More than a bowl of spag (my Goldsmiths presentation)

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with PGCE students at Goldsmiths University, talking about literacy and working with students who struggle to access reading and writing.

Here is what we discussed.

If you are interested in the texts we used and the activities we shared, here they are:

The strategies handout – Handout – strategies

The poem – Auschwitz by Elizabeth Wise

The non-fiction text Auschwitz info


Getting spidey sense and peeling hexagons

Introduction lessons are always a conundrum – do you go in heavy with expectations and rules or do you go for something that explores more of your subject?

I find them even more difficult to get to grips with when it’s a new year 12 class.  Our classes tend to ebb and flow for the first week of term, so I can’t start reading the text.  I, therefore, have 3 hours to grapple with and not much need to lecture on contents pages and neat presentation of classwork.

So with one of my new year 12 classes this week, I decided to get all spidey.  Inspired (again) by @rlj1981

Getting spidey sense with your ideas

Lay a bunch of ideas out around your classroom.

Here are the ones I used.  They were specifically general (if that’s possible) as I hadn’t met the class before and I didn’t want them to assume anything.


Put students into pairs and give them string, blutac and sticki-notes.

Talk about making connections, giving examples, having a personal response.

everything is connected

Ask students to make a connection (any at this point) between two ideas.

They should use the string to make a physical connection and then hang a post it note from the string explaining their idea.

Chaos, talk, thought, connections ensue.  Arguments abound.  Critical thinking happens.

Spider web

As time went on, students found evidence from history, current affairs, art, literature, music (etc) to justify their connections.

Peeling hexagons

Anyone who teaches Edexcel Literature will know that the exam board have once again changed the mark schemes, this year it feels very on the down-low.

The Shakespeare CA goes from 30 to 40 marks, now with no marks for AO2 and 20 marks for AO4.  This prompted some quick rethinking for me.  As this CA has been fairly dull and formulaic up until now.  It has not provided much of a preparation for the Literature exam.   Students struggled with it as it sat slap in the middle of Lang and Lit skills, being neither one nor the other.

The new mark scheme provides a great opportunity at the beginning of year 10 to teach some proper Literature essay skills.

Here is how I started out:


We reminded ourselves of the purpose of essay writing and why we use PEEL.

Then in groups, students were given a bunch of different hexagons, each representing one element of a PEEL paragraph.

They used these to write an essay (in note form) and to connect their ideas in anyway they wanted.

White = Point

Green = Evidence

Blue = Explanation/Analysis

Red = Evaluation

Yellow = Context

Orange = Conclusion

hexagon peel

The challenge was for students to show visually and through their written ideas that Mercutio’s character is complex, multi-faceted and difficult to pin down.

As you can see, some of the groups really went with this idea – sticking hexagons on top of one another to create varied layers.  I like the one that uses the points to create Mercutio’s torso with the rest of the paragraph making his arms and legs.  The linear ones were fine too – interestingly the most linear one, was from one of my most creative thinkers!

Let me know if you try these activities in your lessons and how you get on.

Get home soon little one


We have a new (old) ‘motto’ at school.  “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”  As cliched as it is, it serves as a decent reminder that with over 1500 students, I am not responsible for just the ones I teach or the ones I know.

My brain latches onto the “walk past” comment, rather than “the standard” and I have been thinking this week about how many situations and confrontations I walk past because I don’t have the time or energy to deal with it.  It’s not the end of the world I think.  It’s not a big deal.

We are so busy, all the time.  We can’t possibly deal with everything, right?


Something happened today that made me think again.

Whilst I was up early and out the door, off to my Masters induction at St Mary’s, my husband and girls decided to pop to our local shops.  The girls are big fans of stationery and our Saturday morning trip to WHSmith is somewhat of a tradition.  Holly and Abi were flush with birthday money and a new Scooby Doo dvd was on their hit list.

After a somewhat fractious encounter with the god of stationery, Steve and the girls started home.  We walk the same route every day, to and from their schools.  Our eldest Amelia noticed a mobile phone had been abandoned on a wall by the local youth centre.  It was raining, the phone was completed soaked.  A conversation ensued about what to do next, we don’t have a local police station anymore and my husband, quite understandably, wasn’t in the mood for dealing with this.

It would be fine to walk away, it was just a phone.

Amelia, being a magpie however, demanded that the phone be brought home and rather than embarking on an outright battle, Steve acquiesced.

He thought nothing more about it, other than to put the phone out to dry in the kitchen.  Once it was dry, Steve turned it on, in an attempt to find the owner.  The phone had no lock, over 10 missed calls and unread texts.  The last text was from a parent urgently looking for their child.

Steve texted back, explaining what had happened and giving the parent his number.  Five minutes later the police arrived on our doorstep, with the father of a child who had gone missing this morning.

I can’t tell you anymore about this story as yet.  There is no happy ending but we are keeping our fingers crossed that there will be, or has been already.

But what I do know is this:  if Steve had walked past that phone, won the argument with Amelia, a father would still be texting and calling his child and the police would have no idea of where she had been.  Now they have something to work with, a place to start looking, a focus for CCTV searches.

I hope you get home soon little one.

Teaching x-ray vision


Teaching inference and deduction skills to low ability students is sometimes a minefield.  The whole point of inferring is that you can make connections, often beyond a text, this is a tough challenge when the words on the page are hard to decipher.

I believe it is key to teach inference and deduction early and to teach it explicitly.

In lessons I equate the skill to an x-ray.  Looking below the surface.  Seeing beyond the skin.  Understanding what is living in the bones of a text.

Task 1:  Inference pictures

The pictures below allow students to make simple inferences within a limited scope.  There are wrong answers to these questions, and although I do like to get carried away on unusual ideas, sometimes we need to start with the obvious and work from there.


  1. Using your observation skills, write down everything you can see.
    (The items are……)
  2. Using your inference skills, what can you figure out about the owner of the items.
    (I think the owner is…..)
  3. Write down (explain) how you figured out who the owner was.
    (I know this because….)

inference 1

In feeding back on this, students will refer to real life or other texts (film) and the connection is made.

Task 2: Text inferences


Read the example of inference below:
I wouldn’t eat after that two-year-old if I were you.
Inference: The two-year-old probably did something gross to the food you were about to eat or has a cold and you could catch it. Something bad will happen to you if you eat it!

This text allows students to explore different ideas but again there are some very clear wrong answers.  The negative language means it cannot be a positive emotion being expressed.

The specific reference to an age means that there is a limit to what might have happened.

I often ask students to imagine what a photograph going with this phrase would look like.  This generally describe something like this >>>

Now we could move onto other more flexible inferences:

  1. If she died, I wouldn’t go to her funeral.
  2. A woman walks into a hospital clutching her huge belly and cursing out her husband, who trails behind her carrying a large bag.
  3. You’re driving on the motorway, listening to the radio, and a police officer pulls you over.

The last one usually generates much debate on speeding and police officers’ favourite music artists.  It’s also funny how often students miss the meaning of “huge belly” on no 2.

I find myself using these activities time again when teaching some texts from Boy in the Striped PJs to Hamlet.

I will share my inference and deduction slides on my free downloads page.

Outside the box in a box

A hand-drawn mini unit on developing creative thinking skills (or what I did when I had finished all the schemes of work and the holidays were still two weeks away).

2013-09-03 20.26.06

Lesson 1: Kids probs

Ask students to come up will all of the problems they experience as kids.  Get a big class mind-map going on somewhere.

Around that mind-map put 4 sheets, titled:

  1. Outside the box ideas
  2. Bizarre and strange ideas
  3. Ideas from the future
  4. Friends and family ideas

Starting with “Outside the box” ask students to think about someone they know who has a very different life from them.  It could an elderly relative or someone who lives in a different country.  Students place themselves into that person’s shoes and answer the same question – what would this person say about kids problems?

Then you can get “Bizarre and strange” ask students to come up with the wackiest, craziest and most ridiculous problems they could experience (like being kidnapped by zombies on the way to school).

Next it’s “ideas from the future” students imagine childhood in 100 years time – what problems might these kids experience?

Finally, onto “Friends and Family” and this can be a nice think-pair-share-square activity or a fantastic homework.  Students need to gather other people ideas to add to their list.

2013-09-03 20.26.21

Lesson 2:  Solving the problem

Using the same style of expertly hand-drawn worksheet.  Students choose one problem from the previous lesson and attempt to solve it, using the same process.

Then you can get creative – make a homework machine, make the never-disappearing key ring, make the mum’s bad mood muncher.  Students can just design or they can design and make depending on time and resources.  Or get creative writing – use these ideas (sometimes all of them to together) to write the wildest, most hilarious adventures out there.

Lesson 3: Looking at my world

Now turn this way of thinking to analysis and criticism.  Using the same, now somewhat hackneyed worksheet ask students to spill onto paper everything they know about their school.  “Imagine you are a year 6 student, about to start at our school, what are you thinking, what do you want to know and what should we tell them?”

This can then form the basis of a piece of non-fiction writing (we made an A-Z of our school).

2013-09-03 20.26.46 2013-09-03 20.27.15

Sometimes thinking outside the box still requires boxes.

The Vampire Strikes Back

I have mentioned before my vampiric nature when it comes to borrowing ideas from other teachers.  This post is my experience of teaching Luke Neff’s “story keys” idea.

Luke’s original idea can be found here

Whilst I am bigging up Luke’s ideas – I would also highly recommend his writing prompts.

In the UK it feels like we have less classroom time for instant writing or journaling as seen in the US, but this year my yr 9 class spent the first 15 minutes of every lesson completing a piece of creative writing.  I used Luke’s prompts every time.  They are excellent.

Anyway, back to the story keys idea.

It all started with these which I found at a junk shop in Rye.  My girls and I spent a car journey thinking up all of the places the keys could unlock, which villains would steal the keys and how our heroes would snatch them back.


By coincidence, not long after that I saw Luke’s story key post on Pinterest and decided I wanted to teach this activity to our incoming year 7s attending summer school.

The only snag with this activity was getting hold of 60 keys.

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so I went and sweet talked a few people.  First the caretakers at school, who gave me a collection of old locker and door keys.  Then my parents, in-laws and friends and my collection grew,  Finally, as I needed to get my daughter a front door key I sweet talked our local locksmith and he gave me some old keys and some rather tragic broken keys.  I ended up with over 40 keys.

Then a friend of mine who organises weddings showed me some keys on Etsy and I feel in love.

Once you have your key collection, the rest is very simple, I used some of the tiny charm keys and some of the normal ones donated by friends.  You can make the tags from paper and string or buy some.  I got these tiny red ones to match the key charms.

keys 2

I used Luke’s story starters and added a few of my own:

  • The sign read “213 locked doors.  Which will you choose?”
  • 43 locks, 15 numbers, 9 seconds, 1 key.
  • The last page of the book contained two words “Page 45”.  Underneath was taped a key.
  • The cinema was pitch black, the exit locked.  Where was the key?
  • Claudia awoke and slipped her hand under her pillow, expecting a coin, she found only a key.
  • The lock was shaped like a gun.  The barrel faced towards me.
  • The lawyer spoke quietly, “His last will and testament stated you should receive this key.”
  • Since Jacob had disappeared, I no choice but to find the key myself.
  • “Regrettably, you cannot proceed without choosing a key” he declared.
  • Perhaps it was the rain, or the darkness, but should a key glow like that?
  • The blood dripped down, pooling around the tiny key.
  • Mary Jane promised she would never give away the location, but that wouldn’t matter if she couldn’t find the key.
  • Stumbling down the mountainside, the key guided me onwards.
  • The instruction read “The key is not the key.”
  • Despite the crowds in the museum, I was the only one who saw the velociraptor’s key.
  • Like Charlie, I was nervous as I opened the wrapper, would I get the last key?
  • Jamie slumped on the roof, where was the key?
  • “Whatever you do, don’t touch the key, it’s cursed.”
  • The soldier holding the gun, stepped closer, “Turn the key, now” he ordered.
  • The key’s tag said “Thank you” on one side and “Run!” on the other.

As you can see, each key had a different story starter, meaning I got a huge variety of amazing, funny, terrifying and adventurous stories to read.

I am falling more and more in love with teaching creative writing and this activity is particularly fun and engaging.

I hope you enjoy it too.  Don’t forget to check out Luke’s writing prompts.