Tagged: atmosphere

Using music to create mood

Playing different types of music in order to create certain moods has always been a large part of my practice. Of course, sometimes no music is required. However, at other times, the right piece of music can create the atmosphere that is needed in order to stimulate student thinking, creativity, calm or energy.

The piece of music above is one of many that I have used when I want my students to feel calm, at ease and able to express themselves, either verbally or visually. If you just hit play on this video, it is followed by lots of other cool music too (I just found that out!).

I will try and remember to share more thoughts about the use of music in classrooms, and to share some of the pieces of music that I have found particularly effective for different purposes.

How do you use music in your practice?

Growing out of defaulting to negative

Anyone who knows me would say I’m not exactly the most positive person in the world! But, I’ve been thinking about positivity and negativity a lot recently, and particularly this quote:

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It has become increasingly obvious that there is a negative default for many people who work in schools. And, that this negative default builds up to a disproportionate sense of entitlement and readiness just to be critical of everything.

So, for example, an improvement is made to an aspect of the school – say, the playground – and then, as soon as that improvement is complete people forget what it was like before and then complain about the improvement. They pick faults in it or moan about “not being consulted”. In short, they will find something to complain about. Indeed, it is impost impossible to interact with some people without some complaining happening!

Now, of course, this negative energy is really debilitating. But, more worryingly, it reveals a lack of memory… or a lack of willingness to remember. This immediately reduces our ability to have perspective. Perspective doesn’t just come from going somewhere else and seeing things differently because of a change of location, or meeting a different person and seeing things differently through them. Perspective also comes through time, and schools’ relationship with time is often so abusive that we may well have lost our ability to achieve this.

How often do we ignore all of our success and focus purely on our failures? How often do we ignore our “Done List” because we’re so obsessed with our “To Do List”? How often do we forget to congratulate ourselves for our achievements because we’re blinded by our goals? How often do we allow someone’s negativity to infect everybody else’s positivity? How often do we focus our emotional energy on responding to negativity and leave ourselves too depleted for the positive energy?

I’d like to see a movement towards living by the quote above and away from the gravitational pull of negativity and negative people. Schools should be positive places full of positive people – I don’t mean that in a trite, naive or ignorant way – but positive in a way that still has substance. You can sense  the overriding air of positivity very strongly when positive people dominate, and great things happen as a result. You can equally sense the air of negativity very strongly when negative people dominate, and the potential for great things to happen slips down the nearest drain.

Inspiration is a Two-Way Street


Leadership involves – or at least should involve – a certain amount of inspiration. People who grow into leadership positions are usually inspirational in one sense or another. Some might be recognized for their inspiring practice, others for their ability to generate creative ideas, their ability to bond with students, their depth of knowledge, their talents or their aptitude for getting the best out of people.

But, this capacity for inspiration does not come from an infinite source – it could, at any time, dry up. It may disappear temporarily for different periods of time or, worse, it may dry up completely.

You see, inspiration cannot exist in isolation. It may do so for a while, but eventually its going to need something – or someone – else to feed off. Inspirational people need to surround themselves with other people who are capable of inspiring them, they need to be constantly challenged and to have their thinking re-arranged. This does not mean being surrounded by people who see things the same way, although that – to a certain extent – is not a bad thing. Instead, it means having people around who surprise you, shock you, challenge you, excite you, influence you, motivate you, impress you and invigorate you.

In the context of schools, this is particularly true. Pedagogical leaders  end up being promoted away from kids and out of the classroom – the sources of inspiration. For a while, referring back to their own practices may serve a purpose, but they will eventually fade into memories. A good leader knows that and seeks to redress the balance by finding and hiring talented individuals who can serve as their inspiration and then set out to create an atmosphere – a “culture of permission” that allows them the scope to express themselves.

A problem with this, though, is that many teachers struggle  with the concept of self-actualization and taking control of their own growth. It is amazing how often you will hear people saying they wish they had more freedom in one breath, but then complain about not being told what to do in the next! Leaders genuinely appreciate those people who seek them out with ideas, with alternative approaches, with innovative suggestions or even just to talk through something they’re thinking about. People like that are energizing and  – whether they know it or not – are inevitably a source of inspiration for people in leadership positions.

All of this should leave us asking several questions:

Leaders should be asking themselves what type of people inspire them, whether they are surrounded by that type of people and how they can make sure they are!

Teachers should be asking themselves what kind of energy they give off – are they the type that is capable of exciting, of invigorating and inspiring? If not, how can they be more like that?




Ideas People vs. Finger Pointers: If only it wasn’t like that.


Myself and Chad are on our way to Phuket to spend a week at the wonderful, small, new school called The Gecko School. This is a cool story in itself, and one I will tell in subsequent postings this week.

However, I am going to look backwards first, to my time working in the city I sit in now – Bangkok – en route to Phuket.

I was here last week too, and bumped into a couple of ex-colleagues as I wandered around the city I both love and hate. We sat for a few minutes and analyzed the strange culture of one of my former schools – a place where innovative and “different” teachers tend to struggle. One of them casually came out with a statement about teachers who don’t share their ideas and try and glorify themselves by keeping hold of them and being secretive about how they teach. I nodded without really considering what was said. I only really thought about it afterwards, and it annoyed me because I was pretty sure it was a thinly veiled dig at me!

It is in the nature of ideas that sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. It is also in the nature of ideas that they are spontaneous and organic. Very often, one is not aware of how good an idea actually is until its happening! A strong teaching team is aware of what each other is doing in their classrooms. Student learning is public. Doors are open. Chats about learning are frequent, formal and informal. When you see something working in another classroom, your curiosity is piqued… you ask the students and teacher what they are doing, why they are doing it and how. You may ask the teacher to come and run a session in your class – or, even better, some students. Or you may just pop back, take a few photos and consider how, or even if, to adapt it to the way your own students and classroom culture operates.

It is not a problem caused by “Ideas People” not sharing their ideas. It is a problem of the people who have the ideas sharing them and sharing them and sharing them and sharing them and ending up being stigmatized because of their ideas. Having other people not think their ideas were valid, worthwhile, important, meaningful, realistic… but then when they see those ideas come to fruition, when they see those ideas become powerful, when they see a transformation in those students because of those ideas – that is when they announce that ideas were not shared. That is when the envy kicks in, that’s when it all turns around… because there’s no proof. There’s no proof that they didn’t hear that idea, see that idea, chat about that idea… but just didn’t think it was a good idea.

But there is proof that they didn’t do it. And there is proof that the teacher who did do it, did do it! And there is proof that their students’ learning was transformed because of it.

Sadly, in some schools, that is proof enough to damage a great teacher, to render one guilty of not being a “team player”. I am not sure that many people in schools have a very sophisticated understanding of what a team really is.

  • So, if you are one of those “Ideas People”, be strong. Let your practice do the talking. People who are genuinely interested will show their interest in positive ways – make them welcome. They will be important allies when times get tough.
  • And, if you are one of those people who keeps pointing your finger at “Ideas People” and copping out by saying they are not a team player, look to yourself first… that may well be the root of the problem.

Creating space for, and in, the learning

I recorded this bit of audio to try and remember my thoughts as I reflected on watching my kids play this weekend. I did start typing it up, but the more I listened to the recording, the more I realized it would just be better to upload it to Soundcloud and share it that way!!!

How do you create space for, and in, the learning?

Mindfulness and Student Independence

By using very simple mindfulness practices and routines, you can start to develop genuine independence and positive habits with students. Giving them the skill to walk into a room, find a space, relax, slow down and begin to focus on what they will be doing – and why – puts them in control of themselves and their learning.

Taking this bit of time at the start makes everything that comes after it more effective, more student-centred and more indicative of who they really are as learners.

In this video, Chad’s class are in the middle of a creative – and messy project. He is hoping to see his students take complete control of everything they do and has seen the power of helping them find and create the right mood before each session.

Creating Studio Classrooms

A couple of years ago, I made a posting and video about  the power of setting up classrooms to suit the nature of the learning going on at the time. The context, at that time, was visual art and each student was involved in their own visual art project. They were artists. Turning the classrooms into art studios was a natural step towards making them really feel like artists.

You can do this for any context.

In this clip, the Grade 5 classrooms at my school are becoming art studios and the students are creating their own workspaces and innovation boards. One student said “its organized… but its organized in our own way”.

Teaching as storytelling (2)

Green chapel


by Paul Dunbar

It is New Year’s Eve, and in the great hall at Camelot the court is assembled for the traditional feast. At the head sit King Arthur and his Queen, Guinevere. Along three sides of the hall, seated at tables groaning with food, the Knights of the Round Table and their ladies, finely dressed, wait for the feast to begin. Suddenly, the great doors of the hall crash open, one of them coming off its heavy iron hinges, and into the hall rides the huge figure of a warrior.

He is big – maybe eight feet tall – and his horse is in proportion, their combined height forcing him to duck his head as he passes under the arched door. He is naked to the waist, heavily muscled, and his hair comes down to his shoulders. In his left hand he carries a sprig of holly, and in his right a formidable battle-axe. From head to foot – his hair, his skin, his eyes, everything – he is green.

He advances to the centre of the hall and looks down at them all, surveying them imperiously. (Do it.)

‘Which one of you,’ he says scornfully (do the voice!) ‘is the famous King Arthur?’


It’s an old story, which exists in one anonymous manuscript version dating from the late 14th century – and it’s how I began my first lesson as an English teacher in London, with a group of 11-12 year-olds. The poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in a northern English dialect by an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer, had fascinated me as an undergraduate, and I knew it well enough to be comfortable spinning it from memory, acting it out and improvising the comic elements. The kids seemed to fall straight into the comfortable, hypnotic routine of being told a story.

The terrifying Green Knight issues a mocking challenge to the Round Table – he says he is doing this because he has heard tales of their courage and honour and doesn’t believe a word of it – and the challenge is this: for the King, or one of his knights if he himself is too cowardly, to take this axe and strike off the Green Knight’s head with it. On the condition, of course, that he who accepts the challenge must submit to a return match in one year’s time.

The knights gather around the King and tell him that this must be a trick and to let one of them take the challenge for him. A young knight named Gawain is desperate to prove himself, and is given the honour. The Green Knight dismounts, hands Gawain the axe, and kneels down in front of him, flipping his long hair over his head to expose his neck. And now you mime the beheading, the weight of the axe, the downward trajectory of the blade, and go into slow motion as you describe (just as the original does) how the blade sheers through skin, muscle, gristle and bone and strikes sparks from the stone floor – how the head rolls messily across the floor and under the tables, making the ladies scream and kick out at the head as if it were a football – and how the headless body of the Green Knight, pumping out green blood, nevertheless remains kneeling, and then reaches out and grabs the head by the hair.

Then you mime it getting to its feet and holding up the head, turning it to face Gawain.

The eyes come open, and the head speaks: ‘I will see you on the anniversary of this day, at the Green Chapel.’ Then you’ve got the business of the Knight remounting his green horse, holding his own head and an axe (not easy – try it!) and this time not having to duck as he passes under the arch – the sound of the great hooves clattering across the stone square and thundering into the distance, and the shocked silence in the hall.


There’s not a lot that I still use from my first year in teaching, but I do the story of Gawain whenever I’m with that age-group. Wherever the students are from, they can identify with the concepts of honour, temptation, courage and shame dramatized by the story. In order to be a knight, Gawain must uphold five vows – fidelity to his God and to his King, of course, protection of the weak, and, crucially for this story, the vows of truth and finally chastity. Yes, you have to explain what that is, and you can make some comedy out of Gawain’s struggles to maintain this last vow. The story has got a strong outline, and you can interrupt the narrative at will to explain and discuss things without disrupting its momentum too much.

Anyway, Gawain doesn’t know where the Green Chapel is, so he sets off months in advance, on his horse Gringolet (you can build up his relationship with her a little bit as you go along) – and travels north, through the wild lands between England and Wales. He faces many dangers (make them up, but make sure you mention wodwoes – half-human wildmen types) and by Christmas he’s exhausted and half-starved and doesn’t have a clue where he is, though we can locate him in the Dane Valley on the Cheshire /Shropshire border in Northern England, where buried deep in the woodlands is a secret church almost impossible to find.

Gawain comes to a clearing in the forest where a beautiful castle stands, and he approaches to ask for hospitality. The lord of the castle is (in my version) played by Brian Blessed, and I have recently awarded the role of his beautiful young wife to Olga Kurylenko. There’s also an ugly old woman in the castle, the mother of Sir Bertilac de Hautdesert (Brian Blessed) apparently, who doesn’t do much, but it’s important to mention her because she might come in handy later. His host makes Gawain feel completely at home, and encourages him to come hunting on Boxing Day and the days after that. Gawain declines, explaining that he needs to rest and to pray. Bertilac accepts this but proposes a wager – he will exchange whatever he catches on the hunt for whatever Gawain has received during his day at the castle. Gawain is a bit puzzled by this but shakes on it. Next morning he is awoken at dawn by the sounds of the hunt clattering around in the courtyard and galloping away, and as he tries to go back to sleep the door of his room opens softly and in comes the lady. She sits on the edge of the bed and tells Gawain that she fell in love with him the first moment she saw him, and begs him to take her away from her husband, who she says is cruel and monstrous to her despite his bonhomie and good humour in public. Gawain, like a good knight, tells her this can’t happen, but she cries and begs him for at least a kiss, and eventually he lets her kiss him.

When Bertilac returns from the hunt, Gawain goes out to meet him in the yard, to find himself presented with the carcass of a fine-looking stag, as per the wager, which he had forgotten all about. And now some of the kids are ahead of you, as Gawain realizes that he is honour-bound to give Brain Blessed a kiss. Very embarrassing.

Pretty much exactly the same things happen the next day. We’re in a threefold sequence now, and of course the second phase establishes a routine which the third will break. The hunt sets off, the lady comes in to Gawain’s room, she cries and pleads and he ends up letting her kiss him again. Twice. Bercilac comes back with a dead boar (or whatever), and Gawain gives him two kisses.

On the third morning Gawain, in my version, is lying there in full armour with his visor down. He feels her sit on the bed, lifts his visor (do it) says ‘Go away!’ and quickly snaps it shut. But it’s different this time – she apologizes to him for putting him in a terrible position, and tells him she will not touch him or cry. So he confides in her – tells her about the Green Knight and his pledge to bare his neck to the axe in a few days’ time. And yet he still doesn’t know where the place is – the Green Chapel. When he tells her this she looks terrified, tells him he mustn’t go there. The ‘Green Chapel’ is only a few miles away but it is a terrible place, and nobody who goes there ever comes back. He says he must, since without honour he would rather be dead. But she says she knows how to save him. Wait here. A minute later she comes back into the room with a piece of green silk in her hands – a lady’s belt, actually, but she tells him that it is magic and that its wearer cannot be physically harmed. She tells him to wear it under his armour.

Bertilac has caught a fox. Not such a good day. And he doesn’t even get a kiss from Gawain this time, as his guest has not been fortunate enough to receive anything at all during his day at the castle.


OK, we’re into the last bit now. The story is really in three parts: the challenge, the journey, and… the third phase will break the routine, because, as per Sam’s comment on my Part 1 of this, it will soon be time to hand over authorship. But first, Gawain has to explain about his death-match to Bertilac, who is very sad and tries to talk him out of it, to no avail. So Lord Bercilac provides Gawain with a servant to guide him to the Green Chapel, and they set off at dawn with Olga staring wistfully out of a window in a tower probably, and the old lady (don’t forget to mention her) somewhere in the background smiling secretly.

Now you have to make the atmosphere more forbidding as the servant leads Gawain deeper into the forest. The landscape gets rockier, the trees darker, the light thicker and greener as they go on. Until they come to a point where the path descends between two big rocks, and twists out of sight into some kind of gorge or ravine. Here the servant stops and turns his horse. ‘That’s as far as I take you,’ he says. ‘You’re on your own from here.’ Gawain thanks him, and the servant rides away, back the way they have come. Gawain pauses for a minute and then nudges Gringolet onwards, and they take their first steps into the ravine.

And that’s where you stop. You can end with the servant’s words if you want – ‘That’s as far as I take you. You’re on your own from here’. The kids will hate you for a minute at most, as you start to discuss their way forward in finishing the story. You can feed in whatever ideas about narrative you want to at this point. The obvious things seem to be, first of all what could happen – the ‘horizon of expectation’ created by the story so far. What’s possible in this story? Secondly, reincorporation – things that could come back into the story that we have nearly forgotten about. And thirdly – what’s going to happen to poor Gringolet (sob)?

I highlight the importance of pace. I tell them they’re going to write their ending in two goes, and that in the first part (their next homework) they have to write x number of words or pages but that nothing is going to happen, except that Gawain is going to move from where he is now to wherever and whatever the ‘Green Chapel’ turns out to be. If the going gets too rough, he can tie Gringolet to a tree, or (better) release her, and carry on on foot. He’s going to see things, hear things, smell things, think things… but nothing’s going to happen yet, OK? You’ve got to build up some suspense. Suspense – the only reason there were three days of hunting, not two. Or one, for that matter. You’ve got to slow it down.

Slow it right down, walking into that place. You’re in no hurry to get to where you’re going, are you? Would you be? Your reader might be impatient to know the ending, but you can play them along. Maybe only a few minutes will go by in your x number of words, and that’s good. You’ve got plenty of time to think about what’s going to happen when you get there – and what the ‘there’ will be like. Will the Green Chapel be some kind of temple? A ruin, maybe? Or not a proper church at all, but a cave, or… maybe this is it, the ravine itself?

‘I see no church,’ thinks Gawain in the original. ‘This is more like a place where witches would gather.’

Slow it down. Play with time. Create the space.


Creating Studio Classrooms

It is extremely powerful to change classrooms in order to reflect the kind of learning that is taking place at the time. So, for example, they become art studios during creative units, science labs during scientific units, museums during historical ones and so on. Students should be encouraged to think about how their physical space can enhance learning and how it can be adapted to help them do their best.