Tag: Michaela

Sweating the Small Stuff

Sweating the Small Stuff

A few years ago I went to Bruges on Eurostar and was looking for something to read from St. Pancras, something relatively light that would while away the hours until I arrived.  My eye was caught by the sight of a Canadian astronaut skateboarding over an image of the Earth: ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ by Chris Hadfield, Commander of ISS Expedition 35 but probably best known as the ‘Major Tom’ guy.

Several hours later, my other half was begging me to put the ‘damn astronaut book down’ and go out to see the city we had travelled so far to visit.  Eventually I did put the book down and we had very nice evening trying to spot places where ‘In Bruges’ was shot.  But when we got back, I had to finish the book: it turned out that while being incredibly enjoyable to read, it was not the ‘relatively light’ book that I had expected.

The book is, on one level, an autobiography that covers Chris Hadfield’s early years at school and in the Canadian Air Force through to the beginning of his NASA career and the culmination of it as Commander of the ISS.  However, it is also much more.  As the subtitle of the novel says, it really is a book about ‘life lessons from space’, useful for anyone to help understand what they want to do and who they want to be, but priceless for a relatively junior middle leader working out what culture he thinks that schools should have.

A couple of years on, the same, albeit slightly less junior, middle leader was reading Sarah Cullen’s chapter of ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ with the focus on details being crucial to Michaela’s success and the parallels between the philosophies were immediately clear.

Cullen gives an example of how a seemingly innocuous subject like ‘which year group should use which stairs’ was carefully and meticulously discussed until the best solution was decided on; Hadfield gives an example of a crucial spacewalk almost having to be cancelled because of a bead or two of irritant cleaning fluid wasn’t wiped from a visor.

The title of this particular chapter in ‘An Astronaut’s Guide’ is ‘Sweat the Small Stuff’ and this is exactly the idiom that Debra Kidd uses in part 2 of her review of ‘Battle Hymn’ when commenting on Cullen’s chapter.  Recently I’ve been sweating a lot of small stuff with my own year 7 group and year 7 as a whole, trying to ‘imitate the action of the tiger’ with knowledge organisers, frequent low-stakes testing and a very high set of expectations, both in terms of conduct and behaviour for learning.  They’ve recently completed their second assessment of the year and the standard set is giving our year 8s a run for their money and, in terms of progress, has the rest of the school beat hands down.

What’s great too is how the staff are raving about their year 7 lessons, going from being a bit dubious about introducing terms like anaphoric reference and juxtaposition to keenly discussing how best to introduce the next set of terms, in what order, with which texts and really focusing on the minutiae of how we are supporting the students: sweating the small stuff.

Chris Hadfield’s spacewalk had a happy ending – eventually his eyes’ natural defences diluted the irritant so that he could see again and ‘sweating the small stuff’ through training enabled Hadfield and NASA to manage the situation effectively.  Subsequent spacewalks used a different cleaning product and if an astronaut was affected, the solution to the problem was known, thanks again to sweating the small stuff.

I’ll leave the final comments to Commander Hadfield: “That’s why it’s so worth it to sweat the small stuff.  And even in my line of work, it’s all small stuff.”

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Imitating the Action of the Tiger

Imitating the Action of the Tiger

I first visited Michaela in the summer of 2016 after year 11 and year 13 had gone on exam leave and I wanted to use some of the gained time to see how some other schools were approaching some of the same challenges my school has. I’m not going to write about how amazing I found it as others have done so at length and much better than I could (see @Samfr and @Doug_Lemov for just two examples). Instead I thought I would write about what I had seen and read and experienced and how it has changed my teaching practice: how I am “imitating the action of the tiger”.

Knowledge Organisers
I first became aware of something similar to knowledge organisers through Twitter, a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ version, I think, and looked to include it in the new schemes of work we were creating for the new English units being written at the time. The first versions were more like fact sheets, were far too wordy and I wasn’t really clear how I wanted students to use them. As a reference tool, something to make pretty with highlighters (and then ignore!), a checklist for staff?

After my visit to Michaela and with the help of @jo_facer who kindly looked at and gave me feedback on a few early drafts, I developed something I was happy with and will post later in the week.

I chose year 7 because I wanted to embed these terms very early and also so that year 7 would know nothing different. Throughout the year I had numerous conversations about ‘inverting the pyramid’ of throwing all resources into year 11 intervention, only having to do the same thing again and again and again, and focusing on year 7 was one of the strategies to break this paradigm.

Generally they’ve been used effectively across the faculty and I know my year 7 lower ability group take pride in knowing what verisimilitude means and what the difference between anaphoric and cataphoric reference is. They still need more practice applying these terms and not looking for ‘one size fits all’ analysis, but they now know these techniques exist which is the first step to being able to apply them.

A few students have struggled learning the words so for those students I have recently given them an A5 exercise book (we had some spare!) as a practice book to formally practice look-say-cover-write-check as per Michaela homework. One student who was convinced he could learn them has gone from 2/10 to 5/10 to 8/10 in just one week and four nights of 15-20 minutes of study.

It has probably been the most successful and impactful homework that I have set in my career to date!

Work Booklets
In January 2016, years 7-10 were all working on non-fiction for AQA English Language Paper 2 and while I was happy with the texts we had chosen and the tasks set, the amount of recopying we had to do drove me insane! Not only from the waste of money but, more importantly, the waste of learning time with so many loose pieces of paper. Seeing the fabulous ‘Julius Caesar’ booklet at Michaela made me change my approach.

Again with year 7 only to begin with, I devised a booklet to support imaginative writing. This is something that is not imitating the action of the tiger as Michaela don’t do writing units per se, but integrate writing skills through their study of literature. (Although this is something that they are looking at developing.) We would then follow this booklet with one that looked at prose extracts (vaguely linked to AQA English Language Paper 1).

While I’m happy in general with how the first two went there are a couple areas that didn’t go as well as planned. Firstly, I included good examples of several genres in the imaginative writing unit for students to imitate before moving on to structural elements of a story. We never finished this because of when we had to complete our first assessment and it was a bit too much like a reading unit…which was then followed by a reading unit! This isn’t necessarily bad, and students did make links between the extracts and the booklets, but I’m going to look to combine the two booklets into one for next year.

Secondly, I created the first two booklets on my own so while I was enthusiastic about the texts I had chosen, other faculty members were less keen on some of them and I’m pretty sure this came across in some of the lessons that were delivered.

For our next unit, everyone contributed a poem on society in the same format as the earlier two booklets and I modified the knowledge organiser to fit with what those poems required. Funnily enough the outcome turned out to mostly be a reprise of the old AQA Different Cultures anthology, but welcoming ‘Two Scavengers…’ back into the classroom has been like meeting up with an old friend from uni who hasn’t changed a bit.

Marking Trial
Apart from students’ results, my number one target for this year is to try and do something about my faculty’s workload. I’ll come back to Comparative Judgement another time, but I’ve been trialling ‘Giving Feedback the Michaela Way’, also being influenced by the work of @bennewmark and @MrThorntonTeach.

My plan is to demonstrate that my class have made at least as good, if not better, progress than other classes BUT in the extra time I have added significantly more value than the ‘hornet’ of extended written feedback would. Interestingly @learning_spy blogged exactly this suggestion this week! I’ll know by the middle of next week if I’ve achieved this and then my plan is to extend it to other English teachers who teach the same half of year 7 that I do and see if it works for them too. One of the teachers thinks it’s a great idea; one takes a huge amount of pride in their written feedback and prefers ‘deep’ marking; the third teacher is struggling with workload and is willing to try anything that may help!

In a couple more months, if the trial continues to be successful then I want to widen it to the whole faculty, leading to a change in the whole school marking policy for next September.

So, three ways in which I have been influenced and as I read ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ more and more ideas are occurring to me, which I’ll come back to in later blogs. But there’s one other way I’ve been influenced and you’re currently reading it!

I’ve always been a bit nervous sharing my ideas outside of my school after a quite unpleasant online experience in my training year, but no longer! So until we meet “once more”, take care, “dear friends”.

Unto the Breach

Unto the Breach

After being tempted to write a blog about my experiences and reflections on the classroom for many years, the book launch of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ at Michaela Community School, Brent was the last little push I needed.

The example being set by so many of the Michaela staff but also teachers like Toby French, Ben Newmark and Daisy Christodoulou regularly make me examine my own practice and if I can, in some small way, be part of what the incredibly inspirational Katharine Birbalsingh describes as a ‘revolution’ in teaching, then great!

But what to call the blog…

My first thought was something from Coriolanus, one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and a text that I studied with an all boys English group a couple of years ago.  The moment in Coriolanus that sticks with me the most is when he completely loses his temper with the sniping and goading of the tribunes, calling them “You common cry of curs!” and concluding with “There is a world elsewhere.” He then leaves Rome, joins (and essentially leads ) the army of his mortal enemy and turns against Rome, almost destroying it before his mother manages to save Rome at the last minute, but dooms her son in the process.

While the idea of “a world elsewhere” certainly strikes a chord with me in terms of how differently, and in most ways better, Michaela do things, I wouldn’t go as far to call those who don’t agree a “common cry of curs”!  Also, taking into consideration Joe Kirby’s discussion of stoicism that every year 7 student is taught about at Michaela’s boot camp to help them understand that anger is weakness and self-control is strength, Coriolanus probably isn’t the best role model.

That got me thinking about some of my other favourite Shakespeare speeches, one of Hamlet’s less well known soliloquies, right before he goes and becomes a pirate for a few years, “Rightly to be great/Is not to stir without great argument/But greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honour’s at the stake.”  Aiming for greatness…good; quarrelling…less so; the final line “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”…not generally approved of by…, well, everyone but pirates.

Then I thought of Henry V, my favourite of all the Henry plays, and the siege of Harfleur. Henry’s men are tired, have been beaten back from a breach in the walls of Harfleur and are on the verge of defeat and that’s when Henry commands, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”, turning around their fortunes and, ultimately securing the thrones of France and England for his son, Henry VI.

As I read on in my head the rest of the speech I smiled at the lines, “But when the blast of war blows in our ears/Then imitate the action of the tiger”, as I knew I had my title.  There are pretty clear parallels between Katharine Birbalsingh’s call to arms to get the message out about what is possible in education and Shakespeare’s ‘blast of war’.  And as for the ‘action of the tiger’, well, they are ‘tiger teachers’ after all.

So now I have a blog, a title for it and now just need a catchy ending to this first post and again Shakespeare comes to my aid.  To all those who were in Brent on Saturday, watched the livestream or have watched it since I would say:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start.  The game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry ‘God for Katharine, teacher-centred learning, and Michaela!’