Author Archives: Jennifer Ludgate

Silent Debating

I learnt early on last year to use the word silence, over the word quiet, when I wanted just that. No confusion there: “Silence please” (pleadingly).  Job done.  However, alongside my requirement for silence to give instruction, general knowledge, facts about me or more importantly before I let them leave my humble abode I have often spent an hour asking my classes to do the opposite: to talk, debate, discuss, work together, move mouths.

This nonsensical introduction makes it sound like the lesson I’ve been asked to share was planned. It wasn’t. The rest of Friday was planned precociously: with probably a ‘detrimental to learning’ amount of new things and exciting ideas. As my other lessons had been nauseatingly exciting I did feel a bit bad that I hadn’t planned for year 8s’ excitement too. Instead, I had planned a lesson debating along an opinion line from one side of the classroom to another. This meant moving tables, possibly ribbon and a lot of the loudest kids getting their opinion across. All in all it was Friday period 5 and under the laws of pity you have to forgive my lapse in originality.

Therefore, as my unsuitably early students bounded in to the room on Friday afternoon I changed my mind a little. Quite simply, I recycled an idea from one of our wonderful Geography teachers @haydocklynns83 which I had seen the previous day. I had seen it written on a table at a great meeting of minds for teachers who are interested in taking risks in their classrooms (see MB Learning Blog).

I’ll be honest, I think of sky diving and eating burgers from Tesco when I say ‘risk’ but I do see how this could be deemed risky. My poor tables had been written on every lesson that day but I hadn’t yet tried the idea of a silent debate.  Having not seen or read an explanation of the silent debate I presumed it should be just that. It seems a little contradictory that, in trying to enhance speaking and listening skills and encourage the use of appropriate structure and vocabulary, I would ask my top set year 8 not to talk. Yet, just as any form of practice does, it really did seem to improve their answers in the spoken debate we had at the end of the lesson.

Clumsily I provided my class with the tools for the job. These were: a recap of the play and the themes thus far; a quick peak at our ‘prejudice plates’ from our first lesson (to remind us of the issue); the argument stems from my argumentative window and some board pens and tables.

Each table was given a statement to debate. I made each group (they’re in ability groups) provide a key at the top of the table so I could tell who had been contributing without making them talk. (This I thought was quite a clever idea for someone running on stale donuts and decaff tea – there was a mix up…).

Secondly, I gave each group a statement to write in the middle of their tables. Literally on the table of course; in case anyone is still confused about the fact you can do this. There were 2 groups for each statement. Then I put 10 minutes on the IWB and off we went. They were told to concentrate on arguing for or against and giving reasons for their opinion. Where possible they should use the argument stems to agree or disagree with other comments.

At first it was a free-for-all; they were simply writing for the sake of it. After about 3 or 4 minutes (which seems much longer when silent!) I reminded them to read too. We did a bit of acting before we set off about how to look dismayed if you didn’t agree with someone. Imagine an Italian “mamma mia” type pose. After this reminder they began to debate by writing on the tables with retorts and responses galore. During this time you can easily walk around and add your own questions to their comments to extend their thinking. This also avoids teacher interruption to a student’s train of thought. Once the 10 minutes was up I let them talk for 1 minute before setting them off to look, read and respond to other tables’ work – again silently.

At the end of this we had a proper debate. It started with one of the statements and moved on. The best bit seemed to be that they could respond to points without having ever heard them. For example: students from my green table responded to the red table’s points they had read and misinterpreted. This meant the red table could clarify their points and therefore I could question them further. As these tables are at opposite ends of the room this meant they’d been over and read and taken in their ideas. This is quite impressive as in a normal debate they may have just stared out the window when others’ were talking. Moreover, we didn’t spend more time listening to the louder students than others or wait for me to coax out ideas from the more shy students. At least I didn’t see the creating and writing down of these ideas as wasting time. The use of a key meant I could see instantly who had and hadn’t contributed and for more timid students this process seemed to help. In a sentence the ‘activity’ improved our debate: which in my mind increased their learning and debating skills.

Writing on things is not a big deal. I am and have become a cynical fool in my youth and I’m entirely against doing things for the sake of it. Although that doesn’t mean I haven’t. This task could definitely be a huge waste of time if not controlled properly.  If ideas are quite literally washed away without engagement then what is the point? If arguments are dismissed as messy art work that shut them up for a bit then there’s no need to do it. Therefore, if drawing on the tables helps engage brains to control hands; the challenge of being silent actually allows our students to think independently yet cooperatively; and if the kid at the back writes a brilliant response to ‘only ignorant people judge others’ then who am I to argue? In response to our debate and the above statement I am now inclined to try everything out before I  judge (and I do) those who draw on ceilings, walls, desks, animals, post it notes or year 7s faces with the aim to inspire, challenge and engage our pupils.

NB. The below picture proves they really were arguing just on the tables ‘Don’t you whatever me’ made me laugh for quite a while. See @CaldiesEnglish for some brilliantly written Of Mice and Men analysis after using this technique.


Twitter to the rescue: creativity and Blackout Poetry

Blackout Poetry

What started off as a plea for ideas to shut up my year 10s who needed to be quiet for those completing their controlled assessments turned it many lessons of fun and surprisingly quiet chaos thanks to Michael Smith aka @Fleckneymike – this is all his fault.

Tweets and Display

As the title suggests the idea (from my perspective) was to have something to do with my year 10s that meant 9 out of 34 of them could finish their controlled assessment in peace. I simply required a task to keep them busy. Thankfully, as sometimes happens, I found a space for them to do their CA supervised elsewhere so I could actually ‘teach’ this as a real lesson. I did as Mike told me to do and googled Austen Kleon, popped to the shops on a dreary Sunday evening and made a totally unnecessary Powerpoint. The reason for this was a) in case any one walked in and b) so I could send it round if necessary to those people who wouldn’t get the ‘Google Austen Kleon’ guide to the lesson. There’s not a lot to say about Blackout Poetry other than it sparked a simple idea to prove to pupils that poetry need not be boring and there is a way of creating poetry without even writing.

My middle set year 10 are really hard to engage at the best of times, but as soon as I did this with them they picked up the (stolen from other people’s rooms) black pens and got going. They were fairly quiet considering I hadn’t asked them to be and enjoyed being allowed to make a mess if they wanted. They made two or three poems during the lesson and as extended work had to explain why they had chosen the words they had left and how these words related to their poem’s title. I had asked them to pick from 8 themes and create a poem. All these themes linked in somehow with the poem we were looking at later in the week (Casehistory: Alison (head injury by U. A Fanthorpe) .  This was their first lesson after 4 hours of controlled assessment and it was clear they enjoyed being creative and were pretty shocked by what they had managed to make. My second set, who in comparison, are very easy to engage also really enjoyed the task. I once got told never to just give tasks to pupils because that’s not learning but in this case I would disagree. This ‘task’ became learning very easily because they loved being creative, they created a poem or two that they would have never been inclined to do normally and they began to realise that it didn’t matter what article they were drawing on because words are adaptable and flexible. They turned articles about football players into poems on loss. One turned a film review into a poem about grief. All this and they were chatting away having a lovely time without me bellowing about levels or targets.

I taught this lesson twice and I know both classes really enjoyed it. In fact giving my middle set the freedom to be creative, with little guidance, meant they astounded me and themselves with their imaginations and ability. I think this really helped to get them back on side after a tough few weeks at the end of the Of Mice and Men assessment.

Much to Michael’s dismay I did add Learning Objectives to my lesson and I did have a point in mind, but it wasn’t complicated. It was along the lines of: be creative, see what you can find, don’t think to hard but look what you can make.  In many ways this was how I had come across this lesson. I shared the lesson with my faculty and spoke to Mike again on Twitter later that week. He let me know what his pupils had thought about the lesson which turned out was ‘We learnt how to make something new out of something old.’. I think this is a more than fair enough and relevant statement. One of my least forthcoming pupils said ‘this is alright actually’; which from him is high praise indeed.

As with many great ideas the subsequent conversations between myself, Michael, Pete Jones (@Pekabelo) and many others led to other ways of creating poetry without writing anything – including the brilliant Book Spine Poetry idea from Pete which I tried out with my year 7s resulting in fairly similar outcomes: creativity, freedom, imagination and inspiration.

As usual Twitter saved the day and refreshingly it reminded me that learning can be found in all sorts of ways and often it is the little ideas that count. It reminded me of Hywel Roberts’ philosophy of helping children to learn accidentally and recognising why imagination needs to be developed in the classroom. The simple task of creating the poetry led to pupils asking questions including ‘why are we doing this?’ which led to some great conversations which were quite enlightening for me. The reason we did it was simple: because I liked the idea of not knowing the outcome. And as it turned out the outcomes were great. I also think of Hywel Roberts’ book ‘Oops!’ when I think about the display I created on a Thursday evening using the week’s poetry work. Display should ‘carry meaning to those who look at it and display is a reflection on you’. My display is a reflection of a little risk taking last week. So as we drag ourselves towards Christmas I suggest Blackout Poetry or Book Spine Poetry as a wonderful way to spend a lesson. If necessary you can link it to any theme or topic and if not then it is a very simple and effective way to get pupils up out of their chairs (some of mine did this on the floor you see) and engage those learners who think poetry is hard work. If you have no idea what to do this week and don’t want to watch Harry Potter for the 18th time then pop to the shops and buy some papers (not the Sun) or ask @fleckneymike what to do next!