Getting revision right

This year we have taken a strategic approach to revision with Year 11. We have been trying to make the most of everything we have learned over the past few years about the learning process, memory, recall and deliberate practice to deliver a consistent message to all students. This has involved borrowing many ideas from colleagues up and down the country – and beyond! Here’s what we’ve been up to.

How to revise – students

We borrowed from Shaun Allison’s excellent blog Supporting Learning Through Effective Revision Techniques to reformulate our “How to revise” session for Year 11 students this year. Based on the research conducted by Dunlosky, Willingham et al we advise that highlighting, reading through your notes, and summarising were not the most effective revision techniques. For revision to be effective it must involve thought – students have to process the information to stand the best chance of retaining it. We advised:

  • Chunking and interleaving revision
  • Self-testing
  • Distributed practice
  • Interrogation – asking “why?”
  • Self-Explanation (the PQRST technique)
  • Transforming information

In order to deliver the message we took advantage of an off-timetable slot to split the year into smaller groups, bringing in as many SLT, pastoral leaders co-tutors, and additional staff to reduce class sizes. Students were issued with individual revision packs containing calendars, planners, a pack of flashcards, and copies of the revision advice session slides, before rotating through three workshops. You can find all of the materials from our workshops below:

How to revise – families

We borrowed this idea from Andy Day’s Relating to a revision plan – it’s a family affairHis idea of bringing in families to help them understand effective revision certainly chimed with our experience, which was of parents who were telling us “we want to help, but we don’t know how.” We ran a morning session for families of Year 11 on 14th March:

The event was really well attended and the feedback from families was glowing: “a great investment of our time and a credit to the school’s investment in learning” said one evaluation. We also adapted Stuart Lock’s Revision Advice for Parents  post into a handout for all families in Year 11:

It was vital for us to close the loop between home and school, so that the advice students were getting from their families reinforced the messages they were getting from school. Clarifying expectations and sharing best practice was a really helpful process.

Covering the curriculum angle

This year we are keeping our students with us in school for longer. Students will still have study leave, but we want to maximise the contact time we have with them to ensure that they are revising effectively. This is always a tricky balance, but we think we’ve got it right this year. We’ve also put on our traditional Easter Study Camp, a week of taught and supervised revision over the Easter break to make the most of the time over the holidays. We’ve collated the extra-curricular revision sessions on offer into a single timetable so students know what’s on offer. I issued Andy Day‘s subject revision checklist to curriculum leaders to ensure that everyone had all the angles covered. And finally, we updated our online Revision Centre with all the resources available, including an subject-specific collection of past papers, mark schemes and revision resources for Study Camp collated by our excellent Head of Computing @morewebber.

Covering the pastoral angle

We have been running our Attitude Determines Altitude programme with Year 11 all year, and this has positively impacted on student approaches. Head of Year Phil Edwards and I have been master planning the interventions and messages for Year 11 since September through assemblies (including the key message Don’t Settle), tutor activities and interventions, all with a view to getting the attitude right – it’s all about the effort. One glance through Phil’s twitter feed will show you how consistent that message is! However, we’ve also been mindful of the need to relax and take time out, and we’ve put on a stress-management group to help those who may be feeling the pressure.

Motivation – the Fix Up Team

Ever since I saw Action Jackson lift the room at #TMNSL last year, I knew I had to get the Fix Up Team into school. This year it happened, and the brilliant Caspian (#KingCas) came in to do an hour’s assembly with Year 11.

The haven’t stopped talking (and singing) about it since. Having an external speaker in – especially one as engaging and powerful as this – makes all the difference. They’ve heard it from us a thousand times, but hearing it from a “real” person somehow brings it home!

Motivation – Proud Letters

Further to reinforce the connection between home and school, and to send the students off to Easter with a positive attitude, we ran our Proud Letters programme for the second year. This great initiative sees families write a letter in secret to their young people, explaining how proud they are of them and what their hopes and expectations are over the coming months and years. We delivered them on the last day before Easter to boost the students into the break. Again, it helps to show that home and school are working together in partnership to deliver a consistent, positive message about success.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The aim has been to align all of the resources we have available to help the students make the most of these crucial final months. I think this image, printed on all of the individual revision packs, sums up our approach perfectly:

Don’t be upset by the results you didn’t get with the work you didn’t do

#PoetryPromise April: The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for April is The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. After all, “April is the cruellest month.”

Title page of my copy of the poem. Annotations start here...

Title page of my copy of the poem. Annotations start here…

I first read Eliot as an A Level English Literature student, and I was awestruck. From the Latin/Greek/English/Italian epigraph onwards, this was a work of dazzling ambition and scope. Eliot cuts across cultures and through time in multiple voices, all the while maintaining powerful poetics, rhythms and sounds. The characters and places he establishes are haunting and powerful; I wrote a terrible short story based on the typist and her “young man carbuncular” and whenever I return to London I hear “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many…”

But this was a hard poem. As I began, I found myself asking the same questions as the poem posed:

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images”

I knew there was sense in it, but I couldn’t fit it together. As a life-long lover of puzzles, however, I couldn’t resist trying. The Waste Land is like a web, with words tugging on references to other texts which, when decoded, shine a light on the meaning of the whole. This was modernism, a text which existed in reference to other texts as well as to the real world. The trouble was, I knew hardly any of the references. Eliot’s own notes were a starting point but are often more opaque than the poem itself. But in tracing the lines of the web out to their historical, artistic and literary anchor points, I began to appreciate the richness that cultural capital could bring – and I wanted in. I read, and read, and read. I was voracious. And when, later in my course, I read Milton’s Paradise Lost, I found myself recognising more of the allusions. My experience was richer for it, and chasing down inter-textual connections and references still gives me a thrill of accomplishment.

The text of The Waste Land is too long to publish here, but can be found here or here. The typist section that inspired my short story is below. The story, I’m glad to say, is lost.

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

#PoetryPromise March: What Guys Look For In Girls by Savannah Brown

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for March is What Guys Look For In Girls by Savannah Brown.

I’m a big admirer of the YouTube creator community, as I explain in my post Why I Teach. I like the creativity, passion and independence of the platform and its democratic ethos. It’s been beset by controversy – sexual abuseproduct placement, and ghost-written books for example – but in each case the community has been swift to respond and dish out its own justice. This poem is a great example. It was written by then-17-year-old vlogger Savannah Brown in January 2014 in response to a particularly tasteless and offensive video posted by Vine star Nash Grier entitled “What Guys Look For In Girls”.

The poem passionately shreds the notions of other people’s expectations of attractiveness, inhabiting the slam form with its ebb-and-flow rhythms and poignant, personal epithets: “you’re worth so much more than your waistline.” It’s the best possible response to the mindlessness of patriarchal values. And it’s so appropriate that Brown chose poetry for her response, because the form lends weight to the words. In a poem, words have a heft, a gravity, a substance that no other form can give them.

I’ve said before that the reasons I’m in teaching are to help ensure that young people understand the world well enough to have something to say about it, and have the best possible voice to express their ideas. This poem captures all of that. Here is a teenager with heartfelt, considered ideas and a powerful, passionate voice to express them in. And what’s more, she has a platform to reach those who need to hear it the most – YouTube’s young audience.

Colour Coded Wet Rats – improving analytical writing in English

Back in December I blogged about my use of colour coded self-assessment with my GCSE Media Studies class, and I promised a follow-up as I applied the model to English. Here is the result!

Colour coded self-assessment is a technique I stole from Louise Pope (@philosophypope), our incredible Head of PSHRE and member of my teaching and learning team. The aim is to get students to identify where they have met the success criteria for a piece of work using coloured highlighting or underlining. Making it visual in this way enables them to spot patterns. For example, they might be hitting one aspect all the time, but another only sporadically or not at all. Having highlighted their first draft, students can then make improvements in their redrafts focused on expanding on the areas they didn’t hit so often the first time.

This year I have a wonderful Year 10 GCSE English Language and Literature group, and we have been working on Romeo and Juliet for the past term. Their understanding of the play was strong, they were engaged and focused. When writing about the play, they knew all about PEE paragraphs but their explanations just weren’t full and detailed enough. Luckily, we have appointed a fantastic new second in English this year, who has revolutionised our teaching of analytical writing with WET RATS.

I worry that I’m late to the party here, and that English teachers up and down the country have been using this technique for years and I’ve somehow been missing out. But WET RATS was new to me, and it has transformed the way my students write about literature. Here is what WET RATS are:

Romeo and Juliet

The mnemonic is used purely for the explanation part of a PEE paragraph. Students don’t need to to use all of the WET RATS in every paragraph, but it gives them options for things to write about. I taught it by modelling how a paragraph might expand from a single quotation in Romeo and Juliet: 

My paragraph was constructed with the students – it’s not intended as an examplar! Also, it’s important that not all of the WETRATS need to be included in a paragraph. I only did that here in order to demonstrate them, and I’m very conscious that my point about “structure” is weak!

Following on from this we have used WETRATS several times to increase familiarity with the mnemonic and the technique itself. This culminated in a full essay on how Shakespeare creates sympathy for Juliet in Act 3 Scene 5 of the play. I’ve used this essay question many times in teaching the play, but the quality of the analysis my students produced was a real step up from their earlier work. We were on our way!

Of course, as a strong proponent of Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence approach, the first draft is only the beginning (I’ve seen Austin’s Butterfly!) So after the students had completed their drafts, I got them to colour code each element of the WETRATS across their essays. Here is a gallery of some of their work:

The process of colour coding was invaluable. Firstly, it gave them a specific purpose and focus for critically re-reading their own work – a world away from “check your spellings”! Secondly, it caused them to highlight (literally!) which aspects of the success criteria they were hitting more or less often, identifying clear areas for development and well as strengths. And thirdly, when I came to mark their work I already had a scaffold around which to build my feedback. Interestingly, some of the feedback was along the lines of “you’ve clearly written about structure here, but you haven’t highlighted this section.” This may identify a misconception about what “structure” means as a concept in literature (possibly due to my poor modelling of it in the demonstration), or possibly lazy self-assessment. In either case, something to address!

My second experiment with colour-coded self-assessment has been even more successful than the first, as well as helping the students to engage fully with the WETRATS technique. As with any scaffold, the key will be to take it away gradually so the students can write this well independently – I’m with Tom Sherrington on this one! But at this early stage, performance and the students’ awareness of their own learning and progress is markedly better. And more colourful!

Assembly: Procrastination

I am indebted to Scott Hayden (@bcotmedia) for much of the content of this assembly, which was inspired by his lecture on procrastination and motivation which you can view here.

Procrastination is defined as “putting off, delaying or deferring an action until a later time.” It’s usually preceded by the magic words…

I’ll just…

We all do it.When faced with a pile of marking and planning to do, I will procrastinate as much as anyone. My main enemy is my phone. “I’ll just check twitter…and pinterest…and YouTube…and see if anything’s happened on twitter while I was on pinterest and YouTube…” It’s getting later, the work still needs to be done, and we know this, so why do we do it?


If we don’t try hard, we can blame our failure on that. Classic fixed mindset thinking.

Some people put off the effort in self-defence. Like Homer Simpson, if they don’t try too hard then they have something to blame when they don’t do well. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that this is self-defeating. But even if we want to work hard and do well, we can still find ourselves avoiding work… so why?

The limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex (source)

The limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex (source)

It’s an internal battle between two parts of our brain. Our pre-frontal cortex is sensible, and in charge of our long terms aims – “I want a good set of GCSE grades so I can get a well-paid job and live a happy and fulfilled life.” Buried deep within our brain is the limbic system, a primitive, primal part of our brain that is in charge of our desires and craves immediate satisfaction right now – “I want to shoot stuff on the XBox.” When faced with a big chocolate bar, our pre-frontal cortex might be warning us that it’s unhealthy, full of sugar, very fattening, and will ruin that diet we’ve been on, whilst our limbic system is saying “chocolate! Yummy chocolate! Get in my mouth now!” Which will win?

In order to control our impulse to procrastinate, we need to understand it. One of the issues is that our limbic system is only concerned with the here-and-now, and it cannot conceive of a future version of ourselves that might regret the consequences of our present actions. This is called “temporal discounting” or “present bias,” and is illustrated by this simple experiment.

Which would you rather have - £100 now, or £110 later?

Which would you rather have – £100 now, or £110 later?

If I offered you £100 in cash now, or £110 one month from now, most people would take the £100 right now. A month seems an awfully long time to wait for an extra £10. However, if I offered you £100 twelve months from now, or £110 in thirteen months time, most people are prepared to wait the extra month because they are both so distant from our present selves. The sums of money and gap in time are the same, but in the second example our pre-frontal cortex is dealing with both choices as they involve our future selves. In the first example the limbic system sees the immediate benefit and overpowers the logic of long-term gain.

So, in order to beat the temptations of procrastination we need to trick our brains and, more importantly, our limbic systems, to give ourselves a fighting chance of getting our stuff done. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you!

1. Break the task down

When faced with an enormous task, procrastination is much more tempting. Breaking it into smaller chunks makes it seem more manageable and easier to do. Rather than thinking “I’ve got sixty questions to do,” tell yourself “let’s complete this first question.”

2. Make the tasks work for you

When you’ve broken the task down, make each part achievable. Set a clear goal for yourself. “In the next ten minutes, I am going to finish this page.”

3. Make your goals public

You are far more likely to get stuff done if people around you are helping. Tell your parents, brothers and sisters “I am going to complete this page in the next ten minutes” – they will help keep you on track. Update your status: “I am revising for the next hour. If you see me on here – tell me to get back to work.”

4. Reward yourself- The Pomodoro Technique

Set a timer for your work. Start off small – fifteen or twenty minutes. Even your limbic system can cope with that. Stay focused until the alarm sounds, then give yourself five or ten minutes of reward time to have a break and feed your primitive brain! Then back to the work. Over time, gradually increase the work time, keeping the reward time the same. This way you can train your brain away from procrastination. Don’t reward yourself unless you’ve stuck at it! It’ll still be tempting, but the rewards are coming – once you’ve got your stuff done…

5. Remove distractions

Give the power cable from your XBox to your parents and tell them not to give it you back until you have achieved your work goal. Put your phone in another room. Whatever is tempting you away from what you should be doing – either remove it, or remove yourself from it. The same goes for the classroom! If you know someone is going to take your mind off what you should be doing, don’t sit with them.

6. Focus on the positive

Trick your brain away from seeing the task as a horrible burden. Don’t let yourself think “only another fifteen minutes of this hell to go!” Instead, say “this is great – I’m getting this done! I’m really pleased with this. Look at what I’ve achieved.” Your limbic system is craving positive happy feelings. If you can generate those from the task itself, it’ll be satisfied and give up trying to tempt you away!

7. Just start.

Straight away. Don’t even give yourself a chance to hesitate. Pick your pen up and begin. Before you know it you’ll be done. The work is there for your benefit. Your brain will grow. You will learn. You will improve. And then you will get all the reward that you deserve.

Photo 24-01-2015 15 52 08

View the Prezi here

Attitude Determines Altitude

Attitude determines altitude banner

Attitude determines altitude banner

As part of our growth mindset ethos this year, we have been working hard with students on their attitudes to learning in school. As David Didau has explained, “good behaviour is necessary for good teaching to take place,” and we completely agree. I have been working closely with Head of Year 11 Phil Edwards (@_philedwards on Twitter) to help the cohort get into the right mindset for success. One of the innovations we’ve tried is the publication of attitude grades under our “Attitude Determines Altitude” banner.

“Attitude Determines Altitude” was adopted by NASA’s education programme in America (see here) as a variant on Zig Ziglar’s quotation.


Of course, it’s not rocket science…except, in this case, it is! Aim too low – or get the attitude wrong – and you’ll crash and burn. Get the angle of ascent right, ignite the thrusters, and you’ll go into orbit.

At Chew Valley, we collect teacher assessments of student attitudes three times a year. We use a four point scale – VGSU for Very Good, Good, Satisfactory, and Unsatisfactory – in four categories:

  • Behaviour
  • Classwork
  • Homework
  • Organisation

All the categories are underpinned with clear definitions issued with report guidance (view a copy here: Attitude Grades). The grades awarded are processed into a percentage score – if students were to achieve all V grades, they would get 100%, whereas all U grades would result in a 0% score. These scores are reported to parents (along with individual grades), tracked at each reporting point so that trends can be identified.The most recent score is also included in student Key Performance Indicators in SIMS. The advantage of tracking attitudes in this way is that it is possible to identify improvement and decline in student attitudes over time. Tutors are issued with a tracking spreadsheet which shows students’ attitude scores over time and their improvement or decline, as well as their relative position in the year group. This allows intervention to be targeted at students whose attitudes are declining, and the success of those who have improved to be celebrated.

This tracking process is well established and has been running for four years, but it has always been teacher-based. With Year 11, we have gone public. In November we published student attitudes on the Year 11 noticeboard, along with their rank order position in the year group according to that score. We debated the format for a long time! I was all for publishing a straight rank-order list from 1-200 to make it totally clear who was at the top and who was at the bottom. However, I was persuaded away from this as we worried that students would easily see who was surrounding them in that part of the table and this may create a sense of group identity and possibly negative reinforcement – “we’re the bottom of the table crew!”

Example attitude grades from first posting in November (anonymised)

Example attitude grades from first posting in November (anonymised)

Instead, we published the list in alphabetical order by tutor group.  This made it easy for the students to find their own name and see where they stood in the rankings. The launch was carefully handled by Phil and his team of tutors, who made sure the message was mediated and that students were encouraged to improve their attitudes – and their position in the ranking!

Guide to attitude determines altitude published in November (original here)

Guide to attitude determines altitude published in November (original here)

Last week, we published the second attitude determines altitude scores on the noticeboard. These had been awarded following mock exams and results over Christmas. A few interesting trends emerged! In November, the highest score in the year was 98% (awarded to two students); in January there were three on 100% and thirteen altogether over 98%. If you scored exactly the same attitude in January as in November, your position in the rankings dropped. The rest of the year group was improving – staying the same wouldn’t cut it! Most impressively of all, some students had leaped up the rankings, with a dozen students improving by 10% or more. Of course, some had also declined – this wasn’t a magic wand and it didn’t work for all! – but the response has been really positive. Above all, the average attitude score from this Year 11 cohort sits considerably higher than any other Year 11 cohort we have ever had – and the evidence from staffroom conversations and staff evaluations is that this reflects a reality in the classroom. Phil made the most of the publication by stoking a bit of inter-tutor-group rivalry:

On Friday, I asked a selection of the students what they thought of it. Here is a selection of what they said:

  • “When I saw how low I was, I knew I had to do something about it.”
  • “I think it’s good so you know where you stand.”
  • “My Mum was against it, but I’m not really bothered.”
  • “I would have worked harder anyway because the exams are so close. I’m not sure the board had anything to do with it.”
  • “When I saw how far I’d gone up, I was really pleased with myself.”

A mixed picture! This is an inexact science and we’re not conducting an RCT here. I don’t know if it’s our whole-school growth mindset ethos and focus on effort, the excellent leadership from the Head of Year and his team of tutors, the luck of the draw or the publication of effort grades on the board that is making the difference. But something is working! And when the scores went up last week, students gathered round, keen to check their position and progress. Conversations about attitudes to learning were happening between students. That’s got to be a good thing! Certainly was for 11H…

#PoetryPromise February: Cinderella by Sylvia Plath

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for February is Cinderella by Sylvia Plath.

Cinderella by Anne Anderson (source)

Cinderella by Anne Anderson (source)

Plath is my all-time favourite poet – see my post The Book That Made Me for more on this. This poem, one of the Juvenilia published in her Collected Poems, was written in her early twenties. When I read it for the first time, it dazzled me with it’s technical skill and imagination.

The prince leans to the girl in scarlet heels,
Her green eyes slant, hair flaring in a fan
Of silver as the rondo slows; now reels
Begin on tilted violins to span

The whole revolving tall glass palace hall
Where guests slide gliding into light like wine;
Rose candles flicker on the lilac wall
Reflecting in a million flagons’ shine,

And gilded couples all in whirling trance
Follow holiday revel begun long since,
Until near twelve the strange girl all at once
Guilt-stricken halts, pales, clings to the prince

As amid the hectic music and cocktail talk
She hears the caustic ticking of the clock.

Plath’s relish for the interplay of language, meaning and sound is unparalleled. She interweaves internal rhymes, assonances and alliterations in this poem so that the first ten lines are a firework display, mimicking the fairytale ball. She uses the sonnet form deliberately, both for its overtones of love but also for the inevitability of its structure. No matter how much fun you have in the first three quatrains, that crushing final couplet is coming. And what a couplet it is, staggering out of the stuttering line 12, with the panicky ticking of the clock echoing through the language.

It’s hard not to get caught up in Plath’s own life story when reading her poetry, but the dazzling flair of the beginning of the poem which can’t escape an inevitable doom seemed too pat a metaphor even for me. The appropriation of a well-known story for a personal twist, however, is something that I’ve enjoyed in Carol Ann Duffy, Jean Rhys, and Gregory Maguire, and something Plath herself would return to in her controversial adoption of holocaust imagery in her later work.

The nonsense of the grade descriptors

This week I have finalised our new Assessment, Marking and Feedback policy and submitted the draft to the Governors for review. This policy was a complete rewrite, incorporating and committing to our latest thinking on assessment without levels and closing the gap marking and feedback. I also spent some time preparing for our assessment without levels network meeting by working on the English assessment framework, which we’re basing on the groundwork from Belmont school and David Didau shared by Dan Brinton. One of the tasks I was trying to do was to match the assessment criteria we had created as closely as I could to the grade descriptors for GCSEs graded 1-9 published in November by the DfE. Except there was a problem. The grade descriptors are completely useless.

It starts with this gem in the “Detail” :

We have developed ‘grade descriptors’ for the new GCSEs graded 9 to 1 in English language, English literature and mathematics. They are different from ‘grade descriptions’, which apply to GCSEs graded A* to G.

I already feel like I’m reading a bureaucratic satire; this could be straight from a Yes Minister script. Before you even click on this link for the English Language descriptions descriptors, there’s this sober warning:

These descriptors are not designed to be used for awarding purposes in 2017. Statistical predictions will be used to set grade outcomes at whole subject level.

So, translated, “here is a descriptor for a grade 8, but it won’t be used to award a grade 8 because that will be decided statistically.” Which begs the question…why publish these at all?

Discouraged, but not deterred, I pressed on to the descriptions descriptors themselves. Here’s a comparison between Grades 5 and 8 for reading in English Language:

Comparing Grade 5 with Grade 8 in new GCSE English Language. Spot the difference?

Comparing Grade 5 with Grade 8 in new GCSE English Language. Spot the difference?

At this point I realised I was on a fool’s errand. If I was going to start chasing the shadows of whether kids were “substantiating” or “supporting” their understanding and opinions with references which were “apt” or  “illuminating” I would surely run mad. The anchor point for Grade 8 is supposed to be the current A*, whilst Grade 5 is the top of C / bottom of B. There would be no way of delineating Grades 6 and 7 in between these two, surely?


DfE grade descriptors: about this useful (Source)

I sat back, breathed deeply, and remembered this:

I had, for half an hour or so, slipped back into the old “levels” way of thinking. Not being able to tie our English assessment framework to GCSE grades or National Curriculum levels is a blessing. It matters not one jot whether a piece of work is a C, Level 5a, B+, or Grade 6. What matters are the key questions of assessment:

  • What is successful about it?
  • What could be done to improve it?

Identifying the answers to these questions is the key to our assessment policy; communicating those answers the key to the feedback policy. If we get that right, students will get the grades that they are statistically assigned deserve at the end of the course.

Assembly: Don’t Settle For Good Enough

This assembly is aimed at Year 11 receiving their mock exam results.

The whole point of doing mocks is to have a run through of the exam season to prepare – a “mock up” of the real thing. You have had an experience of juggling revision and preparation for multiple exams over a short period of time, and of the demands of the different examinations within the strict conditions and time constraints that you will face over the summer. These are all valuable, and you will need to build on them as you prepare for the real thing. However, to get full use out of the experience of the mock exams, the most important part is how you react to your results.

A Google search for "exam results" would indicate that only girls get them. Who knew? Source

A Google search for “exam results” would indicate that only girls get them. Who knew? Source

What will your reaction be?

I did really well! Much better than I expected! 

Good for you! Well done. Work out what you did right. Build on that success. Make sure it’s repeatable; replicate that success in every test, practice paper and revision exercise between now and the summer so it becomes second nature.

I did really badly. 

This is okay – these are just the mocks, they don’t “count” – provided you learn from the experience. What went wrong? Did you not do enough revision? Did you do the wrong sort of revision? Is there a topic, concept, or idea you are struggling to understand? Did you forget to “please turn over” and miss out a 32 mark question printed on the last page? You have just under five months to fix all those problems, and a dedicated team of staff ready to help you – but you have to take action. Work it out. Ask the questions. Listen to the answers.

I did okay. It’s good enough. 

This is the most dangerous reaction of all. “Okay” is not good enough. “Okay” is the equivalent of saying that you are satisfied with not doing as well as you could – it is worse than failure in my eyes. Your attitude determines your altitude and if your have this attitude, you will never achieve the heights that you deserve. Put simply, only excellence is good enough. And if you haven’t achieved excellence, you’re not finished.

Photo 11-06-2014 18 11 17

So what is excellence? How will you know when you have achieved it? Your teachers are clear with you about what they expect, but your own expectations of yourself are the key here. To illustrate this, I want you to watch a short video in which Ron Berger, an elementary school teacher from America, shows how a first grade (six-year-old) boy called Austin embodied this approach.

Which butterfly do the mock exams represent for you? Source

If you settle for the first butterfly, you are happy with mediocrity. I want you to aspire to excellence, and to the standard of masterpieces. Take a look at Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers. This painting is widely acknowledged to be a modernist masterpiece. According to art historian Martin Bailey, “the patch of floor in front of it “gets more scuffed” than that in front of any other work in the National Gallery, and its postcard outsells all others in the bookshop.” Yet Van Gogh worked and worked at it, producing study after study, draft after draft, until he finally he was satisfied enough to sign his finished piece.

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I’m not saying that you will all be Van Gogh and paint a modernist masterpiece; what I’m trying to say is that Van Gogh’s models the idea of not settling for mediocrity, of keeping working and striving until he achieved the standard that he was satisfied with – his own standard of excellence.

If you like your examples a little more modern, try these sketches of Disney’s Snow Queen, Elsa of Arendelle:

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The mock exams are only worth doing if you learn from them. Don’t settle for good enough. Strive for excellence.

good you are

Link to Prezi.

#PoetryPromise January: Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for January is one from the Poetry by Heart collection itself: Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning.

Lady Lillith by Dante Gabriel Rosetti The frame features these words from Goethe: "Beware of her fair hair, for she excells All women in the magic of her locks, And when she twines them round a young man's neck she will not ever set him free again."

Lady Lillith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (source)
The frame features these words from Goethe translated by Shelley:
“Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.”
I’ve always wondered about the connections between the Shelley translation, the Rossetti painting, and the Browning poem.

I first encountered Porphyria’s Lover at school and it completely gripped me. The setup, with the stormy wind tearing at the landscape and the heartbroken narrator sitting alone in his cold cottage, strikes a suitably gothic tone. The tumult is stilled by the entrance of Porphyria; Browning is the master of the well-placed pause and he uses one to punctuate her arrival. The erotic charge as she “made her smooth white shoulder bare, And all her yellow hair displaced” is still as electric now as it was when I read it as a teenager. But what this poem showed me more than anything was the power of using an unreliable narrator.

Up to this point in my reading history, the voice in which novels and poems spoke to me was authoritative, omniscient,and trustworthy. But here, as Porphyria murmurs affection, was a narrator spitting venom in his internal monologue. The sands beneath the reader begin to shift; all is not as it seems.

The shock of the poem’s twist still chills me to the core. The horror of what he does, using the yellow hair she sexily displaced to wind three times around her neck, then the slamming, half-rhymed syllables: “And strangled her.” The dead stop takes my breath away.

Browning ends the poem in a cold present tense as the narrator’s madness is laid bare, and he sits unpunished and unrepentant. The certainties of literature meant for children were all gone; this felt terrifyingly adult and grown up. It opened my eyes to the idea that writers could play tricks on you with the voice they chose to write in, and led me to My Last Duchess, Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and beyond. 

The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me — she
Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could to-night’s gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

See a Poetry by Heart recitation of Porphyria’s Lover here.