A Tiding of Magpies?

When I decided to write a blog, I thought long and hard about a name for it. I’ve used the name Novel_approach for years on online teaching forums, largely because I’m not particularly good at puns and that was the best I could come up with at short notice when I was asked for a nom de plume by a website.

Except, I realised, it was almost entirely unsuitable. Novel approaches, I have decided, are almost entirely lacking from my teaching. Over the last ten years, I have done many worthwhile things, but rarely, if ever, have I invented something entirely new, or put a new spin on an old idea…

I aspire to be an @teachertoolkit, or an @huntingenglish, or an @headguruteacher. New ideas, new thinking, new permutations on old themes; they seem to generate them weekly for the rest of the teaching profession to breath in and feel refreshed by.

Sadly, I’m probably not going to achieve that. Instead, I like to believe that my successes have come from carefully filleting the clouds of information about teaching into a series of tools which worked for me, in very practical ways.

So, instead, the blog will be Teachingmagpie. Because, at heart, that is what we all are. According to our critics, cantankerous birds, prone to seeing things in black and white, and seizing any old shiny idea without critique. According to our fans; faithful, selective, with an eye for the telling detail, and a sharp dress code in variations of monochrome.

So, teachingmagpie it will be, both here and on Twitter. I hope some of the ideas I have gathered over my career as a teacher of English and as a Head of Department will find new nests, take flight into the world, or be magpied in turn.

Happy teaching!


2015 – Pokemon Leadership



Sometimes I feel like a Pokemon.

A monster which can evolve from one state to another, each state more developed than the last. Each state is sometimes so different that it is impossible to recognise the previous animal at all, because it has evolved beyond all recognition.

2015 was the Year of the Pokemon for my leadership.

Here are my evolution moments:

Leading for Raising Standards

I downloaded a job description for a Raising Standards Leader at a PiXL school. Lightbulb: my own internal dialogues are sometimes wooly and impression-led. I’m, sometimes, not relentlessly strategic.

Action: New question to ask myself fortnightly. Who are the 25 least likely achievers in Year 11, and what have we done differently for them in the last fortnight?

Raising the Level of Language in the Classroom. 

A note slid across the table during a Department review meeting by my Principal – “Do we know that the level of language challenge is right in all classrooms?” Answer: No. I genuinely, until that moment, believed that everyone talked to students the way I always have – lots of big words, lots of rich metaphor.

Action: Refocus my writing of the Schemes of Learning to relentlessly introduce high quality exemplars and rich language. Even if colleagues only project them on the board for a moment, or students only ask “What does that mean?” once, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leading for Leverage

At my school, Middle Leaders meet 1-2-1 with teaching staff in their team termly. Confession: I wasn’t that good at them two years ago, when we started. This year, reading Leverage Leadership  by Patrick Bambridge-Santoyo made my thinking evolve.


Know the data. What can students in each class do? What can’t they do?

Make the meeting about “What needs to happen in future teaching to change this?”

Most importantly, know the data yourself, before the meeting.


I am a different Head of English to the one who began 2014-2015. I have evolved, and I hope it is for the better.


Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/68063765@N00/367896314/”>dromptommie</a&gt; via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

The Writer’s Gallery



Inspired by the work of @doug_lemov and @learningspy, I wanted a method of making students concentrate on the crafting of sentences; a single, well written nugget of work, fed by the ideas of their peers and refined into a product they could be proud of.

So, I printed lots of picture frames and laminated them so they are a permanent, see-through display frame.

Students write a single, well crafted sentence as part of the lesson


Share them on their table and decide which one is best


Those eight are shared with the class and the best ones are decided


The student writes it up beautifully for inclusion in the Writer’s Gallery.


Top Tips for this are:

  • It’s all about the dialogue. Constantly ask students “Why?”
  • Little and often works well – this shouldn’t be a static display
  • Works well as a plenary or a starter

Lasers versus floodlights – Department Improvement thinking

5713235089_652db5f6ebfloodlight medium

Last year, my Department worked on Year 11. There may not actually, in fact, have been any other students. It’s a familiar feeling for all Heads of English, I think. The laser beam is well and truly focused; James Bond, tied to a table while the laser edges upwards agonisingly slowly towards his Martini and two olives, pays far less attention to the laser than the average Department Head. If you don’t get it right, the laser turns back on you.

But you can’t grow forever on a laser approach to Department Improvement. If you want to build a future, you need to turn off the laser, and turn on the floodlight. Instead of revising with Year 11 every night, what about teachers helping Year 7 to grow their writing skills? Instead of endless CA resits, why not teach Year 9 what a good essay looks like?  Turn the floodlights on.


Here are my resolutions:

  1. Keep it simple. The Key Stage 3 overview is as simple as the logo below suggests:

KS3 logo 2016

2. Senior teachers in the team teach Year 7 – get it right from the beginning.

3. Work scrutinies for Key Stage 3 – I want to take a fortnightly look at the flavour of the teaching

4. Better schemes of learning: I’ve shamelessly stolen titles from every school I could find, and made up schemes to fit. What year eight couldn’t love Literary Monsters as a unit?

5. 1-2-1 meetings with teaching staff about their Key Stage 3 data and their teaching. If you’ve never read Leverage Leadership, by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, then do. Meetings that actually mean something for the classroom? What a great idea!

We’ll see how it goes. I’m sure I’ll be ears-deep in Year 11 data within four weeks, but my new resolution – put away the laser, turn on the floodlights.

Photo Credit: tompagenet via Compfight cc

Photo Credit

Making your writing mean something

For the most able writers in our classrooms, the difference between my reaction being “I like this…” and “My jaw just hit the floor” is often very slim. I’ve been lucky enough to have a very able Year 8 and a very able Year 11 group this year, and consequently I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes the difference. It seemed easiest to try and explain it with a case study, so…

A Practical Example:

AE is in Year 11. She wrote the following piece, which is a perfectly respectable description of a snow day.

“Crisp, cool air burned my searing lungs as they attempted to breath, struggling against the bitter cold. Every exhale spat out a plume of smoky water vapour which gracefully curled and danced in the chilling breeze, then floated away into nothingness. Snow had smothered the ground like a lethal blanket, several inches thick, which glinted maliciously, intent on unbalancing me as I cautiously trekked to my next lesson.”

She asked for advice to improve it. I decided that the best single image in it was the snow, smothering the earth. Something about the idea of show as an agent of change, of a violent suppression of the existing world struck a chord, leading my thinking towards the idea of a snow day as a suspension of the established social rules, a wild world, a return to the primeval battle for survival. Together, we wrote a new opening line:

“A world of pure and beautiful hostility, the normal rules of society blurred and smeared in a white cloak.”

In its turn, the new opening almost automatically rewrote some later segments – an encounter with Year 7s throwing snowballs became a primal battle with caveman-like Year 10s, to establish the sense of a society temporarily suspended.

AE doesn’t need me to teach her technical sentence structures very much now. Nor does she need lessons in semi-colons. She does, like many students, need a second Reader – a critical eye that can spot a Golden Nugget of message buried in the work. Then the teacher’s role becomes the sieve, panning for the gold, discarding anything superfluous and helping the student to find the message they’ve buried in their own work.

AE’s end result was powerful and interesting, because it had something to say. The magic jaw-dropping ingredient, I would argue, is MESSAGE – we need to help our students’ writing mean something.

How is good writing like being assaulted?

How is good writing like being assaulted?

It bruises your heart, it batters your brain, pokes you in the eyes and boots you in the face. When you read a piece of descriptive writing, it pulls the old you in, kills it and creates a new you. It changes you completely.

With thanks to JH in Year 10

In the best tradition of extended metaphors, I’d like to offer this continuation of JH’s thinking…

Good writing has Body

body copyright free

Photo Credit: Rob Swatski via Compfight cc

Good Writing:

  • Has heart
    • Writing shouldn’t be dry, or unemotional, or by rote – it should tell us something about the person who wrote it, about ourselves and it should matter.
    • We need to ask students to make us feel; we need to make that an explicit goal, otherwise many will never reach for their own emotions, but will simply keep them boxed away.
  • Has bones
    • The piece needs a structure – the topic sentences need to both stand alone and to hold the whole piece together
    • Sometimes we need to provide the bones and demand the flesh. Sometimes we need to write controlled paragraphs and ask students to mimic our control. Sometimes we need to train them to mirror the patterns of a poem for use in their writing.
  • Has soul
    • Writing needs to mean something – it needs a message which makes us think about life, human nature, the world and our place in it…
    • We need to offer them a theme, to tell them what the message is, to ask about the bigger issues in a piece of description – don’t just describe a winter’s scene; tell me how humanity itself changes when winter strikes the world.
  • Has a pulse
    • The sentences, paragraphs and structures need a rhythm – the words and ideas need to dance on the page
    • Force a rhythm – set the number of words in a line, demand a single-line paragraph, ask for doubled adjectives at the start of sentences.
  • Has nerves
    • Woven through the writing should be tracery of extended metaphor, linked images, repeated words and ideas, giving the whole piece a cohesion and life…
    • Establish the metaphor, teach students how to control them, tell them that the simile “My stomach churned like a washing machine” is the wrong lexical field for a horror story. Make it all part of one tapestry.