Challenging times

The title of this post may sound rather negative but it really isn’t negative at all. I’ve toyed with the idea of deleting the blog because frankly I’ve no idea how people have time to write all the time and I certainly don’t! So instead of beginning to fall in to the trap of continual moaning (as I feel some bloggers have of late) I’ve decided I’ll simply use it to log and share ideas which have worked as well as some of those ideas what have fallen flat on their faces.

When in my GTP and NQT year, my targets (after those contentious lesson observations) were often to continue to find ways to stretch and challenge the highest ability pupils in my classes.

I was told I was good (or equivalent words) at supporting those at the lower end but sometimes the most able had times where they were no longer learning and ended up wasting time because my planning hadn’t allowed them to engage further or push themselves.

This year I have been teaching a top set year 9 class. They are top set in the sense they have the number one next to their class name although are actually a lovely and wonderful mix of what would have been in previous years set one and set two students. Their current levels range from high level 5 to mid level 7 -just so you see what I mean by top. My aim with this class is to push them to their limits in terms of what they think they can do and to really engage them with challenging forms of literature. I would like them to all aim for A* in GCSE no matter what the odd data spewing machine tells me they should get. I would like them all to be intrigued by literature from all cultures and be able to enjoy analysing and pulling texts apart prior to the restrictions some GCSE tasks can bring.

In order to do this I have done a few things which may or may not be useful and were certainly a challenge for some:

Limiting words:

As a group whose writing skills are generally good to excellent my year 9s are prone to writing not only a lot about a little a I would like in those analytical essays but a lot about a lot. The first homework task I set them was to write a descriptive piece in response to a short film about soldiers fighting in the Afghan desert. I gave them a  strict word limit of 250 words forcing them to focus on details, the senses, on creating an image in the readers’ minds. This was the first time I had really seen any of their writing other than the class notes (which they often choose to make – hardly ever an instruction!). Many shuffled awkwardly when I put the limit on this homework – as if I wasn’t asking them to do enough and clearly was going to be the worst teacher they’d ever had, but the results were brilliant.

I didn’t intend to but did level these pieces. There is another argument there about whether a level is needed to validate a piece of work and I would hope everyone would say no but these pupils have rightly or wrongly come to rely on them and so I levelled these pieces to show I had both looked carefully and understood where they were. I think this worked to reassure them but immediately after that point I have made it clear that now I knew what they could do what mattered was what they did and aside from the formal assessments all other work would be deemed formative and we, as a class, would not rely on the idea of levels to define us rather we would just like to get better. They seem to have bought in to this and are no without doubt the best group I teach in terms of knowing how they work, their targets and their aims.

To go back to the real point word limits have become a great tool in improving their writing. We have used David Didau’s and Triptico’s resource of slow writing on two occasions and on the second time they loved this challenge.

For one particular written piece, I created my own slow writing sheets  (click on link for examples) for individuals – this meant I could really differentiate between those who needed a reminder to use adverbial phrases and the senses to those who needed pushing to include more complex punctuation, varying where they place embedded clauses and using techniques such as sarcasm.

slow writing pic

For this class, their greatest challenge is to believe that less can be more!

The use of the expert:

As the ability range in the class is fairly wide (not terrible at all but there’s a large gap between the level 5 students and those at level 7 already) I’ve decided to keep using mixed ability seating plans. So far this year I’ve had 3 seating plans with a new one coming up after half term. This is to encourage pupils to work out of their comfort zone a little. I’ve found it surprising how fussy the cleverest can be with who they work with. So without putting too much pressure on the cleverest and trying to avoid those currently at lower levels to feel patronised I’ve created expert cards. Depending on the topic and skill being explored different pupils are experts. These experts may be asked to facilitate a discussion (perhaps using question sheets) or to circulate the room trying to intervene with common misconceptions. I’ve only used these twice during the planning of a tricky essay on animal farm but they worked well and I hope to develop their usage so that they encourage the brightest to not only tell others what is going on but explore ways in which they can discuss and also develop new opinions.

expert labels

Promoting independence:

The use of the FAQ wall is something which I’ve talked about before in a different blog post. With this group this is something I wish to adapt further to promote their independence. If you have any suggestions on how to best use the questions wall to do so then please let me know. I’m finding it difficult to get them engaged in this activity as I have a feeling they think it is wasting time rather than gaining time to keep learning!

Difficult Questions:

As a final assessment on Orwell’s Animal Farm students answered the question: ‘Discuss the following statement: George Orwell depicts a bleak picture of human nature in Animal Farm’. We spent many lessons discussing what we meant by human nature and completed a silent debate (see: post on silent debate). The silent debate For or Against the statement forced them to think carefully and find examples. At the end of the silent debate I allowed them time to visit all tables and find a minimum of 4 points for the argument and 4 against. After this we used the iceberg paragraph models to show how they could extend their thinking and moreover encourage them to continually link their ideas and analysis back to the question. Again with this group I am trying to refine the skills they have whilst extending their knowledge and the use of the iceberg sheets really helped them understand how to structure paragraphs effectively.

I believe the use of silent debate and the iceberg development allowed them to access and answer an otherwise extremely tricky question. I am glad I pushed for such a difficult question as they rose to the challenge and really came up with some original viewpoints about Orwell’s intentions and reasons for portraying humans as he did.

Iceberg AF

Focusing on Context: Animal Farm 

Coincidentally, these students were studying the Russian Revolution in History at the same time as teaching the Animal Farm in English. Unfortunately I found out about this a little to late to do any real collaborative work but I did begin to question them at the beginning of lessons about the new things they had learnt in history and how we could apply this knowledge to the text. We had already done a number of investigative lessons on the Russian Revolution and the social and historical context of the text but I had no doubt they would get a better understanding of this in their history lessons. Therefore this extended knowledge added to their understanding and their analysis.

In future years when I teach texts which may also be covered in another subject (in any way) I will endeavour to make this link more profound and discuss with that particular teacher the elements we could work on together and those which we would prefer to be apart. By complete mistake their ability to contextualise began to push them and challenge them further and without any extra effort from me! Cross curricular planning is certainly something to bear in mind in the future.


As well as time for DIRT, I have also begun to use feedback sheets with this group. Realising that I’ve already made many of these helped as each time they just need a bit of editing. These sheets allow quicker marking and pupils to feedback on their thoughts about the assessment. They seem to have worked well so far and stretch pupils by ensuring they think on their feedback rather than just accept they are clever and this is good enough.


Challenging texts: Short Stories and Magical Realism

Orwell’s texts can be as challenging as you wish to make them and I do think we pushed it to its limits this term. In the past few weeks we have started to look at a range of short stories and this week I decided to challenge year 9 at exploring the idea of Marquez’s magical realism and irony in his children’s text ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’.

I asked pupils to read this challenging text at home. Not knowing what they would make of it I somewhat stupidly planned a lesson on irony and symbolism in the text. Stupidly as this was to be a performance related observation lesson which could have gone rather wrong. Thankfully, this lesson went well despite being extremely challenging for all involved. They were able to identify and explain ironic events they found in the text and began to analyse why the writer had used irony in this particular place. I attempted to use the FAQ wall during this lesson although again the offer was barely taken up  – perhaps I need to learn to step back even further for this to work.

Lesson on Irony in Marquez and other documents

Irony in AVOM

The following lesson we dissected all the ridiculously difficult vocabulary in the text as well as the underlying symbols and meaning. I will not go in to the details but I will attach a link to the lesson and resources I used and if nothing else I encourage you to read the Marquez text. My year 9s were at once lost and amazed by his writing and the best writers in that class began to see just how amazing writing can be. There is no way in which many or any of us could emulate his work and therefore all the examples of ‘great writing’ I have given previously are irrelevant. Marquez is great. His vocabulary extensive. The messages in his stories are amusing but the pride my year 9s had in reading and then in understanding it was magical in itself. I am very glad I stretched them during the last week of this half term as I hope they will return feeling like there is even more to know and many ways in which we can continue to be challenged.

In a subsequent lesson we looked at satire in The Veldt by Ray Bradbury. The lesson went brilliantly as they used their prior knowledge to good effect. Again this was  a really challenging text but the structure of the lesson ensured knowledge was gained in small sections and students were able to build on this knowledge to answer a final question. The slide with definitions of techniques on it was blown up and put on each table to support answering question.

Understanding Satire in The Veldt

Next steps:

Thanks to John Tomsett and chats at a recent parents’ evening I will be working on planning and structuring of writing with year 9 next term. I will be taking inspiration from John’s writings on how to plan a brilliant essay and hope to continue to challenge this class. See Here:

If you have any tips on how to challenge well please comment below!

Happy half term


4 Replies to “Challenging times”

  1. A great post, chock full of great ideas which I will definitely try! I love the use of the student expert, which I have seen done really well in classes I’ve observed. It works brilliantly if the expert is scribing on the board to give other students – who may struggle – a framework to build from without the need for further intervention from the teacher.
    Can I also say that your opening statement is everything blogging should be about (in my view) – sharing what works, not knocking down the ideas of others. This community can be so positive and affirming when it’s at its best, but at it’s worst it can be just the opposite. Well done for the positive and affirming post – and thank you!

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