allow them to ‘learn’ the material as homework and then build on this with skills in your classroom. Starting in September 2013, and as part of my MSc research, I have implemented my own interpretation of a flipped classroom with really interesting results. This post is a brief into to the research behind the flipped classroom and then I discuss how I have implemented it and the power of blogging to engage students outside of the classroom.

Flipped learning? Flipping mad?

Flipped learning is “…a form of blended learning that encompasses any use of technology to leverage the learning in a classroom, so a teacher can spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing” where the instructor provides “an opportunity for academics to provide more personal feedback and assistance to students, but also to receive feedback from their students about the activities that they are undertaking and what they don’t yet understand.” (Wiley and Gardner, 2013).


Several papers have reported on the impact of ‘flipped learning’ on undergraduate psychology courses and suggested that there is a positive impact of this on students’ attitudes toward the class and instructors as well as on students’ performance in the class (Wilson, 2013). There are far too many technological changes to how we are teaching and learning to list here, but they all suggest that same fundamental question: How do students learn best? (Halpern, 2013) and the possibility the flipped learning could be a step forward should be considered.

Using videos to support students’ learning has attracted the attention of a large number of researchers (Young and Asensio, 2002) and a key concept within the idea of flipped learning is the use of new technologies to support learning; or as some would label: blended learning (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004). To successfully implement the flipped classroom approach, a change is needed to the existing traditional teaching approach. These changes have been conceptualised by Hamdan et.al. (2013) into four important elements referred to as four Pillars of F-L-I-P. These four pillars stand for Flexible Environment, Learning Culture, Intentional Content, and Professional Educator.

An interesting comment from Wilson’s (2013) action research where she attempted to flip her classroom is that she suggests that what she implemented was not totally a flipped classroom:

Although I have attempted to ‘‘flip’’ my classroom, what I have achieved is really a half- or three-quarters flip. I have removed much, but not all, lecture content from the course. (pg. 197)

This raises the idea that a flipped classroom is a binary entity – it is either flipped with no teacher delivery of knowledge or it is not. This I disagree with. Flipped teaching is just another tool which teachers should embed into their lessons when and where appropriate. Especially at post-16 level it would be difficult (impossible?) to completely flip ones lessons and expect all learners to assimilate all of the knowledge of A Level  outside of the class.

The Power of Blogging

For the best part of a decade I have been using blogs to stretch my students and have given several lectures, INSETS or workshops on the topic. This started with PsychBLOG in 2007 where I hoped to provide wider reading and current research for my students – now a site getting ~25,000 views a month. Moving on our department has had a blog and posted notes and extra tasks for the last four years with great success.

Blogging software is becoming more advanced with each  day and now it takes nothing more than a few clicks to create your own part of the internet. There are really an infinite number of uses for blogs within the field of education: writing and collating new and relevant news for your students, giving students a summary of what was covered in that past week, leaving homework assignments, and so many others. Not only can you write your blog posts but students, other teachers and colleagues can comment on your writing and start discussions about what was raised.

There are many kinds of blogging software but the two most popular ones are WordPress and google’s Blogger. Both of these sites allow you to set up your own blog online and post articles or general musings through a web-based interface allowing access wherever you have the Internet. If used well blogs can provide to be a central part of teaching and independent learning, however, general rules of web etiquette still apply and all users need to be aware of this.

With this in mind, I decided that a blog would make an excellent platform for my flipped classroom

Jamie’s Flipped…

I’ve written before about flipped classrooms and how you can flip your classroom with Resourcd. This year I have partially flipped my classroom with one flipped task each week for students to complete over the weekend before their first session of the week – you can see it at jamiesflipped.co.uk or @jamiesflipped. I talked a little about my experiences of my flipped classroom at a ‘teachmeet‘ back in October (notes and video here)

My approach to flipped learning involved giving students a ‘task’ each week to compete which introduced the topic for the next week. This flipped task involved reading a chapter (a few pages) from their course reader, watching a video clip and completing a quick multiple-choice quiz (see the gallery for screenshots).

One reason the flipped experiment was so successful was the addition of the quiz each week. This ensured that I could monitor the completion of the tasks. It is also good to stand by the classroom door and know before the students arrive who has not completed their homework task. After a few weeks the students knew there was no escaping it.

As well as the flipped tasks, each week I would publish the work that was going to be completed in class, the powerpoint and extension tasks on Jamie’s Flipped. I was surprised how many students actually read the articles, watched the videos or completed the extra tasks. Many commenting that they would do them on the bus on the way into college or while sat watching television.

At the first consultation evening of the year I canvased opinion as to my new approach and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive with students stating that they liked the format of the tasks, it was more ‘fun’ than usual homework, and that they found the lessons easier as they had an underlying knowledge about what was going to be covered. More than this it gave me more time in class to complete tasks and develop my students understanding of the content and experiment with other activities that I would not usually have had time for.

My experience of ‘flipping’ my classroom this year has been a really positive one and it is something that I will continue to develop and use in future years. As well as all the benefits of the flipped classroom my students know that all of their resources, homework and guidance is going to be ‘on flipped’. They know where to go if they miss a lesson to get the resources, and where to get extension exercises from when revising. It has required an investment of time – but nothing horrific – and now that I have the lessons for this year, as with everything in teaching, I can adapt and reuse these next year.

Flipping great!


I have had loads of emails and tweets from people that would like to flip their classroom but don’t know where to start.

Here is a short (~15 minute) video that I have made that will take you from nothing to having a blog with your first flipped task containing text for your students to read, a document for them to download, a video for them to watch from youtube and a quiz to check their progress.

Here are links that I mention in the screen-cast:

resourcd.com – teacher resource sharing site
resourcdblogs.com – where it all takes place
wordpress.com / blogger.com / edublogs.com – other sites you can set up a blog
If you are considering flipped learning or just giving your students a different type of homework once in a while then this could be an excellent opportunity to experiment.

I could have spent hours talking about wordpress and all the ins-and-outs of it – so it might feel a little rushed. The best thing you can do it set yourself up a blog and spend an hour experimenting and seeing what you can achieve.

Let me know how you get on

Post original written on jamiedavies.co.

Taking risks in the classroom/studio

Education very much these days is about getting it right, achieving and moving on. But when did getting it right all the time make for the best outcome?

Certainly in the art classroom and in the life of many artists and designers, getting it wrong can be as much a learning experience as getting it right.

Read more


0530 on a Saturday morning is difficult, cold and after another long night of the ashes, very miserable. However, I was off to a Pedagoo event, packed with exciting speakers, thoughtful teachers, inspiring individuals and I was pretty confident that my chosen Saturday CPD event was going to be brilliant. It was…

The first thing that blew me away (after registering with the very welcoming pupils of the school) was the amazing building. It was bright, clean, tidy and very much the type of modern building I come to expect when I go ‘somewhere nice’. Just as our children know when they are being shortchanged as regards use of windows XP on old PC’s, they know it when they walk into a dingy building which is in desperate need of a paint job. Michael Gove said that the building and environment of a school makes no difference. I drive past these buildings at Fettes and Stewart’s Melville on the way to my school every day. Clearly, environment makes a difference.

The other thing about the building I loved was the use of images of Joseph Swan children working, often with ideas about how they work, or slogans/quotations about respect, reading etc behind them. That is something I will try and create in the next couple of weeks if energies allow as it looks so good and inspires.

Whilst having my complimentary tea and danish pastry (which would contravene the bring your own tea and biscuits policy of many councils) I set about reading my welcome pack. I loved the Happy Mondays leaflet which contained loads of great, ready to use, ideas for enhancing and reinforcing learning in the classroom. The Happy Mondays reference is because the teachers at Joseph Swan receive and e-mail every Monday, with a new idea or resource in it from their SMT. I love that idea!

MY first session of the day was in the Reading Room (and what an amazing space that is…) with David Hodgson. David talked about how we learn and how we can use techniques in the classroom to help children learn and remember how they learned things. As a primary teacher I get asked lots of questions from the children and my most frequent answer to them is good question. I don’t believe in throwing the knowledge confetti about for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’m not convinced the children will remember it whilst they walk back to their desks and secondly I (or A.N.Other teacher) will not always be there for them when they have a question or want to learn something. The things we did in his session were all practical examples of an NLP approach, and I was so impressed I bought his book for my Kindle this morning. He used this pupil feelings graphic in his session too which I find a useful tool to have by my desk in the class room. Something David said which rang a bell was that we should ensure our children ‘Have a get out clause for children when they don’t learn’. This is vital, so often our children get way more stressed than we ever do about a wrong answer. We need them to take risks, get it wrong, change it and get it wrong again, smiling all the time! That is a successful learner right there.

The next session was with Rachel Orr who is HT at Holy Trinity Rosehill Her workshop was about developing writing through Primary Learning and specifically using Pie Corbett’s talk for writing work. I had worked on a Pie Corbett workshop for writing day before (January 2007??) and it was amazing. I’ve bought a few of his books and love his approach to writing. There is a lot of material on the internet too to supplement his written work. I also liked the punctuation sounds and actions which children are to use when they are talking and can then reinforce the assessment process in class. Rachel has used Pie’s work in two differing schools now and shared with us examples of the successes her young writers had, and these examples cal be seen on her school blogs. Rachel gave us a disk with loads of fantastic resources on, many her own work (the learning keys are a great idea!).

During lunch I met some great folk including @spiceweasel77 who is doing some brilliantly exciting things with his class!

After lunch it was on to Hywel Roberts session. Hywel spoke passionately and humourously about creating contexts in the curriculum, allowing the children to view the learning they are given through their own filters and engaging children in their learning. I made loads of notes during Hywel’s session and later tweeted many of them. Here’s the quotations I tweeted:

‘It’s our job to get the World thinking.’

‘We need to dig learning holes for our children to fall into.’

‘we are the people who make sense of the curriculum we are given. ‘

‘Have a what’s great 2 mins at the start of staff meetings’

‘we need to induct our kids into learning’

‘all of these things are just doing the job we’ve been asked to do. That we’re paid for. ‘

I’ve got Hywel’s book and it’s a great read. I need to do more of this in my classes. It’s great stuff. I was incredibly impressed with Hywel and the way he works in schools.

Finally, my last session was about using enquiry based learning in maths. Stephanie Thirtle took this session, she is a maths teacher at Joseph Swan. (I’d love The Girl to have her as a maths teacher, lessons would be so interesting!)
We did some enquiry based openers which really got us thinking and she talked about the approach of letting the children work things out for themselves, rather than an I teach then you do model. I love the work things out idea and think the way she’s bringing it to maths in a high school works really well. Much of the rationale for enquiry based learning was on her presentation and clearly showed examples of enquiry based learning which we could use as one-off lessons or develop for a maths topic. Such things investigating square numbers, straight line graphs using algebra, and one which P7 will be seeing soon – 12 Days of Christmas maths.
Her room displays were wonderful and I snapped many of them on my phone and you can see them here. I particularly liked that ways she put maths into context making it real for the children.
That chimed so well with the session from Hywel previously.

I came away with my head full of wonderful ideas and a bag full of goodies!
So, what next…well before Christmas I will make some posters of children and their ideas about learning to go up in school and I will also make some musical posters for the music room.

After Christmas I will take loads more of these ideas and run with them. It’ll be different, fun and learning will happen.

The Big Draw – drawing techniques

We are excited to be partnering with The Big Draw this year in delivering a workshop online that you can all take part in, for free! Anyone across the globe can take part using your GPS location tracking system on your mobile device along with a simple GPS Drawing app. This type of drawing technique is fun, experimental and really doesn’t require any previous experience.

In true Portfolio Oomph style, we have a free eBook that guides you through the process of setting up the app and using your body position on the earth as your pencil!

Read more

Analogies and metaphors to aid understanding…

Having been introduced to Hattie’s work on ‘effect sizes’ in the learning environment last year (http://www.learningandteaching.info/teaching/what_works.htm), I took it upon myself to investigate advanced organisers in my own practice. This is said to have an average effect size of 0.37, which in comparison to other methods is reasonably small. However, I opted to focus on the use of analogies and metaphors within my teaching practice, as personally I believe comprehension to be greater if a new subject is related to a familiar subject. Of course, many of us will naturally do this without a second thought, but I intended to consciously approach sessions with the intention of overtly using this method.

One example of this practice quite recently was when teaching the flow of blood around the cardiovascular system to a group of level 2 BTEC learners. I introduced the topic by asking the group to share their thoughts on the process of going to the gym – this involved eating food to give you fuel (collecting oxygen from lungs), travelling to the gym and going through the changing rooms (left side of the heart), working out and ‘burning’ the fuel (feeding the muscles with oxygen), travel back through the changing rooms (right side of heart) before travelling home (the lungs) to start the process again. Obviously when doing this, I did illustrate on the white board. I then made reference to the fact that the gym process is similar to the flow of blood…Following this, I gave the learners the opportunity to create their own analogies of the process. Working in groups they created some amazing ideas such as the process of topping up and using a mobile phone, travelling through the petrol station to name a few.

For the learners, this particular process taught alone can be very challenging, yet now they have their own analogies for the process, they are able to demonstrate a far greater understanding.

Any comments would be greatly appreciated!

Playing with Poetry in the Primary Classroom

A beautiful image from Gerry Cambridge's "Nothing But Heather"

This post can also be read at Raymond Soltysek’s blog,   http://raymondsoltysek.wordpress.com/, and at his website, soltysek.com

Last Friday, I spent the day working with groups of PGDE Primary students on poetry in the classroom;  I had a lot of fun, and discussing creative writing pedagogy with Primary teachers was really enlightening for me.

I start from the premise that we kind of get poetry wrong in schools.  Pupils’ experiences of it tends to be either for construction (“let’s all write an acrostic poem together”) or deconstruction (“let’s all highlight all the similes in the poem”), or a combination of both that, for example, uses deconstruction to elicit construction (“let’s all analyse the genre markers of the haiku, and then write one ourselves”).   And while all of these types of activity are valuable and indeed essential to understanding poetry, it is, for me, quite a limited and sterile experience: poetry is something we do something with, something that generates work. Students – even English graduates looking to be English teachers – come with a great deal of anxiety about poetry, and that is, they say, down to their experiences of poetry at school.

And yet, why do we read poetry?  Well, for enjoyment, of course.  And I don’t think there’s enough of that, so we started each session with the students browsing through some poetry anthologies and magazines to find something they liked to read to the rest of their group.  Then put it aside, because the worst thing we could do is to analyse it to death for the next three hours.

Having warmed up our poetry reading, we then warmed up our poetry writing with a quick poetry word wheel  exercise, a simple resource of three concentric discs containing an adjective,  a noun and a verb that provides a three word stimulus for a short poem.  With “scientist”, “kind” and “eats”, I came up with

“Working late, the scientist
Fills his lab with sparks,
eats Chinese food from a takeaway carton.
Kind of tangy.”

For some unaccountable reason, I’m quite proud of that.  However, some of the students’ responses were lovely:  Heather, using “big”, “girl and “swims”, wrote

“The girl swims slowly
Big arcing movements of her arms
Pulling her towards a warmer kind of peace.”

Catriona, using “empty”, “animal” and “hopes” thought of:

“The dawn stretches empty over rooftops
Below an animal limps across the road
A dog? A cat? A fox?
The sullen hopes of a city life are waking”

Poetry is stripped out of the curriculum, studied almost as a separate entity.  I’m a great believer that the poetic sensibility should be embedded and integrated much more into the day to day work of the classroom, and that a poem is as much a way of recording knowledge as a report or a close reading test or a storyboard.  To illustrate this, we spent some time looking at poems from Gerry Cambridge’s gorgeous poetry / photography / natural history collection “Nothing But Heather”.  Cambridge’s poetry is gorgeous, but what is so striking about “Nothing But Heather” is the informative quality of the text.  I remember looking at one of my favourites, “Chrysomelid Beetle Pollinating a Wild Orchid”, with a Fifth Year pupil, and she said she learned more about plant fertilisation from that poem than she learned in 5 weeks in Higher Biology.   All the students particularly liked “Shore Crab”, which they could easily see themselves using with their classes:  you can hear a musical version of it here, with Cambridge proving his Rennaisance Man credentials by playing a mean moothie.

So poetry, much more than simply being a form, also informs.  We looked at typical Primary school topics, and brainstormed a wordbank.  For example, with Vikings, we came up with:

Long ships       Sails             Shields                 Mead               Sagas

Hats with horns            Horned helmets              Swords             battle-axes      Pigtails

Ginger beards             Storm              Fjords              Fiery funerals

Gruel               Seas                             France – Normandy

A technique I’ve used often with older poetry writers is close redrafting:  you can read more about it in “Wind Them Up and Let Them Go: The Primacy of Stimulus in the Classroom”, an article I did for Writing in Education magazine a few years back.  You can download a copy from the University of Strathclyde by clicking the link.

Basically, when we assess prose, we tend to mark it holistically, taking in an extended piece of writing and assessing it with broad brushstrokes such as “vary your sentence structure” or “avoid repetition”.  It’s my feeling that this kind of assessment is inappropriate for poetry, since here the aim is to condense, distil.  As a result, we need to do away with prepositions, conjunctions, articles, all the chaff that makes a piece of prose flow, because those are not the words that signify meaning to the poet.

So, we get the pupils to write three simple sentences from their word bank – something like

Viking long ships sailed through stormy seas from their homes in the fjords to invade Scotland.  They arrived on beaches in the north and battled the locals with their swords and axes.  They told stories they called sagas about these events.

Now, looking at this as prose, we’d probably never comment on the fact that the phrase “in their” is repeated, or that the word “they” is used three times, because we feel they are somehow  ”essential”.  The poetic way, though,  is to get rid of all those little words in red  to strip us to the words that really mean something, the words that communicate the core idea.  With a little beating and shaping, we can begin to mould something that looks like poetry:

“Viking long ships
Through stormy seas
From fjord homes
Invading Scotland
Swords and axes
For locals
On beaches
Sagas to be told.”

I’ve worked with teenage boys who love this way of building poetry, bit by bit, three sentence prose chunks developed into verses.  Working with groups in a Primary classroom, you could have your very own Viking saga in less than  half an hour.

So the poem becomes not a poem on its own, something seemingly independent of the rest of the curriculum, but becomes a quick, relatively easy way of providing another source of evidence of pupils’ understanding of a topic.  In addition, unlike the passivity of a close reading, it demonstrates individuals’ ability to make choices about the language  which means most to them from a  topic, and their ability to manipulate that language to express something that is genuinely an individual response.  Light bulbs seemed to be going on in the groups, thankfully.  Now, the poetic way of handling language simply became another literacy skill in the arsenal.

And what poetry also does is combine the objective with the subjective.  We looked at simple items that might be found on a  nature walk – a dead autumn leaf, a pebble, a scrap of wool caught on a barbed wire fence – and brainstormed it with a simple “Objective  / Subjective” column.  After sharing and developing, the task was to write a short poem that contained at least  two informative details and two emotional details.  With a picture of a bird’s skull, I came up with:

“A fragile piece
Of weather bleached calcium
It’s tiny brain cavity
Empty sockets
And beak
All that is left
Of what it once was
A feathered, flighted beauty,
Built for tearing flesh.”

Again, many of the students outdid me.  Matthew wrote about a broken egg-shell:

“On the ground
broken, discarded
A small cracked egg
lies on its own
once a house
to a new walk of life.
Or is it now dead?
A defenceless lunch for creatures passing by.”

What Matthew was very clear about was that he had no idea when he came in that he would have been able to produce that in five minutes – and that is, I think, an extremely powerful message to keep giving children: five minutes ago, you had nothing.  This poem didn’t exist.  Now look at what you’ve done.  That message has been hugely motivating for my pupils over the years.  And it also encourages an increased quantity of writing: every student went out the door having done a lot, they had been busy, busy, busy.  In classrooms, pupils will drag their feet for weeks over a big set piece essay; with five or ten minute poetry exercises slotted in here and there into their everyday activities, they actually produce a great deal

A final stimulus exercise using Farrow and Ball’s ludicrous paint colour range – Dead Salmon?  Elephant’s Breath? – and some discussion about the possibilities of using the poetic form much more regularly in classrooms as a means of allowing children to respond to the topics they study wound up the sessions.  I think they all got the message; that rather than “doing poems” as a box tick for the curriculum, divorced from the reality of the rest of their learning, poetry can be an everyday way to respond to experience.  And in doing so, I reckon, that can only help develop a love of poetry that can last a long, long time.

Is this a cheap plastic shuttlecock I see before me?
January 26, 2013
So this all started when I read this genius tweet from genius @nicnacraph:
Yr12s prepare for Tabletop Shakespeare: using everyday objects to explore 'Twelfth Night' #PedagooFriday http://t.co/tx4CTeTC
Nic Raphael

This piqued my interest (curiosity may have killed the cat, but in between all of the gory felinicide it finds plenty of time to prod me into a bit of lesson planning), and a quick Google search took me to Be Stone No More, a project by the RSC involving actors performing ‘Table Top Shakespeare’. I won’t explain what this is, just have a look at these examples for yourself:

Romeo and Juliet performed by Sam Taylor

Hamlet performed by Nina Lampic

What a great way to get pupils to cement their understanding of a narrative’s plot, don’t you think? A lot more interesting than a fusty old card sort.

Director Tim Etchells, who created the idea, makes reference to using “a collection of banal materials and objects”, which suggests a disconnection between the objects and the characters. However, for those who like a bit of praxis and extended abstract thinking, ‘banal materials’ are an opportunity to make interesting connections with seemingly unconnected objects.

Having just looked at the story of Romeo and Juliet with my Year 11 class, I felt this was a perfect task to consolidate their understanding of the plot before moving onto textual analysis. With this in mind, I made a quick trip to the 99p shop with no other criteria than to find items that came in packets of 8 or more. Just under £15 lighter, I came back with this haul of ‘banal’ objects:

The ingredients of Heston's celebrated pound shop tat bouillabaisse


I then sorted this potpourri of cheap curios into 8 Table Top Shakespeare starter sets:

The global recession had really taken its toll on the traditional Academy Awards gift baskets


The lessons that resulted were quite simple. After arranging the pupils into groups of 3-4, I gave each group a sheet of sugar paper and a pen. As a nice recall starter, I asked each group to write down the names of as many characters from the play that they could remember. Inspired by the spirit of competition, cue groups huddled over sheets trying to protect the classified name of “that bloke who married them” and taking out super injunctions so that nobody in their group may utter the names of the Montague servants out loud for fear of other groups hearing this classified information.

Once we’d recapped and I’d broken the Official Secrets Act by asking them to share their lists with each other, I presented each group with their TTS starter kit. This group understand the SOLO levels, so were comfortable when I asked them to use extended abstract thinking to apply an object to each name. I asked them to think about how they can make links between the object and the character and to justify their choices. As these objects weren’t bought without conscious connections in mind – price was the only influencing factor – this is a nice use of praxis, or post rationalisation (the pupils are doing the work to justify the connections: I had no preconceived ideas about connections when I handed them out). I also urged them to root around in their pockets and bags for any other items that they wanted to use to bolster the kits.

The extended abstract connections were excellent and showed real understanding of character. I heard discussions where people had assigned a toothbrush to Lady Capulet as it symbolises health and care, only for others in the same group to argue that Nurse would fit that reasoning better and that a scourer should be Lady Capulet as she is only interested in the appearance of perfection. In other groups, Nurse was a plant pot because she nurtured Juliet and watched her grow, unlike her mum. A peg represented Friar Lawrence because he binds the lovers together through marriage. A plastic banana was Mercutio because he has a skewed look on love compared to Romeo. Romeo was seen as a packet of tissues “because he’s soppy” and a pineapple because “he’s soft inside”. Tybalt was a toy dinosaur or a soldier because of his aggression, and even a shuttlecock because… “well, he’s a cock, isn’t he sir?”

Table Top Shakespeare

We then looked at some clips from the videos above and I set them the task of creating their own 5-10 minute Table Top Shakespeare films. They planned this out ready to make their films during the next lesson. At the beginning of this next lesson, we did some work on speaking and listening success criteria. They were then given a video camera, a table, their boxes of objects and the lesson to produce their films. The pupils really threw themselves into the task and showed clear understanding of the plot of the play and how the narrative fits together as a whole. This will inform their textual analysis and help them support their ideas (particularly helpful with a discussion of foreshadowing) by reference to the wider text.

But why stop at Shakespeare? I’ll be using Table Top ‘Of Mice and Men’ and Table Top ‘An Inspector Calls’ to revise with GCSE classes in the future.

A little bit of random goes a long way

A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted about a lesson where the style of demonstrating learning was chosen by students from a random list. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the invitation to talk about this in a little more detail here, and should probably begin with removing any credit for the idea. I was simply using John Davitt’s Learning Event Generator, which has become something of a staple in my classroom over the last wee while and is well worth trying if you haven’t already. I find it lends itself well to making researching a topic more interesting (which is how I used it for this group of lessons) and moving away from having a powerpoint and kids talking from a page as the means of showing what they have learned. I think it also requires a deeper understanding of their topic to pull it off succesfully, and I can hopefully show some examples of where the students in my S3 geography class have been able to do this.

To set the scene, we were covering a key part of the physical geography in Standard Grade, features of glacial erosion. This is often the type of lesson where teachers (myself included) are guilty of just ‘telling’ classes the answers without any real thought process, as in our minds, how landscapes have been formed doesn’t change, so neither does the learned answer for exams. In effect, the students often never really have to think about what they have written in jotters until they are trying to rote learn it for an assessment. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to move away from this approach. A couple of weeks ago, I told the class that we would be learning about a landscape feature called a U-Shaped Valley. We shared the important terminology that should be used if we were to explain their formation successfully. Once we had established these, we moved on to how we would show our learning. I gave the students access to various materials which would provide the neccessary information and then showed the learning event generator. Students worked in groups of 3 to 4 and first of all had to decide which event they would present. We ended up with the following:

U shaped valleys as a childs book

U shaped valleys as a recipe

U shaped valleys as a hanging mobile

U shaped valleys as a Dylan card sort

U shaped valleys as a 3D model

U shaped valleys as a board game

U shaped valleys as a shopping list

U shaped valleys sung in the style of Bohemian Rhapsody

Although the students picked their own event, I’ve used this in the past as an entirely random assignment. I find that by giving the choice instead, the activity loses none of its fun appeal, motivation is high and the engagement of all groups in this instance was outstanding from the outset. I’ve selected some of the students work, much of which is already on our Marr Geography twitter page.

Video of the Dylan card sort

This was a mini homage to the Bob Dylan short film which accompanied his ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. The boys in the group decided to pick what they thought were the key words to remember and Calum, the narrator, carried this through unscripted, using only the cards as a prompt – in effect, how some students revise.

Some images of the childs book

This was a nice piece of creative writing where some girls in the class borrowed from the ideas behind earlier river stories in June and used them to illustrate glacial processes. I have argued with classes in the past that glacial landscapes are nothing more than a story anyway, with a clear start, middle and end. A great advert as well for how literacy is not just something to be developed in English. I’ll make a small apology here for the extra pictures – as a blogger user, I had a bit of a fight trying, unsuccessfully to remove the pictures of the mobile (next).

The hanging mobile

This was my favourite piece of work, purely because of the amount of effort and creativity that went into it. We had been using dried spaghetti in class a day before with an S2 class, making earthquake proof buildings. The group of girls doing this exercise gathered some unused bits to form the frame of the mobile, from which they hung diagrams of the valley formation using paper clip chains with full explanations before taking an age to work out the balance!

The board games

Some classes created board games last year in S2, and I think this was maybe a ‘safe’ option which nevertheless gave the option for groups to show a real understanding of formation sequence. The most difficult part of this exercise was the framing of the chance card style questions and meant that the students doing this had to truly understand the content so that they could understand what they wanted to ask.


Although I haven’t shared all of the work that we completed, hopefully this gives a flavour of how this type of activity could be used in almost any scenario to show evidence of learning. The most satifying aspect for me was the recall after the activity, and I feel confident that knowledge and understanding is significantly stronger than if I had taken control of the content and delivered it all myself. Moreover, it was really pleasing to witness a class full of students who seemed to be enjoying what they were doing, were motivated to learn and collaborated purposefully to meet the learning intentions. My former PT at my previous school, an individual who I admire greatly, used to always say that kids liked to work to established routines and, though I know what he was saying in terms of expectations and so forth, I think this is a valid example of where breaking from routines can create some of the most rewarding learning experiences.