Poetic Justice

I love the thought of a literally genre telling the story of a time. Like American short stories… that while those writers each sweated over their ‘Great American Novel’, many contributed (admittedly often for monetary reasons) to the rich patchwork of American short stories, snapshots that each mirrored the disjointed nature of such a vast country in a way that a novel never would.

For me, 21st century British poetry is doing something very similar. It is the perfect capture of a moment – of a society pulled to diametric extremes, burnt by past hurt, fighting for change, looking and listening, and carrying a self awareness more than ever before. In a way that other literary forms don’t (or can’t?), poetry has always seemed to ‘hold’ these moments – from painful observations to explosions of joy – and more so than ever, it is a form we need, to tell the stories of our time.

March 2020: the catalyst

I love poetry. Like, I really love poetry. But weirdly (this is bad, and I honestly can’t tell you why it’s happened) up to this year, I’d spent the first 9 years of my teaching career not really sharing this with students through the curriculum: while I was devouring poet after poet at home, I was teaching AQA’s power and conflict anthology, some very narrow and prescriptive a-level collections (no offence to Robert Frost and John Milton) and then a pretty staid set of ‘appropriate’ poems for unseen. I mean, I’m not going to lie, it was lighting no fires for me or the students. 

So when we were locked down last summer, without access to the school library, and with my bookshelf right next to me, I suddenly started planning from what I love. 

Poems: Mirrors and Windows

We talk a lot in our English team about the need for the range of texts on our curriculum to offer both windows and mirrors for students: a window into another world and a mirror into our own. (Aside 1: check out this brilliant talk from Bennie Kara; she calls for curricula that create “ways of seeing and being seen” and calls us to “allow children to sit, and feast on their life” through texts.)

It feels like the array of poetry we’ve explored this year has started to do just this. Across Y9, 10, 11 and 12 we’ve revelled in poetry across the year – it’s probably been the dominant literary form studied in all groups in this academic year. (Aside 2: just as a point of interest, the impact of this on student analysis has been UNREAL – but that’s for another blog).

And it seems to have brought text and student closer than I’ve ever seen before. We shared in heartbreak and strength with Warda Yassin; we became mum’s house philosophers with Otis Mensah; we listened and unlistened with Raymond Antrobus; we stared into eyes of ice with Kae Tempest (and sat in humbled silence for a good 5 minutes after); we asked “what the fuck?” with Inua Ellams; we got locked in a vicious circle with Patience Agbabi; we found independence with Nafeesa Hamid; we saw societal injustice with Caleb Femi; we came of age with Kayo Chingonyi; we explored the realities of our own city with Theresa Lola and Selina Nwulu; we loved and lost and loved again with Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Pattern; we wept under the hand dryers with Andrew McMillan; we concealed our personal paradise with Roger Robinson.

We’ve listened, watched, read, created, recreated and re-re created. In both my y9 and y10 class, students have brought forward texts that they want to study as poetry, and we’ve organically co-planned and delivered. Poetry has been window, mirror, canvas and soundtrack to the classroom (physical and virtual) of this year. And we’ve all been better off for it.

Sounds of 2020/21: a poetry playlist: 

  • Inua Ellams – Fuck / Dystopian Loneliness
  • Kae Tempest – What Came After 
  • Otis Mensah – Speak Light Into the Dark
  • Caleb Femi – Thirteen
  • Adrian Henri – Liverpool Poems 
  • Roger Robinson – A Portable Paradise
  • Kayo Chingonyi – The N Word
  • Nafeesa Hamid – B8 Branded
  • Andrew McMillan – The Men are Weeping In the Gym 
  • Raymond Antrobus – Dear Hearing World
  • Warda Yassin – Trophy Wife

Curriculum 2020…

The current OFSTED-driven conversation around curriculum rationale offers a timely platform for me to launch my manifesto for 2020! Step aside literacy and reading for pleasure* because here are two central foundations of our subject to take into the new year: English grows empathy and the magical power of seeing text as a construct. 

The truth is, 2020 Britain is confusing place to be entering. As we catapult through yet another election, the rhetoric from each angle of the discourse is increasingly combative and the state of society in the UK is on the forefront of conversations across the country. What a time to empower young people to be engaged and informed about society and able to reach their own opinions.  To achieve this, let’s grow empathy and lift the lid on seeing text as a construct. 

*disclaimer: I write this very glibly, knowing full well that these words would trigger my own inner English-teacher-anger… 

  1. English grows empathy:

Often in texts, we see ourselves, or at least elements of ourselves, mirrored at a safe distance. Through the buffering security of characterisation, we can observe, criticise, comment, cheerlead, question… But literature also brings previously unimagined experiences closer to us. Through texts, we can live the experiences of others. We can try out a whole new character in an imagined space, and be in their world long enough to see how it feels.  Literature changes us – we steal from the ways of our literary heroes, suffer alongside their sadness, revel in their victories, endure their unravellings and defeats. We experience things beyond our experiences and this provides a powerful practice ground for empathy.

In fact, I’d suggest that we actively develop empathy through the worlds of the texts we experience and the complex and humanly-fragile characters and situations that writers pose to us.  Most English teachers in the country will at some point have taught Of Mice and Men; how often does a class’s journey with Curley’s Wife shift from ridicule through hatred to some form of nuanced pity as they move through the text? Or Lady Macbeth? Even the consideration of what may have generated such pantomime cruelty can uncover the possibility of deep-seated vulnerability, fragility and lost maternal desires. But the reader’s outcome, or even judgement, of these characters is not the point; it’s the process we go through to get there that I find invaluable to personal growth. The study of English offers a place for such developmental explorations and allows us to radically challenge our own perceptions, biases, blindspots and realities. It is a wonderfully subjective space, a ring-fenced grey area for exploration and shifting perception, where emotive response is not judged as right or wrong. To me, this only further foregrounds the importance of text choice for a rich English curriculum. Whose experience are we exposing students across their 4-18 journey in an English classroom? 

I for one want 2020 to be an infinitely more empathetic place than 2019: let’s walk away from combative debate and enter into dialogic discussion; let’s drop non-negotiable absolutes and welcome critical change through listening. This requires greater empathy. 

  1. The magical power of seeing text as a construct:

You know that big reveal in The Wizard of Oz, right? When Dorothy and co notice that behind the green curtain, the ‘great and powerful Oz’ is just a little old man in a suit. ‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’, he shouts, desperate to keep his pretence alive…but to no avail. They’ve seen the truth. And as a result, they can never accept the old lie again. This reveal, the pulling back of the curtain, is the turning point that sets in motion the eventual victory of our hero and her friends in their perilous world. It throws a new light on their reality, not just for that moment and the falsehood of the wizard himself, but on every ‘truth’ they see about their worlds and themselves. 

So what if, in the study of English, this big reveal is the simple concept of ‘text as a construct’. Once you see behind the ‘green curtain’ of writing, once you have that startling realisation that the writer is crafting, controlling, distorting your experience, you won’t settle for mere acceptance of text as reality again. All English teachers know very well that moment of teaching a text with an unreliable narrator, only for the class to call out every narrator for the next 9 months as unreliable. Aside: I’ve rediscovered this feeling for myself having spent 2019 binging a load of Agatha Christie novels and having the exact same response, fearing Christie’s deceptions, false clues and leads in every turn of the page: I trust NO-ONE. 

It’s the same from the early reading experience of realising a character isn’t ‘real’ to the nuanced considerations of a writer’s word choice or narrative tells. When that green curtain is truly pulled back, our experience of literature becomes richer, more intense, more laden with meaning. 

And on the cusp of our 2020 world, this goes beyond exploration of fiction. As English teachers, we have an opportunity (even a responsibility?), to see the pulling back of this curtain for any text as a central rationale for our trade. Remember, it throws a new light on their reality, not just for that moment and the falsehood of the wizard himself, but on every ‘truth’ they see about their worlds and themselves. So what if we can offer this to students? As the written and spoken word of the media shouts ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’, continuing to craft, control and distort our acceptance of what is, we have a chance to skill up our students to see exactly that; to be aware of the constructed nature of all ‘text’ and give them a chance to question the very reality they are being sold.

Fighting the silent arguments: culture in the classroom

Many of the UK’s schools, and it seems inner city ones in particular, appear to agree that behaviour holds the key to successful teaching and transformational outcomes. Repeatedly, we hear teachers and politicians speak on the need for more stringent behaviour systems. The extreme end of this spectrum sees arguments for schools where behaviour is micromanaged to the action and even calls for beginner teachers to use scripted lessons so they can focus on behaviour management until they have that ‘toolkit’ as an automatic set of skills.

The issue this raises for me is that a developmental, learning culture and ‘behaviour’ often work in direct contradiction with each other; a school which says it wants to develop inquisitive, independent thinkers, yet develops teachers who control behaviour tightly, is screaming a ‘silent’ undermining counter-argument to their own cultural goals. With their words, their attributes and mottos they say ‘we want young people to think and act for themselves’ but with their actions, they say ‘we want young people to follow the establishment, not question it’.  And in a world where the establishment is becoming increasingly terrifying, we need to be extremely wary of this ‘silent’ argument that we make to young people. Of course, as teachers, we have an important responsibility to develop young people’s social skills, thoughtfulness and consideration of others. But instead of ruling by control, micromanagement and restriction, shouldn’t we be developing young people who can think, question and challenge for themselves within a realm of humanity and integrity?

In fact, when we focus on developing culture rather than controlling behaviour, we do far more for personal growth and development. As I’ve deepened my thinking on this, I’ve moved away from classroom rules and behaviour contracts and towards thinking about how everything I do makes an argument for cultural growth.  What does the way I set up a task say about the wider culture of my classroom? How do I interact with students and challenge actions that contravene wider cultural goals (both mine and theirs)? 

The difference for me, I believe, has come in the lens I view my classroom through when I think in terms of culture rather than behaviour. Behaviour is inward looking, shutting down and curtailing; culture is outward looking, focusing on what can, not what can’t. Behaviour is about control; culture is about community, crew, togetherness. Behaviour is about imposed beliefs; culture is about shared beliefs. Behaviour is about me and them; culture is about us. Behaviour is about stopping; culture is about doing.

Vitally, considering culture over behaviour is a shift in thinking more than a shift in actions. It doesn’t mean a classroom becoming a wild, unsafe space.  On the contrary, it means a classroom being a place where cultural norms are cultivated and fiercely, consistently protected.  So yes, that ‘toolkit’ mentioned above is of course a key element of pedagogy – I challenge, hold to account, restore and resolve as much as I always did, if not more – but what I protect, cultivate and underline are much more purposeful and positive. 

Fighting the silent arguments

On a practical level, the question I would pose to teachers over behaviour management and expectations in their classroom is simply, ‘why?’ What is the purpose behind the rules you impose and what ‘silent’ counter-arguments is imposing those rules making?

Cultural development comes through everything: curriculum design, interactions with students and teachers, group norms and expectations, lesson and activity design, experiences, assessment…the list goes on. For example, with my current year 11 class, who this week sit their final GCSE English exams, I have spent 2 years crafting a culture where risk taking and independence of thought are central to everything we do, and interpretation is king.

I had taught the group in year 8 and then not in year 9, picking them up again at the start of year 10. My cultural vision (a culture where risk taking and independence of thought are central to everything we do, and interpretation is king) was built out of where I wanted them to be as students of English by now (June 2018), as I leave them for their next steps.  My starting point as I planned for their year 10 was to ‘break’ my own norms of the classroom, questioning everything and making practical decisions against my cultural vision, stripping my thinking back to the class and an empty room. This meant reconsidering everything: the room set up, the use of a board, the ‘front’ of the classroom, the use of seating plans, how I mark and give feedback, my role within lessons, the structure of our terms/our year, what we spend our time doing. From this, I then set myself a short list of strict ‘freeing limitations’ to disrupt my own ways of working and my own contradictory silent counter-arguments. They were:

  1. There is no front to the learning space. Lessons take place in the round.
  2. In lessons, I am part of the group; I do everything they do.
  3. We won’t use the projector.
  4. We will study a text together, that none of us have prior knowledge or experience of.

I strictly worked to these limitations for 2 full terms. It was fascinating.  The limitations themselves forced me into fresh thinking and constant questioning. Of course, being in a circle and having no projector is not always the best way to teach, and neither is selecting a text I don’t have any prior knowledge of and intentionally avoiding learning about it in advance, but it made me rethink so many of the things that I had just done without thinking previously: the ‘silent arguments’ I was making by setting up my classroom in a certain way, and the pre-confirmed ideas about education that I was reconfirming in doing so.

Regarding that class, the ‘freeing limitations’ led to a place where we spent (for the whole 2 year course) much of our week sat in a circle, or in self-selected chosen analysis groups; where I regularly paired or group-wrote or discussed with students; where I wrote essays and exams with them, and we had brilliantly challenging debates over each other’s interpretations and ideas; where we comparatively assessed all our analysis, including mine; where we invested (really invested) in reflecting on how as much as what.  

It was a flat classroom, with no hierarchy of ideas. When anyone threatened the development of risk taking or independence, they apologised to the circle, not to me. And I was a guardian of this culture, not a controller of behaviour. 

For my teaching more broadly, the impact has also been significant (and ever evolving). I currently plan around notes, not slides.  In lessons, I only project something if there is something we all really need to see – I ‘teach’ from a clipboard, not a board. Most of my lessons use the circle as the norm, and as a habit now I do tasks that students do, including often (though not always) homework. And more than anything, I currently design a classroom around what I want us to be; behaviour is about stopping; culture is about doing.

Readers required… apply within.

Most KS3 English curriculums in the UK (world?) ask students to produce masses of pieces of writing that are essentially, pointless. Write a letter to your headteacher persuading her to remove the school uniform code. Why? Write an article arguing that the voting age should be reduced to 16. Why? Even (especially!) the new GCSE encourages this false world: ‘Write a story to be entered into a creative writing competition.’ Oh great, will it? No? Oh. Right.

The entire premise of writing (other than a personal diary, reflection or some creative doodlings) is that it has an audience other than the self. It is a means of communication, of sharing, it is a conversation, and to remove its audience is in effect to remove its entire purpose. And yet in schools we seem to ignore this central provider of purpose: audience.

This is particularly pertinent in the teaching of non-fiction writing. If you’re going to ask them to write a letter to the local council persuading them to improve road safety in the area, then actually write a letter to the local council. And post it. If you’re going to ask them to write an article for a teen magazine giving their opinion on exam stress, then actually write an article for a teen magazine. And submit it for publication. If you’re going to ask them to write a press release for the BBC reporting on a campaign to reduce air pollution in your local area, then actually write a press release to the BBC. And make sure it’s damned good, since it’s going to the actual BBC, to actually persuade them to cover the story, and inform the wider world of the air pollution threat in your area.

This genuine engagement doesn’t only obviously provide purpose and motivation to hone technical skills through vital repetition and mastery, but it also requires honing of authentic voice, that somewhat elusive element that tends to separate good non-fiction writing from really great non-fiction writing. To ask students to ‘sound more authentic’, as I find myself saying to my current year 11s in their English language exams, is amusingly ironic, and something we can develop much more effectively with actual authentic exposure to written purpose.

So how does this actually change day-to-day practice? Interestingly, the day when I began teaching non-fiction writing via authentic projects was the same day I stopped needing to teach the features and conventions of non-fiction writing styles. Instead of being pre-instructed in type, audience and purpose, through redrafting, critique and reflection, students began naturally questioning the phrasing and purpose of elements of writing and having coherent conversations about why a particular tone of features felt out of place or didn’t do the intended. I still remember the first time this happened, with a low literacy year 7 group writing some instructions for building a hedgehog habitat in local garden. I was initially taken aback by the natural drafting of clear ordered instructions using imperatives and time connectives. When one student suggested using modal verbs to offer options to the readers (OK, so he didn’t use the word ‘modal verbs’ – he didn’t know it – but he authentically worked out their purpose and value live whilst drafting) I was stunned; I haven’t taught a lesson on ‘how to write to instruct/advise/inform/explain/persuade (delete as appropriate) since.

And the only difference in set up? They had an audience; the ‘conversation’ of writing became 2 sided.

A Feedback Culture

We’ve all been there.  You’ve just finished your formal observation with the head teacher and your head of department. You’re sweaty, pretty hungry (you probably skipped lunch to print that resource out) and a bit drained. You feel a mixture of relief and worry over whether you moved that final section of the lesson on too late. Did you support Raheem enough?  Was Leon’s thinking challenged in the right way? Could you have probed Ahmed more? You’re also pretty happy; it went well enough, and anyway, it’s over.  You sweep the left over papers off the tables and put that dictionary back on the shelf.  You open the window to let the heavy smell of collective 15-year-olds’ BO and knock-off Linx out into the afternoon air. Job done.

You head into the feedback session thinking through the WWWs and EBIs from your perspective.  The doubts are now more pronounced and are worrying you. You didn’t support Raheem enough; you should have done more.  How else could you have supported him? You should have paired Leon with someone else – this would have given him a different influx of ideas for his writing. The checklist could have had a more stretching challenge for Ahmed.  You sit down, ready for the obligatory “how do you feel the lesson went”.

Instead, you get, “What would have happened if you had not done any of that?  What if you’d just asked them to write, seen what happened, and built the lesson from there?” Well, this is a curveball…

This was the first formal observation feedback I received at School21, my small secondary school in East London.

Following that, it took me another two years more to completely let go of my previous mindset towards observations, born of 3 years of grading, OFSTED criteria and box ticking. Up to then, the most I’d stretched my thinking as a result of an observation was contemplating how to adapt my approach to suit who was observing me (literally ridiculous – I feel a bit sick writing this, but it’s the truth). Observations used to be about self-preservation, safety and striving to ‘succeed’.  They were about me.

Fast forward 3 years and my annual formal ‘impact’ observation here at School21 last year came round as my year 9s were in the middle of typing up some story drafts for a collection of Dystopian short stories we were to be publishing in a week’s time. After a brief project meeting with the class, I would be working 1-1 with a couple of students on some punctuation rules whilst others would be getting their drafts typed up. I knew there would not be ‘rapid’ (or even any) progress for many students in that 50 minutes.  I didn’t change a thing. I needed feedback on the thing that was worrying me the most about where I was at with PBL – that time spent thinking about something other than the learning (check out Daniel Willingham for some interesting and very relevant reasoning behind these worries). This wasn’t about me, this was about teaching.

That question posed to me in the first observation feedback at School 21 of course challenged how I taught writing, but more importantly it transformed the way I thought about feedback on my classroom practice; it questioned beyond the lesson and deep into my craft and it unlocked an openness around my classroom that I hadn’t felt before. It encouraged me to share my most vulnerable moments, my most uncertain experiments, the parts of my practice that need the most scrutiny and the thinking that I need to really be held to account for.

Good feedback is about flipping expectations, throwing a new context onto a current situation. It’s about probing to transformation, not making small changes.  Sure, it’s incredibly useful to get the small stuff, those ‘marginal gains’ that often do make a significant difference day-to-day and to hear practical ideas.  But it also needs to open the door to what we don’t know we don’t know. Good feedback should be planned and thought about; in that way it’s basically the same as teaching: designing questions that will drive deep and transformational thinking, facilitating ‘difficult’ conversation and challenging thesis with antithesis to provoke synthesis.

But good feedback goes beyond what is actually said; for significant impact and a truly deliberately developmental culture, it’s the wider school ethos around observation and feedback that needs crafting.  We need to undo the oppressive grading culture of the wider teaching world and open up honest and challenging conversation around classroom practice. This means not grading (and not ‘grading-behind-closed-doors-but-pretending-not-to-grade’….actually not grading), designing a culture of near constant feedback that goes in all directions on all things (why not feed back on my assembly, my phone call to a parent, my chairing of a meeting, my restorative conversation with a student?) and building an organisation on kindness. Genuine, deep rooted kindness means we can be challenging.

Of course we need to differentiate feedback and personalise it to the stage and needs of the individual, but we need to open a true dialogue in feedback, and that doesn’t stop with “how do you feel the lesson went”.

This is my dance space…

“Look spaghetti arms. This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine. You gotta hold the frame.” As we embark on our new Maths/English project (to design a gate for Newham council to transform a currently neglected alleyway), collaboration with new partners and redefining project roles has forced me to think again about the reasons why roles are so important in taking on real world, authentic project and what makes a good role for students within a project. This got me thinking about Dirty Dancing‘s Johnny’s wise words to Baby as he taught her to dance; clarity of and respect for ‘dance space’ are vital for successful partnership. “You gotta hold the frame!”

I touched on this briefly in the concrete project, but don’t think I really deeply considered why clearly defined roles are so important within such projects.  I think there are 3 main reasons:

1. Roles empower – Probably the most important for driving purpose, having a defined role, which no-one else will be doing, is hugely empowering.  This empowerment seems to stem from trust and belief in your competence to carry out the role.  In turn, this empowerment leads to self efficacy and increased creativity; with most roles, you will make of it much more than its basic ‘job description’. In this current project for example, if the site hasn’t been accurately measured by students, and their scaled designs aren’t accurate, the built gate will literally not fit the site and it be a huge waste of money and time. This trust is giving students huge empowerment; they’re now talking really creatively about how their gate can lead to regeneration of the wider space for residents. 

2. Roles define, and definition leads to rigour – Having a role set out provides a really clear outcome or success criteria. Within a learning experience, this means we can control the ‘minimum’ or ‘central’ learning, or include some more defined content through definition of role.  At a recent conference, the question posed at me by several people was ‘in an open ended, previously-unsolved-problem based project, how can you ensure that students learn what is intended- how do you maintain some curriculum content?’  And the answer to this I think lies with role. In our concrete project for example, our role as report writers meant we could stick to our learning of formal, informative non-fiction writing.  For anything outside of our role (filming, online campaigns, designing an algebraic model etc) we used other people with their own clearly define roles.  We stuck to our ‘dance spaces’ gaining the time and space for deep, rigorous learning. 

3. Roles increase accountability – This is linked closely to the first of the reasons and probably best described annecdotally…returning to the example from above, in this current project, if the site hasn’t been accurately measured by students, and their scaled designs aren’t accurate, the built gate will literally not fit the site.  But importantly, no-one else is going to be doing this job for them.  If it’s wrong, it is quite simply wrong. There is no buffer, no backstop, no safety net. We won’t just hide this work if it doesn’t work out, and the teacher won’t complete it for them if it’s unfinished.  It only takes one high stakes failure for students who don’t see it to realise the genuine accountability of learning in this way. We set our school up to offer these opportunities, with good after-care, through many different elements of school life; exhibition nights where student work is displayed, student led parent-teacher conferences instead of parents evenings led by a teacher and public speaking events for every student every year. 

So in designing a project for students, I think it’s relevant to work backwards from these three things and ask ‘does this role empower, define and increase accountability? It’s only in getting this slightly wrong on this current project, that I’ve realised how accidentally effective our role was on the previous one! We’ve been a bit ‘spaghetti arms’ in the design of this project role and therefore are now trying to backwards define our exact position within the wider gate making team. 

Going forward, the difficulty once this is achieved, lies in sticking to role and ensuring others you are working with have the same high expectations of students to carry out their role to a high quality. This is something that potentially stems out of reputation and relationships and many will be built over time between a group or school and partners/the wider community. 

Can our maths help Stratford decide if 3 new concrete factories are too dirty?

Jeremy Judge and I have just reached the end of our project exploring the inquiry question ‘can our maths help Stratford decide if 3 new concrete factories are too dirty?’ The answer, it transpires is yes, yes it can! 14 weeks of risky, challenging and exciting exploration later, with multiple dead-ends, some serious writing graft and one powerful algebraic model, and the big news is that the LLDC have asked the concrete company to withdraw their application!

The Evening Standard letter that sparked the whole project.

This project was, as written about in my first blog, in part, an experiment in truly authentic learning. We took a real world problem that was yet to be solved (hitting the top of our self-styled authenticity hierarchy) and set about solving it live, in real time with our students, together as one 16-strong team.

As I reflect on this project and its successes and limitations, I’m thinking about the lessons we have learnt from it that should inform our future practice. They seem to fall under 5 key learnings:

  1. that planning = patience;
  2. that we should embrace uncertainty but control the controllables;
  3. that we must get comfortable in the uncomfortable (and why we should all teach maths…!);
  4. that meaningful assessment is about the future not the past;
  5. and that true purpose can kill a checklist of project ingredients.

If you want to see our full project reflection, feel free to have a read here.

1. Planning = patience

The whole process, start to finish went through what School21 colleague Mark Blundell calls the ‘double diamond’, a 4 stage of process that goes through two rounds of divergent and convergent thinking as it moves from initial ideas to delivery.

Mark Blundell’s ‘Double Diamond’ of PBL planning.

The equal weighting of these sections on this diagram is somewhat misleading; they are certainly not equally chunked sections of the planning process, or indeed necessarily linear.  For me, the ‘discover’ and ‘define’ elements are a constant ongoing exploration (I literally bank ideas, products, opportunities etc and then wait for the perfect storm of learning, authenticity and purpose) and for Jeremy and I with this project, this was around 3 months of patient waiting and spirited arguing.

Once we defined our idea, the sudden flurry of action kicked off with the ‘develop’ phase in the half term leading up to the project launch.  It was here that we focused around the project design and put in the serious planning. Here you can see the outcome of this stage, the planning overview behind our project – this original plan was tuned by a group of school staff initially and then by the class themselves before the project began. To get to this though, it was certainly worth the slow, lengthy ‘fishing’ process of the first 2 sections – the sort of ‘waiting by the pond’ for the perfect bite.

2. Embrace uncertainty but control the controllables

Our timeline document gives the very false impression that this project was clearly structured from the off.  It was in truth a constantly changing beast with shifting goalposts beyond our control, constant dead-ends and false starts, and the document as it stands was created very much by the day.

Our mathematical problem solving process; the very real attempts at problem solving meant several complete cycles of this process before reaching any success, which in turn meant a very flexible medium term plan…

In fact, this project’s authenticity meant a required flexibility of timeline and direction of learning that I haven’t dealt with before (as I blogged about in December). Despite the unknowns, Jeremy and I wanted real rigour of significant content and assessment, and had to very much hold each other to account throughout for our subject ‘non-negotiables’ that we had pre-identified. The changing nature of the planning process, client vs teacher rub and open problem threw numerous challenges against this and at times we were pulled or tempted away from our desired line of learning. However, we assessed each challenge under our clear design principle of being true to our subject content; if it didn’t develop non-fiction writing, algebraic skills or graph interpretation, we (mostly) didn’t do it.

So for all the things out of our control, we had to focus on what we could control: to control the controllables. For us, the controllables were mainly defined by a narrow, clear product and project brief; we were working to create a mathematical report into the impact of the proposed factories on air pollution in Newham. This product wouldn’t display all the learning that had taken place, but all the learning would be designed to create and improve the product.  This I believe is a key design principle of good PBL. For me as the English teacher in real terms this meant:

  • Rigorous development of voice and purpose in non-fiction writing and sentence control through mastery exercises (as written about in my most recent blog) and the use of shared writing as a norm.
  • Constant building of the skills required to comprehend challenging non-fiction. For this we used a range of newspaper articles on the project and the project’s grounding text, picked for it for its value as a model and for significant content and as a style/tone guide.
  • Growth of tier 2 vocabulary via weekly robust vocabulary sessions to benefit students for this project and beyond.

The other thing that helped with our control amidst the uncertainty was ensuring absolute clarity of role; we were purely the report generators, exploring the facts, analysing the data and interpreting and explaining it clearly. It also helped that we were working as a parts of a much wider edifice of people, each with a specific and genuine role in the project. For example, James Durrant of the OPCRD was our client spokesperson, Terry Paul our voice in the local council, Elsa Aristodemou our mathematician providing advanced models, Emilia Papadopoulos the BBC presenter reporting on our work; all of these people were not brought in inauthentically to help out, but were carrying out their actual jobs and roles around us, meaning we could be entirely, authentically, air pollution impact report writers. This importance of clarity of role is something that I think we must take forward into future projects.

Mathematician Elsa Aristodemou introducing the Gaussian Plume model to students in a seminar in December

3. Get comfortable in the uncomfortable: we should all teach maths

One of the things Jeremy and I have done throughout this project to ensure support, accountability and growth is to team teach/observe and feedback on one lesson a week each – so every other Wednesday Jeremy joined an English session and each other Thursday I joined his maths class. This began as observations, with feedback on our chosen students or craft area given in our weekly meeting, but over time morphed into team teaching, which brilliantly blurred the lines between our content.

We reflected the other week on how we had maintained this routine throughout the project with (genuinely!) no sense of loss of time or feeling we had other things to do – in reality it means the removal of between 2 and 3 free periods a week each. I think this is due to our genuine investment in each other’s practice and growth.  It really matters to Jeremy that my practice around robust vocabulary teaching for example is improving as we need students to thoroughly understand mathematical words like ‘assume’ or ‘vary’, and it seriously matters to me that Jeremy is thinking about the most effective ways to use talk in his lessons to ensure students are adept at verbalising what their graphs show.

Interestingly, aside of the obvious advantages of team teaching,  with feedback and learning through osmosis, there are also a powerful side benefit in being forced into the discomfort of teaching another subject. It was in attempting to teach maths that I suddenly found myself completely out of my comfort zone with my pedagogy. I think (though I am as yet unable to clearly articulate the what and why of this thought…) that there is something in this for our teaching. I suddenly couldn’t rely on my subject knowledge to be able to teach something and instead had to wrestle more deeply with the why behind students’ misunderstandings or confusion. I started noticing links between missing skills or misunderstandings in student’s conceptual understanding and really thinking about the barriers and blocks that stood in the way of progress.

4. Assess for the future, not the past

Of course,  it is not the final product in a project that provides any form of useful assessment; in this case, it’s a group created outcome, which has gone through 5 drafts and is not (and should not be) reflective of all the learning or all the assessable skills/content. I see it instead as a narrow slice of the learning, useful to the world as it’s genuine purpose intended, but useful to us purely as a teaching tool (much of the writing learning for example, came through critique and redraft of this document).

Instead, we assessed with a triangulated combination of ongoing class assessment, cold assessment of reading and writing at the end of the term and verbal viva style ‘story of learning’ assessments. This leaves us with a combination of narrative assessment comments and hard data, and a forensic understanding of their learning. These verbal assessments are my favourite part of each project – a 10 minute one-on-one conversation which reveals so much truth behind each student’s feeling and progress, which data alone cannot reveal.  In the past these have uncovered shaky understanding where the data implied solid growth, unexpected misconceptions, and sometimes progress that has gone unnoticed elsewhere. As we hone this practice, I think we now need to decide a) when is the ideal time to have these assessments so that we can identify and respond to gaps early  b) what are the right questions to ask in this viva assessments to inform future practice and c) how do we ensure this knowledge is fully used for future planning/future teachers of the group.

5. True purpose can kill

Fascinatingly, the huge real world success of our project also led to the death of certain elements of ‘gold standard’ PBL, most notably exhibition.  I haven’t yet decided if this matters or not. Our intended ‘exhibition’ was the presentation of the report at the LLDC’s planning committee meeting, however, this was swiftly cancelled when the students’ TV appearance and power of the public campaign led the LLDC to withdraw the plans before the meeting.

The abrupt end of the project left us with an interesting uncertainty; do we plough on and provide some form of exhibition for the students or end it there? We sort of chose both and neither, leaving an odd sense of loss for all involved! But its interesting to step back and notice the complete loss of purpose for both staff and students once the true purpose had been achieved – perhaps we didn’t need the exhibition because we didn’t need the motivation. The question that I feel remains is without public exhibition, how do we achieve the student accountability and testimony that this provides, and does this matter? Certainly something to consider.

Overall, the resonating impact for me (other than that on their writing) was on our students’ sense of self-efficacy and pride, and this is what the authentic purpose of this project brought about. This was put most succinctly by one student who is her story of learning assessment said: ‘I am proud of the fact that we are not having the concrete factories in Stratford. That makes me feel like I have had a good impact on the area I am living in.’

Students grappling with some tricky maths in an English lesson.


Mastery for a purpose

In my previous blog post I referenced the weekly ‘grammar gym’ mastery sessions that I have been doing with my concrete project group in year 9.  This developed out of watching primary teachers in my old school teaching sentence forms and then practicing them repeatedly. It was something I stole at the time and used with a year 11 group as practice, and have been playing with strategies of grammar mastery since then.

When I first taught the concrete project group in year 7, I began to use this strategy to teach the group some of the sentence structures and connectives that were missing from their toolkit of language at that time. It’s not something I’ve needed to do so explicitly before as a secondary teacher.  Yes, I’ve reviewed grammar rules, and taught the use of more complex sentence structures, but I’d never previously had to explicitly teach students to use more than simple unconnected sentences, and the very basics of connectives/constructing a sentence.  As time has gone on with this group, the skills we learn and repeat in the grammar gym (always within context of the project we are working on) have become increasingly sophisticated.

It’s been really interesting watching the impact of this weekly practice and instant feedback/instruction on students individual writing and shared writing.  See for example a selection of one student’s grammar gym work from across year 9 so far as he has got to grips with using  who or which to add more information into a sentence.

An early Grammar Gym from the term before the concrete project, when we first attempted these sentences. It’s clear that the purpose of this sentence structure is not understood at this point.


A heavily supported Grammar Gym from the same student early in the concrete project.

His independent attempt in this Grammar Gym displays his growing understanding of the purpose of this sentence structure and interestingly shows him punctuating accurately too.  He has taken on a really complex sentence in this, a significant growth in his control of language.

Completely independent from a few weeks ago! This doesn’t just show a memorising of a language form, but a conceptual growth.

His competence using complete sentences, commas to control subordinate clauses and his understanding of the function of such sentence structures have grown significantly from initial heavily supported attempts to completely independent craft.  And this competence is vital to the progress of these students; I’m actually not necessarily a huge fan of repeated grammar practice and drill but for these students, all of whom arrived at School 21 lacking some key skills for accurate and flexible communication and with gaps in language development, this internalising of language forms and structures is incredibly liberating and vital.

However, I’d argue that the increasing levels of competence of these students relate to the want and need they have for these skills: the purpose that the authentic project has provided. They need to be able to describe their maths accurately and fluently (an early foray out into Stratford to speak to the public about the factory proposal brought the group to the realisation that “we need to be really clear about what we mean – people don’t all understand maths…”). They want the LLDC to take them seriously and understand the findings their report has exposed. They need written fluency, eloquence and control. This brings me back to the interlinked need for competence, autonomy and relatedness in the project.  You can of course teach English from a competence alone stance, but when taking the importance of relatedness into account, there is suddenly a real purpose for these skills, a need for the competence to increase and a desire to graft away in order to do so.


The tip of the iceberg

I’ve just watched our year 9s on BBC London’s evening news talking about their project to create a report modelling the potential impact of three proposed new concrete factories on air pollution in our local area. It was brilliant to see them speaking eloquently, enthusiastically and earnestly about the project and the very real threat to our community that the plans pose. Excitingly, this amazing opportunity stemmed from the very scary uncontrollable authenticity I wrote about in my previous blog; it arose from an unexpected curve ball thrown at us in the client meeting with OPCRD member James Durrant at the start of this project. He asked, ‘how can you use the power of your youth voice to spread the word about these concrete factories?’  This was not part of our project plan.  We were writing a mathematical report. We sat on his question for some time, and it wasn’t until a sticking point in the maths that we returned to act on it.

A not so dead end

Three weeks before the Christmas holiday, we realised we had spent several weeks exploring an avenue for data collection that slowly revealed itself to be unhelpful. The obvious frustration of this for both us and the students also led to an issue in English; with no data coming through, we ran out of things to write up.  I felt really strongly that we should not engineer purposeless, inauthentic writing, and so in the 3 week gap that presented itself we turned out attention back to our parked thoughts on James’s challenge; how could we, 14 students and 2 teachers, spread the word to the thousands of people across London needed to meet the petition requirements?

Start spreading the news

One of the group’s initial ideas involved harnessing the power of national media to share our message. And, inspired by some of the article we had been reading in our reciprocal teaching sessions to learn about the project, they named the Guardian, BBC, Evening Standard and Newham Recorder as their targets. Achieving this however would require something outside of all our experience; what do you actually need to do to get serious press to cover your work?!

Some light googling revealed we needed to write a killer press release, so we set our sites on the start of the new year and began a 3 week process achieve this goal. This consisted of:

The first 2 drafts of our group written press release.

– Reciprocal teaching sessions a ‘how to write a press release’ article from the guardian which was formed into a checklist.

– A series of structured debates around what our news actually was and what we needed to get across.

– 4 drafts of a press release created through shared writing sessions with the whole group and mini teams within the group. The focus shifted on each critique and redraft from mimicking a newspaper tone (and writing in the 3rd person) through improving vocabulary with high level connectives to a formalising session. Students were editors, nit picking for commas around subordinate clauses or the correct usage of a semi-colon, and creators, arguing over the merits of one word over another for reader interest.

– Throughout, a continuation of our weekly contextualised ‘mastery’ sessions – from our ‘grammar gym’, practicing challenging new sentence forms to our ‘word of the week’, where new tier 2 vocabulary is learnt robustly.

One student’s grammar gym work focusing on using subordinating connectives.

Loosening the reins

The final press release was typed up and sent to the news agencies identified earlier in the term this Monday (we decided to wait for the January return to work so as to not get caught in a Christmas lull). In 24 hours we had a call from the BBC, and then another 24 hours on they were in filming the students. But the real success here for me is the rigourous teaching of authentic non-fiction writing that led up to this. It may have been an unplanned extra outcome, but the learning and mastery behind this product was what we have been working for and building to all term.

As I write this, the over-planned, control-hungry side of me still feels a niggling discomfort with the lack of pre-planning that this exposes. I still ask myself if this swerve is allowing anything to slip through the gaps or if this unplanned change of direction mid project damages continuity of learning. But I feel fairly confident that this is not the case. In fact, in the final outcome and the future writing of these students, I feel we will see significant benefits for this.

The tip of the iceberg?

It’s interesting though as when looking at a project, and particularly the moments of outcome, that much criticism is levelled at the learning that has taken place. Where is the rigour, people ask? What significant content have they actually explored?  How much did students actually do? And actually I think often this ‘product’ or outcome hides the wealth of work and craft that led up to this moment – it is the tip of the iceberg of the stuff we’re really grappling with; and the stuff we’re really proud of.

When nothing is concrete: planning for uncertainty

Maths teacher Jeremy Judge and I are currently 4 weeks into our new authentic learning project.  As mentioned in my previous post, our primary goal was to hit the ‘top’ of our authentic learning hierarchy and plan a project which is a real problem that students can meaningfully help to solve, making a difference to the world.

The problem? We have no problem!

Around June we set about looking for the perfect project opportunity but, acutely aware that we couldn’t force it, nothing quite right surfaced.  When Jeremy and I were about to  part ways for the summer holiday (him to South America and me pottering around the UK), we were both anxious about the looming reality that we might have set our sights too high. And then, on the Jubilee Line, somewhere between Stratford and Southwark, (with thanks to the Evening Standard) the ideal opportunity was right in front of me:


Problem solved?

Right on our doorstep, in the Olympic Park, the LLDC are proposing to build 3 concrete factories and one asphalt factory. Right now! Some light digging by Jeremy led us to a group of local residents fighting the plans, the Olympic Park Coalition for Responsible Development (OPCRD) and we contacted three of their team to see if there was anything we could do for them.

The meeting that followed was a brilliant mix of exciting and terrifying.  Here was a group of motivated people at the start of a live and very challenging fight. Here was a campaign reliant on knowledge that they didn’t yet have. Here was a vast problem yet to be solved. Here was a team with the very real question of how to stop the LLDC going ahead with the building of the concrete factories.

Their enthusiasm for commissioning the student group to work on part of this problem for them got things off the ground and we talked through the areas that they currently needed evidence for but didn’t have. The trio talked passionately about the very topical issue of air pollution and how this could be a significant factor in whether the plans get the go-ahead or not. This became our problem, and the OPCRD tasked us to produce a report as part of their pack of evidence that illustrates the impact of the proposed factories on air pollution in the area. We left that meeting with a wealth of enthusiasm and the guiding inquiry can our Maths help Stratford decide if concrete factories are too dirty?

Planning for uncertainty

The question that remains now, 4 weeks in, is how we plan for a problem that we as yet have no clear idea how to solve.  What do you do when a project is so authentic that you don’t know what the content of the outcome will be before you begin? You start with the things you do know: we know we need to write a report, and we know that at some point the LLDC will call a planning meeting where the report will be used; we know we need to find out how much impact the proposed factories will have on Stratford’s air and we know that we can use algebra to do this; we also know that our students can’t yet use algebra to mathematically model (a pre-requisite of the report) and have never written, or read, an environmental impact report.

This truly authentic project management schedule, with inflexible deadlines but no clear solutions (yet!) flies against the teacher’s reliance on being carefully planned in the short, medium and long term. The shifting goalposts of the LLDC’s moving meetings, and the prospect of dead ends in the problems solving are uncontrollable variables that we just have to work around. Our solution? Be completely up front about these threats with the students.  We are very much in this together – after all, sixteen minds are way better than two – and it is very much our project.

img_3150Back to this week, and we shared our progress so far in a client meeting with the OPCRD’s James Durrant. He spoke for 50 minutes and our students listened, engaged and focused, to every word.  They asked probing, thoughtful questions, and built a strong mental map of what we know and need to know. They were professional, inquisitive and serious.

They are driven, not demotivated, by the uncertainty ahead.  They know the risks, the threat of failure and the very real impact on their community and their lives that the factories could have.  But they also know that they could be a cog in the dissenting wheel against the LLDC’s might; they could change the face of Stratford forever.  Now we just need to work out how.