#PoetryPromise May: “Could mortal lip divine” by Emily Dickinson

#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 May is this tiny fragment from Emily Dickinson:

Could mortal lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered syllable
‘Twould crumble with the weight

My copy of The Complete Poems

My copy of The Complete Poems

I can remember coveting Dickinson’s “The Complete Poems” whilst at university. The sheer size of the book, filled with nearly 1800 tiny poems, was intriguing and intimidating in equal measure. I can remember buying it and walking back to my room, the weight of the volume digging the carrier bag into my fingers. Fewer than a dozen of these poems were published during Dickinson’s lifetime, which she spent largely as an eccentric recluse. She often dressed in white and, the story goes, rarely left her room later in life. I still imagine her sister, Lavinia, discovering piles of notebooks and loose sheets in a locked chest in that room after Emily’s death, opening them up and discovering the scope and breadth of her poetry. Opening this book, I felt like Aladdin, stepping into a cave filled with enigmatic wonder.

There is so much to marvel at in Dickinson’s “quiet – Earthquake style” – her idiosyncratic use of the dash being one. These tiny bars work hard to restrain the pace and isolate words and phrases in her verse, forcing a kind of breathlessness into the reading. Her contained meditations on the nature of emotion are at once detached and scientific and passionately involved. I still find her poems fascinating little worlds.

Dickinson's original manuscript (source)

Dickinson’s original manuscript (source)

I have chosen this poem as it contains a message I try to remember every day. Once words are spoken, their impact and message cannot be controlled. Anything we say – to anyone – has unimaginable power on the recipient, irrespective of the intention. A flippant, offhand comment, delivered with barely a thought, can ruin someone’s day or stay with them for weeks – or longer. A well-intentioned intervention can backfire and make a situation worse. Our words have the power to can lift, raise and bolster – or crush,  shatter and destroy. Teachers, and especially school leaders, wield this power every day. What Dickinson’s poem teaches me is to weigh the words I am about to say, and deliver them with care.

#HeForShe, or I am a feminist

I have been really inspired this last week by posts from two of my favourite bloggers: Summer Turner‘s “Miss, is it true you’re a feminist?” and Jo Facer‘s Women through the ages. Jo posted her fantastic scheme of work to explore feminism in her all-girl’s school, and Summer explained how important it is to stand up and be counted as a feminist teacher. I completely agree. This is me, standing up to be counted. I am a feminist.

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As soon as Emma Watson launched the #HeForShe campaign back in September, I signed up. Her passionate, often personal, and powerful speech vocalised everything that I believe to be important about gender equality. In the sign up, the campaign asks for a commitment to:

  1. Express zero tolerance for discrimination and violence against women and girls
  2. Believe in equal access to social, political and economic opportunities
  3. Understand that taking a stand for women and girls is taking a stand for humanity
  4. Speak up when you see physical, emotional or sexual harassment

These were not difficult commitments for me to make personally, but reading Summer’s post made me realise how important it is for me as a male teacher to make them professionally. It is vitally important that the students I teach in the schools I lead see that gender equality is an issue that affects men and women, and that it is male attitudes that need to change for the benefit of both genders.

I remember witnessing a conversation in a school where a female teacher was telling a girl off because her skirt was too short. The rationale was not “you are in breach of the uniform policy” but rather “it’s too distracting for the boys in the class for you to wear that.” It was only years later that I realised why this conversation made me so uncomfortable. This kind of conversation legitimises the male gaze and the objectification of the female body, encouraging the girl to feel ashamed of the impact it would have on uncontrollable young males. This will not do. Of course, enforce a uniform policy, but more importantly challenge the boys in their attitudes towards young women. Don’t allow attitudes where the objectification of the female body is taken as a given. Encourage girls to be confident, not ashamed; as the new #thisdoesntmeanyes campaign spells out: “what I wear and how I behave are not invitations.”

It is not just with students that my feminist commitment applies. It is a scandal that, in a profession with a 74% female workforce, a higher proportion of men make it to senior leadership positions than women. I am one of those men. It is my responsibility as a school leader to encourage and develop female leaders, to redress this balance. Sexist attitudes are endemic, ingrained and often almost overlooked, as Ros McMullen has described. This cannot stand.

I do think things are changing. I can see it in the students I teach – and those that I have taught. As Jack Howard says in the video above, “we’ll be the last generation to say sexist and homophobic things, and our grandchildren will say ‘why was this ever allowed?'” Young people are prepared to engage with the ideas in feminist discourse and high profile campaigns like #HeForShe, #ThisGirlCan and #LikeAGirl help introduce this. Schemes like Jo Facer’s Women Through The Ages can build on that introduction and create a better future, where gender equality benefits all of us. Sophie from Over17Mirrors also provides a handy guide for teen feminists everywhere:

“Feminism is about not limiting people’s opportunities.” My #HeForShe commitment is to live these values in every aspect of my professional life – because I’m a feminist, and it matters.

Assembly: Concentration

This assembly owes much to a presentation on the brain given by Bradley from Inner Drive (@Inner_Drive) at #GrowEx last year, and this excellent TED talk by Peter Doolittle (@pdoopdoo) on working memory shared by Huntington Learning Hub (@HuntingtonLHub). It’s well worth a watch:

The PowerPoint slides are shared at the bottom of this post.

We start with a test of working memory (see the video for this test). I am going to ask you to remember five words just by holding them in your mind. Here are the five words:

  1. Tree
  2. Motorway
  3. Mirror
  4. Saturn
  5. Electrode

Whilst you are remembering those five words, I am going to set you three challenges.

  1. What is 23 x 8?
  2. On your left hand, use your thumb to count your fingers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, then back again 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
  3. Now in your head recite the last five letters of the English alphabet backwards.

How many of the five words that I asked you to remember do you still have in your memory? Does anyone still have all five?

The reason why many of you will have forgotten some of the words that I told you only a minute or so ago, is that the capacity of our working memory is limited. It can only hold so much information at any one time. Daniel Willingham provides a simplified model of the brain here:

A simple diagram of the mind (source)

A simple diagram of the mind (source)

In our test, the Environment (me) provided some information which was fed into your working memory. You didn’t do much with that information, and immediately afterwards I distracted you with three more activities which demanded space in your working memory. Little wonder, then, that when I asked you to return to the original information (the five words I asked you to remember), some or all of it had been pushed out of your mind without ever having made it into your long-term memory.


There are some more demonstrations that will help us understand why sustained concentration on the task in hand is important. The first is to do with focus, and multitasking. You might think that you are really good at multitasking, and that you can easily do two, three or more things at once. Where some of those things are automatic – walking and talking, for example – that is probably true. However, your working memory can only focus on one cognitively demanding task at a time. In that way, it’s like focusing a lens – you can only focus on one thing at a time.

You can only focus on one thing at a time

You can only focus on one thing at a time (when in doubt, reach for the cat gifs)

Let’s take this optical illusion as an example. In the picture, the man’s face can be seen looking to the right, or looking straight ahead. See if you can see both!

Looking to the right, or looking straight ahead? Both - but not at the same time.

Looking to the right, or looking straight ahead? Both – but not at the same time.

Now try to see both at the same time. Your brain switches from one to the other – it will only let you hold one interpretation of the picture in your head at one time. This is what happens when you try to multi-task. Your working memory actually switches from one task to the other. This is called context switching, and you may be able to do this quickly (there is some evidence that women are better at it than men), but you are not multitasking. You can’t.

Finally, here’s a demonstration of context switching in action. I need a volunteer from the audience to take this box of multicoloured balls, and arrange them in rows of four in the order of the colours of the rainbow. At the same time, they will be solving some Mental Maths Questions from the KS2 Maths SAT Buster book.

I know this challenge well, because Bradley used me as his volunteer at #GrowEx when conducting the same experiment. Essentially, your brain can either focus on arranging the balls, or on doing the maths – but not both. As I was trying to arrange the balls, I got simple questions wrong. When I thought about the maths, my hands stopped moving. My working memory would not allow me to do both things at the same time. I felt embarrassed, but I shouldn’t have; I was simply demonstrating a human characteristic. Our brains cannot do two cognitively demanding things simultaneously.

Let’s think about how we can apply what we’ve seen today to the classroom. The first thing is that it only takes is a small distraction for information that you have just learned to evaporate. If you are getting to grips with a new concept in your lessons and you then think about the piece of gossip you meant to tell your neighbour, your chances of transferring the new concept to your long term memory are dramatically reduced. Distractions are compelling – it’s very easy to be like Dug from Up: 

Distractions can take your mind off the task at hand

Distractions can take your mind off the task at hand

And don’t kid yourself that you can do two things at once; you can’t. Once you’re distracted, the damage is done.

Put simply:

  1. Concentrate on the task at hand
  2. Focus on the learning
  3. Apply and use what you have learned straight away if you want to stand any chance of remembering it.

And, by the way, 23 x 8 = 184.

Good luck!

Here is the PowerPoint, though the gifs don’t work in this slideshare version. Click on this link for the full version: Concentration Assembly.

Concentration phoster

#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.

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 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.