Perfect Pitch – Review of The Art of Poetry Vol 6 by Neil Bowen, Karen Elson, Neil Jones and Katherine Mortimore.

My family and I are about to relocate to Norfolk so that I can take up a post in a new school. When I visited earlier this term, I was delighted to discover that they teach AQA GCSE Literature – the specification which I have spent the last year getting to know. However, I soon discovered that there was a fly in the ointment: instead of Love and Relationships, the poetry cluster which I had become relatively expert in, my new department taught the Conflict cluster. I would have to start again from scratch.  That is why I was so eager to get my hands on a copy of The Art of Poetry Vol 6.

Upon beginning my investigation of the book, I was immediately struck by its format. Neil Bowen and his co-writers have aimed this book at students aiming for the very highest grade descriptors and their teachers. As such, they have eschewed the ‘usual’ format of and instead of breaking the poem down into theme, language, structure, etc. they have created a series of essays. Rather than following a formula, the weight given to any particular aspect of poetry is determined by the poem itself. As a result, each essay begins in a different way and focuses on different poetic elements, in the process providing an excellent model for our most able students.

I decided that I would have a look at an essay on a poem that I already ‘knew’ to see whether or not it offered any new insights and the essay on Ozymandias did not disappoint. By the time I had finished reading I felt a bit thick. The opening of the essay focuses on Shelley’s use of three narrators – the author if the inscription, the first person voice and the words put in the mouth of the subject of the sculpture. I had completely missed this, despite having taught the poem for a number of years. The analysis of this ‘Russian doll’ effect is astute and enlightening, as is the analysis of sound patterning which follows.

Next, I turned to the essay on Tissue. I was aware that some teachers were dreading the possibility of this being the named poem in the examination and when I read it, I could see why. The approach adopted by the writer of this essay is to model the process of literary exegesis, gradually bringing to light a coherent interpretation. By the time, I had finished reading I had a gained a toe-hold in a ‘difficult’ poem.

Aside from the essays, the writers have provided an excellent introduction to poetry appreciation which covers approaches to language, sound patterning, form, structure and rhythm. Each section is perfectly pitched for the more able reader. For the teacher, they have included ’14 ways of looking at a poem.’ The nod to Wallace Stevens is typical of a book which abounds with erudite quotations. Although I have been teaching for some years, some of these approaches were new to me.

At the back of the book there is help with connecting the poems and a list of revision activities, which I know I will be returning to in the new academic year.

In summary, this is an excellent resource for both teachers and more able pupils. Reading it has been some of the best subject knowledge CPD I have had for a while. I now intend to start with volume one and work my way through the series.

Literary Analysis – A Habit of Mind (or ‘Spidey-Sense)?

I introduced A Level Language and Literature a number of years ago and initially found it a liitle difficult to adjust to. I had always taught A Level Literature and the close, forensic analysis (stylistics) required by this new syllabus demanded a mental gear shift, which my education had not prepared me for. There followed a crash course in grammar, with which I had only a passing aquaintance, and linguistics, which strengthened my teaching not just KS5, but at every Key Stage and all ability levels.

However, this new found knowledge was not in itself enough. In order to become competent in stylistic analysis, it was necessary to cultivate what I have come to think of as ‘analytical habits of mind’ and, over the years, these habits have become ingrained. The trouble is that having achieved a level of expertise (at least relative to my starting point), I found it hard to break down the steps I took each time I analysed a sentence. In the early days, I would encourage pupils to ‘use their Spidey-sense.’ When reading a text, if their ‘spidey-sense’ tingled, they were to identify the source of the ‘tingling’ and then attempt to explain what caused the sensation, using the language of stylistic analysis. (I know. Don’t judge me)!

Needless to say, I soon realised that I was not teaching little, literary metal detectors. I had to find a new approach.

My solution was to encourage the development of this analytical habit of mind in my pupils, so that thinking about the mechanics of the sentence they had just read became second nature.

The first step, of course, was a crash course in lexis, grammar, semantics and phonology. The next step was to break down the processes of analysis and the final step was ‘practice’ and lots of it.

In order to break down the processes of analysis and to scaffold practive I made flow charts and I thought I’d share them with you. I have called them Mr. Lynn’s Analytical Engines and in my mind they are 3D and would not look out of place in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The reality is a little more mundane. The first includes a worked example. The second is intended for pupils to use to process their chosen quotations.

Mr Lynn's Analytical EngineClick here for the full sized PDF Mr Lynn’s Analytical Engine

Mr Lynn's Analytical Engine Minus ExampleClick here for the full sized PDF Mr Lynn’s Analytical Engine Minus Example

Please, comment if you feel that I am wrong in my analysis or application of grammatical terms. I love to talk about stylistics and I am always learning. Please let me know if you have found interesting ways in which to encourage pupils to engage with theh close analysis of texts.

Promoting Wider Reading Across the Curriculum

Reading TreeIn common with all schools , we have put a great deal of effort into promoting reading across the curriculum. Historically, this has been driven by the English department. However, more recently we have taken steps to involve all subject areas in this drive to promote ‘wider reading’ amongst the pupil population.

Promoting Reading through English

Accelerated Reader

For the last three years or so the English Department has used Accelerated Reader in order to track pupils’ progress in reading in years 7,8 & 9. The programme demands that all of the library stock is colour-coded according to difficulty. Pupils take a baseline test at the beginning of the year and are directed to choose texts from a colour range which will provide a sufficient level of challenge to ensure that they continue to develop as readers. Having read the book they take an online test and, at three points during the year, the baseline test is repeated to see whether or not they are ready to progress to the next colour range.

Pupils read silently for five minutes at the beginning of each English lesson and spend one a fortnight in the library. This is given over to discussing new genre, choosing books, reading testing and engaging in related activities, such as writing reviews. The programme is supported by our fantastic school librarians, Pat and Anne who promote reading by running competitions and helping pupils choose books. The pupils themselves keep a reading log, which parents sign to indicate that reading homeworks have been completed. The log also provides guidance for parents on how to support their children in their reading.

Some of the benefits of Accelerated Reader

Transition: pupils will have usually taken part in similar programmes at junior school.

Purpose: the programme ensures that pupils’ reading is purposeful and promotes their progress as readers. It helps avoid that situation in which pupils repeatedly choose to read books with minimal challenge.

Parents evenings:  the data provided by the programme is used at parents evenings as a focus for discussion.


The programme is expensive and requires the commitment of the English department if it is to run successfully. This requires the constant vigilance of English teachers in ensuring that pupils choose books within their range and ‘test’ regularly. This is a further burden on over-worked English teachers. However, in my experience, when teachers can see the positive effects of their hard work – particularly in this key area, they are prepared to take on this additional responsibility.

Promoting different genre

It has often been noted that while people are very happy to identify themselves as poor in Maths they would not be as keen to admit to difficulty in reading. What is more, we have noticed what may be a related phenomenon: increasingly pupils and adults are very comfortable announcing that they don’t read. This is a disturbing development and there is no simple solution.  However, we believe that part of the problem is that pupils do not know what to read. We ask them to choose a book and they don’t really know where to start.

In order to address, this our fantastic Literacy Co-ordinator,  Yvonne Daley, has developed leaflets introducing key genre, such as Horror. Each leaflet contains extracts from classics of the genre, as well as the more recent examples, including genre mash-ups. These leaflets serve to introduce a half termly genre focus and underpin activities, which take place during library lessons.

Developing the Library to Promote Reading

Reading Trees

This is an idea borrowed from Steve Wilshaw . Our Head of Art has contributed to our drive to promote reading by painting beautiful trees in our Lower School and Upper School libraries. Hanging from the branches, in ascending order of difficulty,  are all of those literary texts which have influenced The Hunger Games. At the very top of the tree is Zola’s dystopian novel, Germinal. Pupils have been challenged by our librarians to ‘climb’ to the very top of the tree and many have taken up that challenge.

Cross-curricular Displays

The English Department has worked with the ICT Department in order to create book trailers which play on the library screens.

Each term, one of our departments contributes a display to the library, which promotes the books that they are currently reading and which may or may not be subject specific.

Cross-curricular Wider Reading

Our most recent innovation in promoting wider reading across the curriculum is the Cross-curricular Wider Reading Research Project (see above).  Each subject has created a Y7 project which requires that pupils engage in wider reading around the topic. Departments provide a reading list and pupils are required to provide a bibliography with their finished project. Not only does this promote wider reading within the subject, it also develops the skills of scholarship that we, as a school, are so keen to promote.

Wider reading project

The Science Department used extracts from the novel Frankenstein in order to frame their project, Can We Create Life?


Building a Whole School Culture of Scholarship


I have been teaching at my current school since 2001 and I love it. It is a fantastic school and the staff and pupils are brilliant. However, while the vast majority of our pupils are determined to achieve a good crop of GCSE grades by the end of Y11, I have often been struck by the lack of a real thirst for learning for learning’s sake. And, as a teacher of English, I have been frustrated by some pupils’ lack of knowledge or even interest  in politics and culture. This matters hugely. As @websofsubstance says here  , ‘knowledge is what you think with.’ Not only that but a lack of cultural knowledge can lock pupils out of texts, particularly at A Level. Even more worrying is the fact that ‘what you know’ impacts on your self image; the kind of people you feel comfortable with and, by extension, the path you follow after school: a lack of cultural capital can place a ceiling on a pupil’s aspirations.

I had been thinking about this problem for some time when I happened to hear Ruth Powley, a DHT in Wallasey, speaking about her approach to developing More Able pupils at her school, Weatherhead. Inspired by her approach, I have spent the year working with colleagues to take the first steps in building a culture of ambition and scholarship amongst the student population.

Creating an Inclusive Year 7 Scholarship Programme

We took  as our starting point the Y7 Most Able cohort – a group of around 15 pupils with an average of 5A in English and Maths and a CATs score of 115 or over. We prioritised those pupils with high ‘non verbal’ CATs scores. Having identified this group, we then included Pupil Premium pupils who had achieved high SATs scores at the end of Y6 or who achieved high scores in CATs testing. These pupils were to form the core cohort.  I then went into Y7 assemblies to introduce the programme to Y7 and to invite pupils to nominate themselves.

I introduced the following rationale:

The purpose of the programme is:

  • to harness the ambition and academic purpose of pupils joining the school;
  • to celebrate and promote a scholarly attitude to learning;
  • to develop the skills associated with scholarship;
  • to build cultural capital;
  • to work in partnership with parents and guardians;
  • to develop a group identity within the scholarship programme.


We opted to use the language of scholarship because we felt it emphasised the role of hard work, determination and independence in academic success and the cohort – now forty strong – was divided into ‘Scholarship Forms’ each with its own form tutor, who would act as a mentor to their form and as a point of contact for the pupils and their parents. Tutors would also review the progress of their charges at each whole school reporting point and be a presence at parents evenings.

All pupils undertook to meet fortnightly to attend ‘lectures’ aimed towards building their cultural capital and to complete the Edexcel Level 1 project, in order  to develop the skills of scholarship, such as independent research .

At the first of these meetings pupils took part in an ambition audit – one of Ruth Powley’s fantastic ideas –and where appropriate the results were communicated to the relevant department. If one of our pupils dreams of being an astronaut, the Science department should be aware of it.

One of the best things about this project is that staff have really got behind it: our Head of Physics lectured on time travel and one of our brilliant English teachers spoke about The Nose by Gogol. Pupils have also enjoyed talks on the political situation in the Congo and the treatment of snake bite victims. They have also been given a tour of Anfield cemetery by a local historian. It has certainly been an eclectic programme, but our scholars have responded very positively indeed. This coming year, I intend to rope parents in to speak on their areas of expertise.

What next?

Our intention is to grow the programme – creating vertical forms with the incoming Year 7 scholars. This will create opportunities for peer to peer mentoring and we envisage our established scholars leading workshops on scholarship skills, such as independent research.

My hope is that as our scholars develop a group identity and grow in confidence, the programme will begin to have an impact that extends beyond the relatively small number of pupils who are directly involved.

I’d be grateful for any suggestions about how to take the project forward.



A Favourite Classroom Resource








I love using images in the classroom and I have a collection of photographs, rich in metaphorical potential, that you can put to use in a variety of ways. You can access them all by clicking below.

Using Images to Support Literacy

Photographs can be used as a spring-board for creative writing. They can be used to help pupils who find a text difficult to access find an entry point into a poem or story. An excellent example of this approach can be found here: . This resource was created by Penny (@digitaldaisies) and she also asks her classes to collect their images to illustrate other poems that they are studying. She has also asked pupils to create displays of images and their own ‘poetic’ sentences.

Using Images to Explore Character & Theme

One approach is to spread out all of the photographs (if you’ve clicked on the link you will see that there are lots to choose from) and to ask the pupils to choose the photograph which best represents a particular theme or a particular character at a given point in a novel or play. For instance, one member of my class chose two empty chairs in a derelict room to stand for Francis Cassavante – the protagonist in Cormier’s novel, Heroes. She explained that the picture represented his isolation, the desolation of his past and his longing for Nicole, also absent. It was a breakthrough moment.


Using Images as an Ice-Breaker

I hate ‘ice breaker’ activities as much as the next sentient teacher, but if you find yourself tasked with delivering CPD to a resentful and uncommunicative rabble, you can put these photographs to good use. Just spread the photographs around and ask your victims to choose the image which most resonates with them at that precise point in their life/day /career. When I began my MLDP training sessions with this activity and asked delegates to choose an image which reflected how they felt about their careers, popular images included be-suited tightrope walkers, drowning men and unexploded bombs. Of course, not all of the photographs chosen were quite so negative, but when I asked the teachers that I was working with to articulate the reasons why they had been drawn to a particular image, it provided an excellent opportunity to talk about some of the challenges and uncertainties that they faced during their working lives. At other training workshops I have asked the delegates to choose a second photograph at the end of the session to reflect any changes in their thinking. It works a treat.

And because it worked so well with adults, I tried it with the pupils too.

I used the same approach with a class that I felt was ‘going wrong’ . The pupils were tired;  Iwas tired and the wheels were coming off.  I needed a mid-year new start and the opportunity for talk which the photographs provided worked a little like a sorbet, cleansing our collective learning palette. Things were immediately more positive.

I have also used the same approach with pupils at the beginning of Y10. I asked them to choose the image which reflected their hopes and fears at the beginning of KS4. Just for the hell of it, I asked them to write haiku based on the images and the thoughts and feelings which they inspired. I had pre-judged some of these pupils and I was moved by the open and straightforward way in which they spoke about their feelings. They all wanted to succeed AND they wrote some beautiful poetry.

Developing CPD as a Whole School (Growth) State of Mind

Never Stop Learning

In September, I will take up a new post as Assistant Headteacher at my current school. Amongst other things, I will have responsibility for developing aspects of school life which will impact directly on the culture of learning in the whole school. These responsibilities include, provision for ITT, NQT and RQTs; pupil researchers; provision for the Most Able; the Learning to Learn curriculum and CPD. So, while I will not be ultimately responsible for determining the direction of Learning and Teaching (my dream job), I will play an important part in growing a learning culture amongst both pupils and staff. Not only, that but I will be a part of the CPD steering group for the Teaching School Alliance of which my school is a member. There are exciting times ahead.

Alex Quigley (@huntingenglish) once told me that, for him, blogging was thinking and so it is my intention to try and think through every aspect of my new role in a series of posts. As this will be an exercise in ‘thinking out loud’, please make allowances if my ideas are sometimes unfocused or contradictory. After all, that’s just the way that evolving thought is, isn’t it? It goes without saying that I would welcome any suggestions or feedback.

agriculture. plant in a hand


The overarching aim must be to contribute to an ethos in which both students and staff are fully engaged in their own learning journeys.

Like @kevbartle, who has written eloquently about the need to abandon the ‘deficit model of teacher development’ here, I believe that teachers have been de-professionalised by a National Strategies model of CPD and an increasingly aggressive Ofsted framework. The idea has arisen that there is one way to teach and that many teachers fall short in respect of this model. This is connected to an equally toxic idea – that there are ‘outstanding’ teachers and then the ‘others.’ The result is that teachers are disempowered and de-professionalised – they experience CPD as something which is ‘done to them’. As a result, many excellent staff are alienated from their own professional development and this is a huge obstacle to school improvement.

I believe that schools need to create an ethos in which CPD is a state of mind – a growth mindset shared by all teachers in a school – one which is committed to day to day reflective practice and mutual support. The question is, how do we go about achieving this?

First of all, we must communicate the message that there are no outstanding teachers – there is only outstanding teaching and everyone of us can aspire to that. This begs the question, how can we best support staff to explore different ways of strengthening their classroom practice?

Developmental Observations

My ideal state of affairs would be to make a clear distinction between developmental (formative) observations and judgemental (summative) observations. Dylan WIlliams and Hattie both point to the power of effective formative assessment in developing pupils .Surely adults are no different. A culture of developmental walk throughs or formative observations might go some way to dispelling the sense of threat which surrounds observation. Perhaps staff would come to see formative observation in the same way that a professional golfer might regard their programme of coaching: as both essential for success and a professional ‘right.’ Zoe Elder has written about her concept of MOT observations here.

Celebrate the Strengths of All Staff

Leaving this state of ‘Nirvana’ to one side for the moment, a programme of peer to peer coaching seems to me to be essential. Hattie points to the positive impact of peer to peer teaching and I am certain that this would be no different for teachers. One approach would be to train those teachers who are judged consistently outstanding as coaches and pair them with teachers who are ‘stuck’ at ‘satisfactory’ or ‘good’. This would work. Because it is ‘in-school’ there is scope for that essential on-going dialogue which is lacking from one-off, externally provided inset. So far, so good. However,the danger is that this approach would only serve to reinforce the idea that there are ‘outstanding’ teachers and the rest of us.

An alternative approach might be to cast the net more widely and identify those aspects of outstanding practice in the teaching of all our colleagues, particularly those more experienced staff who have been reluctant to engage with new pedagogy . Just because a teacher is not judged ‘outstanding’ overall, there may well be aspects of her classroom practice which are outstanding: for instance – her ability to ‘explain’ a complex idea effectively – or to plan group activities. These teachers could be paired with colleagues for whom group work or explanation is an area of challenge (I recently heard the phrase ‘strength gap’! I’m not kidding!). This would send a powerful message to all staff.


Another approach to generating a pedagogical buzz amongst staff that has impressed me greatly is that adopted by Calderstones High School in Liverpool. At Calderstones, departments have a Twitter account which they use to promote the work of the department. This may take the form of a picture of pupils engaged in a classroom activity, with an accompanying explanation. These tweets are then collated with a hashtag and retweeted by the Calderstones teaching and Learning account (@caldiesTandL). As I understand it, pupils do not follow these accounts, but I think that the impact is as follows: the requirement to promote the department’s work through the medium of Twitter has led to the development of a more reflective pedagogical culture in the school. I would also imagine that the exposure to Twitter has led to those departments who are proactive in this way, making contact with other tweachers working in the same discipline. Twitter has reinvigorated my classroom practice and enabled me to become a more creative, purposeful and effective teacher and I believe that it could work a similar magic on a whole school basis. If you’re not following the Calderstaones suite of Twitter accounts, you’re missing out. Search @caldies… and you’ll never look back.

Pupil Researchers

The idea of pupil ‘voice’ can raise the hackles of some teachers and it is incumbent upon SLT to be mindful of these sensitivities. Staff must not feel that students are placed in the position of judging staff – nor should pupils be put in that position.Instead, it should be a collaborative exercise. David Rogers has written compellingly about his school’s approach here. I am not sure about the wisdom of using pupils as part of the interview process and I am certain that they should not, as some have suggested, play any part in the appraisal process which determines teacher’s pay.  However, it is clear to me that if we are to develop a genuine, whole school, growth mindset, that dialogue between staff and pupils is essential.

I think that Lesson Study could represent a positive starting point. As with so many things, I learnt about this approach from reading Rachael Stevens’ (@murphiegirl) blog. According to this model, two teachers plan together to secure the progress of three identified children who represent the full spectrum of ability in that class. One teacher watches the lesson and feedback from the children is solicited. Just as with developmental observations – no grades are involved and the focus is on the learning and not on the individual teacher. Because the focus is on learning and what aspects of the lesson pupils felt helped them to learn rather than on the teacher’s ‘performance’ and because the teachers themselves solicit this feedback from the pupils, it is a transparent and learning focused model which might go some way towards convincing staff of the value of this kind of dialogue and dispelling the suspicion surrounding pupil involvement.


I am convinced that targets can be a barrier to the development of a growth mindset for both staff and pupils. Pupils often see them as a ceiling on their aspirations and as such they can be determinant of outcomes. The same can apply to teachers who set their expectations of pupils on the basis of their target.

David Didau, @learningspy, has written about countering this through the use of the transition matrices that any school data manager can access. Read about it here.

G 1.% F 1.% E 1.% D 6.6% C31.7% B 39.2% A 18.2% A* 3.5%

If targets are issued to pupils in this format and recorded in exercise books, they might form a useful focus for discussion between pupils and their teachers. The floor target can still be identified, but the pupil can see what a more focused approach might achieve. Equally they can see what might be the consequence of a poor work ethic. I’m planning to trial this in September with the English Department.





Heads We Don’t/ Heads We Do – A ‘Can Do’ CPD Planning Workshop

Smiley QueenIn September I will take up my new post as Assistant Head Teacher (I am, as I type, fretting over a post about this new role, so watch this space).  As I will be staying put, I am currently riding two horses: carrying out my responsibilities as Curriculum Leader for English AND gradually transitioning into the new role.

As a member of SLT, I will play a role in the development of the Teaching School Alliance of which we are member and, because of this, I was asked to put together a planning workshop for the Head Teachers and SLT of the schools in that alliance.

I won’t lie. This was quite a daunting prospect and I have decided to blog about it a) because I’m quite pleased with what I put together and I think both activities have practical classroom applications; b) because the workshop is testament to the power of Twitter and the overwhelming generosity of the tweachers that I have come into contact with and, finally, c) because I think I have survived unscathed.

Grumpy Queen


The question that I posed to the delegates was: what would you like joint practice in staff development to look like across the Teaching School Alliance in 2 Years Time? The idea was that they would imagine what was possible if there were no obstacles or constraints.

Because I knew that the delegates had been cooped up in the room since 9.30 listening to one speaker after another, I decided that I would adopt the World Cafe approach to the workshop. Now, although the inventors of World Cafe have written a book about it that is the size of the King James Bible, essentially it goes like this:

Arrange the tables with paper table cloths; felt tips and marker pens and coffe and biscuits. The aim is to kid your groups into imagining that they are seated around a cafe table on the Left Bank in the hope that they will forget that they are in a classroom or a conference venue and engage in lively productive conversation. As it was the fag-end of the year and the end of a long day, I decided that they would need a little more stimulation and so I created packs of ‘kick cards’ (an idea nicked from Brain Eno and our Learning to Learn curriculum), which they could pick up to prompt new lines of enquiry or restart a stalled conversation.

The core questions included questions like: What role might curriculum hubs play? What role might SLEs play? What role might technology play? What might Quality Assurance look like? What role might technology play? What role might data play? What can Secondary schools learn from Primary schools? What role might cross phase coaching play?

In addition to these, very worthy and focused questions, I included prompts used by Eno in his Oblique Strategies cards: Work at a different speed; What would your closest friend do? Are there sections? Consider transitions; What to increase? What to reduce? Only one element of each kind; Try faking it; Honour they error as a hidden intention; Use an old idea; Ask your body and so on…

I will admit to hesitating over the inclusion of, ‘Try faking it.’ Memories of When Harry Met Sally gave me pause. I put it in anyway. I live my life on the edge!

CPD Kick Cards

After 15 minutes, during which the groups scrawled all over their paper table cloths, creating diagrams, drawing pictures and writing down their ideas, I brought proceedings to a halt and asked one person in each group to stay in their seats while everybody else found a new table. It was their responsibility to tell their new group members what the discussion had revolved around on their table and elucidate the hieroglyphics left behind on the paper cloths.

I then recorded some feedback from each group on a flip chart.

The next stage couldn’t have happened without Pete Jones – @pekabelo – an inspiring and generous Art specialist and AHT from Jersey. My Deputy Head teacher suggested using a flipped coin approach (also drawn from our Learning to Learn programme). Because the existing resource was of poor quality, I asked Pete if he would photoshop a pound coin with a smiley monarch on one side and a grumpy monarch on the other. He did and the results can be found here:

MADCOS workshop

Groups worked with the grumpy side up A3 coins (which looked brilliant) writing down all of the obstacles mitigating against effective Joint Practice Development. After a few minutes, I asked them to turn the coins over and annotate the smiley faces with ways that they could overcome these obstacles. I then took more feedback.

The planning shop was, I think, a success and I am certain that the coin resource created by Pete Jones does have a classroom application. I can imagine myself using it to develop radically different readings of a text or to create an alternative plot ending. World Cafe is definitely worth a go in the classroom too.

I’ll keep you posted on developments in our TSA.


SOLO Stations, Havisham and the Talking Cure?


Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then
I haven’t wished him dead. Prayed for it
so hard I’ve dark green pebbles for eyes,
ropes on the back of my hands I could strangle with.

Spinster. I stink and remember. Whole days
in bed cawing Nooooo at the wall; the dress
yellowing, trembling if I open the wardrobe;
the slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself, who did this

to me? Puce curses that are sounds not words.
Some nights better, the lost body over me,
my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear
then down till suddenly bite awake. Love’s

hate behind a white veil; a red balloon bursting
in my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding cake.
Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.
Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.

Carol Ann Duffy

Before I begin, I need to make it absolutely clear that I am not holding this sequence of lessons up as an example of ‘outstanding’ practice. Having said that, it certainly represents progress in terms of my own engagement with SOLO and I feel confident that not only did the pupils enjoy the lessons, they also learnt a good deal about the poem and, in some cases at least, overcame their fear of tackiling ‘difficult’ poetry independently.

I have been experimenting with SOLO taxonomy since September and my pupils have responded well. I have seen the positive impact of the approach reflected in the development of a shared pedagogical language; greater engagement and, above all, deeper learning. The following lesson was my third or fourth attempt at SOLO stations, an approach I picked up from @totallywired77, @lisajaneashes and @learningspy. However, each time I have made the mistake of trying to move the pupils from prestructural to extended abstract in the space of an hour. As a result, the pupils made progress and learning took place, but there was little time for reflection and, therefore, not much in the way of deep thinking. I blame this on what I have come to think of as the ‘forward momentum’ of SOLO. Extended abstract exerts a powerful gravitational pull and the temptation is to try to get there as quickly as possible. The trouble is that this inevitably comes at the expense of deeper thinking. Time for reflection has to be factored into the SOLO stations approach if genuine learning is to take place.

So, my first aim in planning the lesson sequence was not to rush things. My second aim was to encourage my poetry-phobic Y10 pupils to engage with a difficult poem in a purposeful way. As this poem was the first text that we would study in preparation for a controlled assessment, the focus of which was to be the representation of love in two poems by Carol Anne Duffy:  Havisham and Human Interest and the early scenes of Romeo and Juliet, I was keen to encourage them to engage with the poetry independently. Firstly, because this was the best way to encourage them to develop a personal response and secondly because, whether they liked it or not, they would have to work with unseen poetry in their literature exam. I hoped that SOLO would provide a scaffold for their learning and that the SOLO stations approach would enable them to decide upon their own entry point and to progress through the levels at their own speed. Finally, I wanted to make a differentiated approach to literacy integral to the unit and I hoped that the SOLO connectives would enable me to do this.

Having recently read ‘Oops! Helping Children to Learn Accidentally’, I remain very much under the influence of the book’s author, Hywel Roberts. In Oops, Hywel talks about the importance of building anticipation and creating imaginary contexts for learning and I decided that this approach would help me engage my disaffected Y10s.

Lesson 1

In the first lesson I introduced the ‘Big Question’ which we would keep returning to during our preparation for the CA, namely ‘Is love a mental illness?’ This generated a good deal of very interesting discussion. Next, we talked about the role of psychoanalysts in treating mental illness by interpreting the dreams, behaviour and language of their patients. I called one of the pupils out to the front of the class. I had prepared him earlier and he related a dream in which he was in his home town and speaking in his mother tongue, but no one could understand a word he said – not even his family. We then discussed possible interpretations of his ‘dream’. Finally, I explained that in the following lesson they would be working with footage and a transcript of a patient and attempting to reach a diagnosis. The result was a satisfying sense of anticipation amongst the members of the class.

Lesson 2

At the beginning of the next lesson, I reminded the class of the ‘Big Question’ before screening a clip from David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations and, having asked the pupils to underline vocabulary that they were unsure of, I read the poem. Pupils fed back and I clarified terms like ‘spinster’ and ‘slewed.’ Next, I explained that they were to take on the role of psychoanalysts. They would work through a series of station/ tasks designed to help them focus with gradually increasing depth on the language and behaviour of ‘the patient’ as presented in the transcript/ poem. Once they had identified, listed, analysed and explained aspects of Mrs Havisham’s behaviour and language, the final outcome would be a ‘report’ on the patientI briefly reminded them of our agreed protocols for SOLO stations and told them that, while they could begin at any station, the point was not to ‘progress’ as fast as they could through the levels, but to develop as deep an understanding of the patient’s plight as possible – this might necessitate returning to the unistructural and multistructural stations to gather more ‘knowledge’.

Pupils carried a psychoanalyst’s ‘notebook’ with them in order to record their ideas and assess their progress against SOLO self assessment rubrics which were tailored to each station. They then decided where they wanted to start based on their assessment of their current understanding. All of the stations were clearly identified, so that pupils could navigate the room with ease and as had been the case in previous attempts, those pupils who had been a little ambitious in their self assessment adjusted their starting points quickly.

There were two prestructural tables, which were strewn with confetti and images of Mrs Havisham from various adaptations and illustrations. There were also copies of the extract from Great Expectations and paper tissue boxes complete with strips of paper containing additional information regarding Mrs. Havisham (an idea I nicked from David Didau’s excellent blog) .There were also multistructural and relational tables. At one multistructural station, pupils worked with the text highlighting examples of oxymorons, similes, metaphors and onomatopoeia and exploring what they told us about Mrs Havisham’s state of mind. At one of the relational stations pupils worked with the blacked-out shape of the poem, exploring how that might connect with Mrs Havisham’s behaviour and use of language in the poem as a whole. Most importantly of all, each ‘station’ had an objective and an outcome and its own SOLO self assessment rubric. This meant that even if the task was geared towards gathering multistructural information, pupils could potentially achieve at an extended abstract level of thinking. For instance, in the case of a task that required pupils to ‘identify’ (unistructural) and ‘list’ (multistructural) the things that Mrs Havisham ‘did’, they could still develop an understanding of how her relative lack of activity – she sits and ‘stinks’; ‘caws’ at the walls and opens a wardrobe – could be connected with the powerlessness of women in a patriarchal, Victorian society (extended abstract). Unfortunately, not one of the little critters came up with that! Pupils understood that they were to take time out between stations to self assess, reflect and develop their ideas. You will perhaps have noticed that I have not referred to any extended abstract stations. That’s because there weren’t any. In attempt to slow things down, I had decided to save this final level for the third lesson in the sequence.

Lesson 3

In the third and final lesson, pupils worked in small groups with their notebooks, discussing and developing their ideas. I then supplied differentiated writing frames for the report and relational connectives for the main body of the text and extended abstract connectives for the diagnostic conclusion. Pupils had to refer to their notes in order to write about the background to Mrs Havisham’s breakdown, her behaviour and her language. In the conclusion, pupils drew on all of the information to develop a hypothesis or a diagnosis, using extended abstract connectives.

The Verdict

This was an improvement on my previous experiments with SOLO stations lessons. There was time for reflection and each station was differntiated using the SOLO self assessment rubric. As a result pupils were engaged and produced good work. However, the psychoanalytical ‘frame’ for the lesson meant that the final product did not read like literary criticism and could be seen as an unnecessary distraction. This may have been a flaw in my planning: after all, this was preparation towards Controlled Assessment. However, they enjoyed adopting the role of psychotherapists: the pace of work was productive and there was understanding; there was analysis and pupils were mostly able to pull it all together into something approaching a hypothesis or diagnosis, which explained the elements of the poem and the connectives seemed to work well.

If I’m honest, I think that the sequence was a little ‘busy’ – it certainly took a lot of preparation – and in future I will adopt a more pared down approach. I would also avoid using the psychoanalytical frame as an over-arching approach to analysis of thge poem. Although the pupils enjoyed it and the idea of reaching a diagnosis leant purpose to their reading, it was in the final analysis a distraction.



The Case for SOLO taxonomy

I have just finished reading David Didau’s recent posts on ‘progress’ versus ‘learning’ – The Problem With Progress – which you can find here, here and here. Taking as his starting point @kevbartle’s brilliant post on progress, @learningspy asks what is more important? Learning or progress? He goes on to explore various ways in which we can improve learning – even if comes at the expense of our ability to ‘demonstrate progress.’ It is a timely corrective and, as I read, I could almost feel the seismic vibrations of pedagogical plates shifting.

It is in the third of these posts that David refers to SOLO:

“I’m going a bit off-script here, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that SOLO taxonomy is most effectively used to plan learning outcomes; many of the tricks and gimmicks involved in explicitly teaching students about the taxonomy should, perhaps, be bypassed to concentrate on expanding students’ domain knowledge.

There, I’ve said it. I find SOLO incredibly valuable in helping me plan and organise a curriculum, but much of the time I was previously putting into teaching the taxonomy itself was based on the flawed belief that it would help students demonstrate progress. And make no mistake, it is great for getting students to demonstrate progress; but of what? If I accept that learning takes time and needs to build on a firm foundation of knowledge then there really isn’t any value in prompting students to show they’re able to more from multi-structural to extended abstract in a single lesson. All this demonstrates is the progress they’ve made in their ability to perform a particular task at a particular time. True extended abstract thinking develops over time. This is of course something we should plan for and it seems a sensible use of time within a spaced, interleaved curriculum that we should plan to take students on a journey from knowing very little, to knowing a lot, to being able to apply this knowledge in new and interesting ways.”

Cards on table: I love SOLO taxonomy. I was immediately drawn to its cool hieroglyphics and I found its simplicity refreshing. It had none of the confusing overlaps of Bloom’s taxonomy (identify appears in knowledge, comprehension & analysis) and it seemed to me, right from the get go, that this was potentially a very powerful teaching tool.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t have my concerns: I worried that it could turn out to be an artificial and ultimately unnecessary overlay on learning; I worried that what I took for beautiful simplicity was actually crude and formulaic; I worried that it would rule out other approaches to learning and teaching and I worried that it would not leave room for creativity. But once I tried it out in the classroom, I discovered that all of these anxieties had been misplaced. My pupils readily embraced it and it worked like a dream. However, as it was through the Learning Spy blog that I first discovered SOLO, alarm bells inevitably rang when I read about his new thinking on the subject.

Now, I recognize that David Didau has not consigned SOLO to the pedagogical scrap heap. He is simply questioning the value of devoting lesson time to ‘teaching’ the taxonomy with a view to using it to demonstrate ‘progress’. Indeed, he affirms the value of SOLO as a template for planning. However, my anxiety is that if we dispense with teaching the pupils the structures and terminology of SOLO, we reduce the power of this pedagogy and do our pupils a real disservice.

The ability to make progress visible is only the most superficial of the benefits that SOLO brings with it. The real power of this taxonomy lies in its ability to empower pupils in their own learning and to foster greater independence and resilience. There is something incredibly powerful in what I have come to think off as the forward momentum that is a defining aspect of this taxonomy and that is contained in the implied progress from prestructural to extended abstract. This is another of the key differences between Bloom’s and SOLO – the idea of progression between the levels is in inherent in SOLO and pupils grasp this quickly.

In my experience it takes next to no time to introduce SOLO. Following a simple card sorting exercise (see @totallywired77’s blog), the structures are embedded by means of their practical application in real time lessons. The pedagogy is never the point of the lesson – it is simply a scaffold for learning and it surprising how quickly they take ownership of the terminology. Once the penny has dropped and they understand the progression between the levels they actively want to move between the levels. I knew this to be true the first time a child approached me in class and said that he was working at a relational level, but needed additional support in moving to extended abstract (honest, it happened).

Having said all that, David Didau is undoubtedly right: the progress which pupils enact in moving from prestructural to extended abstract is not necessarily ‘real’ or lasting. Indeed, it is the irresistable forward momentum of SOLO that can lead teachers to devise lessons in which pupils cover all of the stages from prestructural to extended abstract in just an hour.The trick is to slow down and to resist the temptation to rush pupils through the levels. As with any other lesson in which peer and self is key, it is essential to ‘quality assure’ pupils’ assessments. Just because you’ve asked your pupils to stick their personalised post-it notes on the board under the SOLO symbol which reflects their current understanding, it does not follow that their assessment is reliable. An easy way to address this is to ask for a show of hands for each level and to challenge individuals to articulate why they think they are at such and such a level and then to ask pupils to reflect on this and reconsider where they would place themselves.

SOLO has given my pupils a sense of purpose and an independence in their learning which was often lacking. I don’t use it all the time – only when its appropriate. I am also aware that I have a great deal left to learn: I am yet to get to grips with SOLO as a tool for improving writing, but as a structure to support pupils in the close analysis of texts and the development of a personal response I have found it invaluable. This improvement in performance may, as @huntingenglish pointed out, be an example of the Hawthorne effect – the teacher’s enthusiasm for the new plus the pupils’ sense of being selected for something ‘special’ equals improvement in outcomes – but as time has gone on and SOLO has become a mainstay of my classroom repertoire, I’m inclined to think not. I have come to believe that there is something inherently empowering in this learning and teaching taxonomy. SOLO taxonomy does not get in the way of learning. It enhances learning by empowering pupils to take responsibility for their own progression.

So, here are just a few reasons to give SOLO a whirl: it is a brilliant way for teachers to plan lesson outcomes which moves from the superficial (quantitative) to the deep (qualitative); progress from one SOLO level to the next is implicit. Pupils get caught up in its forward momentum; it provides a common language for learning which helps teachers and students understand progress; it is fantastic for differentiation. See @lisajaneashes blog on how pupils can self-differentiate using SOLO;SOLO verbs and connectives make it very easy to integrate literacy objectives seamlessly into planning;it makes group work more purposeful, particular when work is focused on HOT maps;it is brilliant for peer and self assessment and feedback and feedforward.

Last but not least, members of the Maths department are quite put out when they see English teachers running around with armfuls of hexagons and this can only be a good thing!

Peer Review – Aiming for the ‘Bull’s Eye’

Say what you like about Sir Michael Wilshaw, it is hard to dispute that he has done the teaching profession a favour by addressing certain ‘myths’ about what ‘Good’/ ‘Outstanding’ teaching looks like. These ‘myths’ are summarised succinctly by the consistently ‘outstanding’ @murphiegirl in her post, Ofted for Humans: “lessons need to be fast-paced; lessons need to be packed with a range of activities; lesson plans need to be massively detailed; you should not deviate from your plan; learning needs to be reviewed every 10 minutes; the lesson has to be perfect.” Also consigned to the Ofsted dustbin are the ideas that lessons should be divided into three parts with a starter, development and a plenary and that objectives should be displayed on the board. A wise tweacher, whose name eludes me, tweeted that ‘the standardisation of teaching is the death of teaching.’ Finally, it seems that the powers that be have caught up! Wilshaw’s remarks are liberating. He has freed us to reclaim our classrooms and to focus on what works. This is great news for teachers.

Recently, he has gone even further, commenting in the Telegraph that inspectors “don’t see enough extended reading and extended writing” in English lessons. This has prompted a good deal of debate in our department staffroom: it’s all very well saying that inspectors want to see extended writing, but how would this work in practice? How would it be possible to evidence impact and progress in a lesson focused on extended writing?

After much head scratching in my department, we decided that the answer lay in peer assessment and careful redrafting. Not only would this help to embed the culture of craftsmanship written about so eloquently by @huntingenglish, but it would also enable us to nurture our pupils’ intellectual resilience through structured peer scrutiny (see Zoe Elder’s inspirational Full on Learning for Further details). 

Anyway, the upshot of all my musing is that I thought I’d share the best tool that I have come across for self and peer review – The Evaluation Target Board. The Target Board was created by Thinkwelland I was introduced to it through the Connections for Learning programme at my school. However, I’ve added my own ‘twist’– the magic is in the plenary! This is how I have made use of it to help Y8 pupils improve their persuasive writing.

This sequence of activities is based on the TV programme Room 101. Celebrity guests are asked to make an argument for ‘things’ (in the loosest sense of that word) to be consigned for all eternity to Room 101 (see Orwell’s 1984 for literary context). If you are unfamiliar with the format of the show, here is a clip.

I begin by asking pupils what they consider the most essential elements of powerful persuasive writing. Pupils work in pairs to ‘brainstorm’ their ideas. They feedback and I collect their ideas on the board. Depending on the group and the ability level, we might end up with something like this: emotive language; rhetorical questions; facts & opinions, etc…

Next, I ask them to rank the following examples ‘what I wrote’. Apologies to cat lovers.

 Example 1: I really don’t like cats. They are very upsetting. Basically, they act like they own the place. They’ve got horrible rough tongues and they are always licking their sticky bits. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they’ve got really smelly poo. I think that they should go into Room 101.

Example 2: I can’t stand cats. We call them pets, but basically they couldn’t care less about us. They just parade around the house, acting like they own the place. What’s the point in having a pet that thinks it’s superior to you?

As if that wasn’t bad enough, they spend half of the day sleeping and the other half licking their sticky bits with their horrible, rough tongues. What have they got to be superior about?

And just when you thought they couldn’t get any more disgusting, they leave a dead thing in your shoe as a ‘present.’

Not only that but they have the stinkiest poo in the whole world.

Go on – stick the moggy in Room 101. You know you want to.

Example 3: If I could have one wish – just one – it would be that every cat in the whole world would spontaneously combust at my command. Kitty apocalypse! And, boy, have those furry little blighters got it coming!

It’s not just the way that they parade around the house acting as if they own the place; it’s not the way they spend half the day snoring on some sun-lit cushion and the other half licking their sticky bits, while you’re trying to eat your dinner – it’s not even the way they wake you up in the morning by clawing your chest and trying to curl up on your face. No, it’s the fact that they think that they are better than you.

And just when you thought that they couldn’t be any more revolting they leave a surprise in your shoe. Some twitching, half dead/ half alive rodent or bird – its still warm guts squelching in your sock.

Trust me – I won’t rest until the last of the feline species is crammed, spitting and yowling into Room 101!

Following the rank order exercise, pupils share the features of the text which they have identified as most effective. Following feedback, I ask them if they want to change their list of criteria. It is at this point that I give out the target boards and ask the pupils to record their effective writing criteria (in no particular order) against the bullet points. The target board that I used on this ocassion had five bullet points and therefore required five criteria, but you can vary the number of bullet points for purposes of differentiation.  

By this stage, the class have engaged in paired and grouped work and they should all have demonstrated progress . You can make this progress ‘visible’ by asking pupils to work on mini-white boards and to display their criteria before and after the ranking exercise.

The next phase involves the pupils working individually, planning and writing their Room 101 speech. If they are stuck, I suggest ‘Facebook’, ‘Karaoke’ and ‘Justin Bieber’ as deserving candidates.

It is at this point that the target boards come into their own. All of the pupils swap their work and use their target boards to peer review the work that they have been given. If criterion number 1 is ‘a strong opening’ and the piece they are marking has the strongest opening they can imagine, they write number 1 in the bull’s eye. If the opening is weak, number 1 is written in one of the outer concentric circles or off the board altogether. They then repeat this procedure with each of the criteria. A perfect piece of work would have all of the numbers in the bull’s eye.

First draft



First draft target board evaluation

Pupils then have to redraft at least the first three paragraphs of their peers’ work, using the criteria and trying to ‘improve’ the writing in accordance with the criteria, so that they can justify moving all of the numbers into the centre of the target. In the plenary, pupils read out before and after versions and explain how they improved it, using the criteria. I have found that there is immense power in asking the pupils to articulate how they have improved the work. It delivers quality metacognition.

Second Draft

Second Draft Evaluation Target

Finally, because pupils have worked in pairs/ groups and selected only a limited number of criteria, there will be variation in the criteria that pupils have used to assess and improve their peers’ work. I ‘blow up’ the work to A3 size and create a gallery in the classroom, displaying the ‘improved’ writing alongside the target board and criteria. Pupils wander around the room, reading the work and I ask them to stop at the piece of work which they feel is most effective. I take note of where most of the pupils have gathered and ask them to explain why they have chosen that piece of work. This opens up a space for a discussion about the most essential criteria for persuasive writing.

The target boards are incredibly versatile. You can suppy your own criteria or the pupils can generate them from exemplar matrerial (as above) or from A Level or GCSE mark schemes. I have used them to great effect across all key stages.

Have fun!