Tagged: engagement

Allow your students to respond in ways you can’t predict

Our Grade 2 students are currently learning about emotions and emotional intelligence. They went on a field trip to the cinema to see Inside Out and the movie has inspired some very interesting thinking.

Cathy, one of the G2 teachers, gave her students a blank piece of A3 paper and asked them to draw what’s inside their heads. She got back a combination of ideas from the movie and original ideas developed by the students. This kind of open task brings out creative ideas, misconceptions, interesting language and unique interpretations that can drive inquiry in ways that teachers would not be able to predict. All too often, teachers provide their students with closed tasks designed to elicit predetermined responses that the teacher determines to be right or wrong, good or bad. When they design ways that create space in the learning for the students’ genuine responses, things are very different!

When I saw the drawings, I immediately wondered what it would be like to photograph them, put them in one of our green screen studios and film the students inside their own heads taking us on a trip around what’s inside their heads! This extended the task into new territory as the students stretched their ability to explain their thinking and to coordinate both sides of their brain as they watched themselves live on the monitor!

So, next time you’re trying to think of a way to find out your students’ ideas, thoughts or feelings, don’t design a closed set of questions to which you can anticipate the answers. Instead, design something open that creates space for them to release information that you couldn’t predict – it’ll be much more interesting.

Take your situations… and turn them into learning

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We are renovating the outdoor space in our Early Explorers area. Because of a number of practical issues, the work is being done while we are at school.

This is obviously quite a disturbance, and also has an impact on the space that is available to the students for outside play.

This could be very annoying and could be a cause of stress to teachers… and therefore to students too.

However, all situations that come up around us can easily be opportunities to learn – if we allow them to be. We can choose to be unhappy about such things – like bad weather, powercuts, big events, things not working, disturbances, distractions, unforeseen circumstances etc… or we can choose to make them part of the learning. Very often, these opportunities lead to much powerful learning than we could ever have planned for!

This week, our Early Explorers teachers “lifted the curtain” on the construction work that is going on in their playground. Not only were the students fascinated by it, they were also invited to help out! So, suddenly you have a group of four-year-olds rendering a real building, using real tools and real materials. The man supervising the construction was so excited about this that he is going to continue to look for simple, safe ways that the students can be a part of the construction work.”They are the next generation of adults” he said, clearly imagining a whole group of young architects or builders in the next twenty years!

Naturally, the experience has provoked all sorts of play, art and questions in the Early Explorers classrooms… and teachers are planning many ways to take them further.

So, next time there’s a thunderstorm… open the windows and see how your students react. Next time something breaks your routine or disrupts your usual plans… run with it. See what effect it has on the learning… a different type of learning than the one you had in mind! As you become more comfortable with this, perhaps… in the future… you might start actively seeking these opportunities.

Oh… and p.s… this doesn’t only apply to early years teachers.


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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”.

Clay Daffodils

ImageKen Robinson has a great story about a school inspector going round a school somewhere in England or possibly Wales, and finding that in every subject the students were studying daffodils. In Biology they were looking at bulb germination, in English they were reading Wordsworth, in Art they were drawing and making daffodils. The inspector goes up to a small boy who is poking at a gnarled, yellow- tinged excrescence of flaking clay. ‘What’s that?’ he asks. ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘it’s a daffodil.’ ‘Oh,’ says the inspector. ‘Very nice. And do you like daffodils?’ ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘I’m sick to death of the bloody things.’

A colleague of mine at a very good English independent school – the Head of History, and a respected historian and author – once said to me, ‘The trouble with your subject [ie ‘English’] is that it doesn’t have a discipline.’

I didn’t argue with him – and wasn’t quick enough to take a pop back at his own discipline. ‘Well, Nick,’ I could have quipped. ‘history is bunk, as someone once said!’

I didn’t, because he had a point – more than a point, he was spot-on. The problem facing the high school literature teacher is that there isn’t really any agreed equivalent of the scientific method to be imparted. Instead, there are all kinds of competing schools, new paradigms touted every generation, a jungle of fads and factions with no deep roots. Among these, we have (apparently) found no dominating theory, no over-arching narrative about narrative to use or push against. We don’t have a paradigm, we have a wilderness of mirrors. And so we have more or less declared high school English/ Language A classrooms a theory-free zone. We are not aware of a theoretical basis for what we do, and in as far as one exists at all, it is a wishy-washy pre-structuralist mish-mash which is at least 50 years out of date and has only survived, like some hospital-dwelling superbug, in schools. Put it under the microscope, and what do you see?

Clay daffodils.


OK, you might say – here’s a theory –

My English class is about learning to write well. It’s about recognizing good writing and learning from it. Everything we read and discuss serves as example and as stimulus for good writing. We learn to read well in order to write well.”

It’s not a bad model.


here’s the problem. It doesn’t support inquiry.

In English classes we have a lop-sided situation where there’s a strong, fresh educational theory (constructivism) which is effective and portable, but we don’t have the literary theory to match it and to enable meaningful inquiry into the subject.

Is our inquiry always to be – what does this text teach us about good writing? Is it to be – is Juliet too young to get married? Is it to be – why don’t we write the chapters that the author decided for very good reasons not to write?

The result of the problem is the inflow of dross to fill the vacuum. The confusion about literary criticism. The alarmingly narrow technical base. The shallow politicization of the subject.

The result of that is in turn the loss of engagement across a broad band of students – the more logically minded, or epistemologically-minded, who find the subject empty for them. The technical and scientific types, who don’t understand what they’re supposed to be inquiring into. Many of the boys, in fact.

We escape the theoretical vacuum by shooting off in other directions, embracing the refuge of other subjects in which we might have little training but which still feel somehow more solid than our own. In my first international school, I encountered a Language A (English) MYP curriculum which seemed to have been designed entirely to support the Humanities curriculum. In the name of inter-disciplinary study of course. Everything we read in English served to illustrate a historical experience. Of Mice and Men when they were learning about the great Depression. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch when they were doing the Cold War. Easy to justify from the Humanities side – but from the literature side the overwhelming lesson seemed to be that literature can tell us what history felt like.

Or else it’s all about ethics, concern, identity politics and wedge issues.

At its lowest level, of course, it’s about maps, or anything we can put on display. Let’s make a diorama of the inside of Macbeth’s head, shall we? Let’s make it out of cardboard!

I would love to know – how many English teachers have had their class draw maps or even make papier-mache models of the island in Lord of the Flies?

I’m sorry, but that’s a clay daffodil.

Have you ever used Of Mice and Men to have a class debate about the ethics of euthanasia?

Even that – clay daffodil. Sorry. Clay daff

Teaching as storytelling (3) – Gap Theory


On the eve of publication of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald removed more than thirty pages from the novel. This was at the ‘galley’ stage, when the author is sent proofs to check for errors before printing proceeds.

 The pages Fitzgerald struck out consisted mainly of Gatsby talking to Nick about himself. By taking them out, the novelist created a gap in his narrative, posed the question implied in the title, and preserved the mystery surrounding his central character. It is this gap which has driven the fame of his masterpiece in the 88 years since its publication.

 As in narrative, so in inquiry – it is the gaps which drive engagement. The gaps are where the imagination plays. Reading is a creative activity; narrating a collaboration between storyteller and listener.

But you can’t have a gap by itself, of course. It has to be a gap in something. Through the outsider Nick Carraway, we observe Gatsby staring at the green light across the bay. We hear his party guests swapping wild rumours about him, we learn of their fascination with this gentleman thug, we wonder why he doesn’t attend his own parties…. a little later we hear his fantastical life-story from his own lips and don’t believe a word of it.

At the last moment, Fitzgerald decided to leave it like that. And so Jay Gatsby remained a living, breathing contradiction, and became immortal.

To create the space for inquiry, you need to plot your curriculum. The word ‘plot’, by the way, is not synonymous with ‘story’. It means the way the story is told – its narrative structure – what we learn in what order, and how – and when (if ever). A storyteller never tells the whole story. As a storyteller it’s good to leave out the boring bits – but leaving out the most interesting bits is sometimes a stroke of genius.

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.


W is for Well-Being


Traditionally, the PYP exhibition has heavily been centered around NATURE. Really big issues that students really don’t have an impact on. There has been a real shift in recent years. This shift has happened for a number of reasons:

  • teachers are getting better at the PYP exhibition
  • the exhibition has become more personal
  • students are valuing the importance of the self
  • the focus is keeping it simple and realistic

The above image shows that there is a serious tilt towards WELL-BEING. This is best described as:

Our individual health, happiness, education, satisfaction, and fulfillment, as well as the health of our families and primary relationships, and the quality of our living and working environments.”

We have found that the students have been really engaged and empowered because of this shift. One of the most obvious benefits is that well-being is easy to access in the school context and community.

Making the exhibition personally connected and significant has given it real meaning to the students. This is authentic learning!



Sustaining PYP Exhibitions: It’s happening!

I’m quite excited at the moment as the Y7 (G6) students are carrying on with a lot of the things they started during the PYP Exhibition last year. The secondary school has set up something called “Know, Care, Act” which gives the kids the chance to continue with the action they started last year – exactly what I was hoping for!

Here’s an example (hopefully the first of many):

Last year, Johann and Arne became very interested in privacy and safety issues online following an inspirational presentation by Robyn Treyvaud (see her TED Talk here). Both of them spend a lot of time on Facebook (as do their peers) and they were really pleased to hear an adult talk realistically about Facebook instead of telling them not to use it.

For the PYP Exhibition, they narrowed their focus down to privacy settings on Facebook as they felt that this was an area that could really empower people to use social networking safely and responsibly in the future. They set up a Facebook Safety Consultancy Center and helped hundreds of clients set up their privacy settings and learn to do it for themselves.

They are continuing to publicize their actions using their Facebook page

and are continuing to run mini-workshops in our school library – fabulous!

“Blanning” – the art of planning and blogging at the same time. Part One

I’m going to attempt use this blog to document all my planning, both before and as everything happens, as I work with my Year 6 students through the PYP exhibition process. I’m going to call this “Blanning”… because “Blagging” is just too honest!

Tomorrow, I’m going to use the Nature lens of the Compass. Through the Nature lens, students are asked to consider the implications of their issues from the natural perspective. So, for example, making links between local beggars and deforestion and loss of homes in Myanmar and Cambodia.

I was thinking of having quite an open-ended day, with students making choices of a number of ways to consider the links between issues and nature. But then I thought it might be good to have a series of finite activities that need to be done within a specific timeframe and then shared and reflected on before moving on to something very different. Perhaps:

  • Students could use expressive materials like pastels and charcoal to create an impulsive abstract piece of artwork based on their thoughts about their issues in the green context. I will limit them to using only shades of green and one other significant colour. I got the idea from a session my Dad did for the teachers at the Green School Bali: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=199675&id=114095042424&ref=mf
  • Creating quotes, locating quotes, sharing quotes: This would be the search for existing and student-created quotes that illustrate connections between their issue and nature. They will have a set amount of time to find and develop their quotes, and then the same amount of time again to think about how they will share it.
  • Green Data: Up-to-date facts and figures that will back up student ideas, arguments and conclusions. Again, they will have a set amount of time to find and collate their data, and then the same amount of time again to think about how they will share it. Emphasis will be placed on producing infographics here, probably leaning heavily on using the SmartArt features of Microsoft Word, or paint.net for the more technologically advanced.
  • I’d like to end the day with a lot of talking, walking and looking at what the kids have produced. I’ll try to provoke conversations and play devil’s advocate a bit. Then, I’ll get them to identify the “Key Connections” between their issue and the Nature lens of the Compass. They may blog those by comments on a posting. They may display them visually in the room, they may do both… we’ll see what happens tomorrow!

So, during all of this – hopefully – the Compass Guides will be dropping in whenever they have 5 or 10 minutes to spare and taking a look at what the kids are thinking, what directions they’re moving in and what ideas they have for them.

I've shamelessley created another wordle for this posting by copying pasting the words in the posting into wordle and hitting "randomize" several times. So simple, so good to look at. But... they can't be used all the time.

6SS Compass Drop-in Sessions

It’s hard to make exact plans for the next stage of our exhibition as we’re never fully sure the school will be open or that several students will take extended holidays. However, it will be a priority for us to look at the students’ issues through each lens of the Compass in  myriad of ways. I ‘m thinking:

  • Hi-quality image searching, seeking images that are entirely relevant, powerful and large file sizes for added manipulation and poster design. I get the students using the Creative Commons image search as they have share-alike copyrights which means we can use them as long as they are credited.
  • Quotes from media reports and opinion
  • Data in the form of infographics  – see http://www.coolinfographics.com/
  • Use Wordle to create visuals of frequently used words in media stories, blog comments, interviews (see the examples in the slideshow that I created by pasting the text of this posting into Wordle).

Students will spend the day looking at their issue solely from the perspective of one lens and will be responsible for sharing their findings throughout the day. Compass Guides are invited to drop-in to the classroom at any time during the day in order to give feedback, provoke ideas and familiarize the students further with actually talking to different people about their issues.

Technology will play a major part in each day. I’m imagining students will be:

  • Searching the Internet for images
  • Reading online news and reports
  • Watching Youtube videos
  • Reading or writing on the 6SS Blog
  • Recording video using Flip cameras
  • Making calls on Skype
  • Designing pages using Word
  • Creating infographics using SmartArt or paint.net
  • Taking and manipulating photographs
  • Using Prezi or PowerPoint to deliver short presentations.
  • Developing their  own big picture/small picture tasks for other people

Basically, the students will be exploring issues with a very clear focus: Nature, Economy, Society and Well-Being. Have a close look at the original Compass developed by Alan Atkisson.