Thursday, 30 April 2009

Don't be afraid of a silence: How to help students know what to do when they don't know what to do

Silences in the classroom are a tricky thing. You ask a question and normally there are a thousand children trying to yell their answers at you. But today, there's nothing. Blank faces stare back and you hear the clock tick for the first time. At this point the novice teacher goes into panic mode and practically gives the answer away. Yet this is precisely the wrong tack.

Sagiv (1999) found that giving people 'tools' for learning, rather than 'answers', better enabled the tool-holder to be successful in the future. This is also the case for the classroom. Recently I asked my business studies class for a definition of "gross profit". They stared blankly. I stared back. After about 30 seconds a rather creepy feeling came over the room. Students began looking at each other, then back at me, pleading for the answer. Still, I held strong and asked the fateful question, "Well, if we don't know, what do we do now?"

Still more silence; yet more staring. I reassured students that I would wait for them to figure it out, after all if they go to university unable to find out simple pieces of information I will have failed. Slowly they suggested ideas: "Should we look in a textbook?" "Be my guest", I answered. "Would it be on the internet?" one asked. "It might", I edged, cryptically.

In all, it took 15 minutes to find our answer but during that time students learned how to use glossaries, read (and not just click on) Wikipedia and searched content pages. Since then they remember what gross profit is AND -- more critically -- if there is a silence they know what to do next.

As my first teaching mentor told me: "Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don't know what to do". Sometimes, silence breeds intelligence.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Website of the week: Screedbot

Screedbot is a simple, free and easy-to-use website that provides scrolling text messages. Write in your text and it converts it into a .gif . Copy and paste this into powerpoint and you can have scrolling messages on your screen as students enter. Helpful when you're trying to deal with getting students settled and need to display interesting instructions for those who settle themselves.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

3 tips for whole-class discussions.....

Whole-class discussions are a brilliant way of sharing ideas on a topic. Facilitating it, however, can be an ordeal. Here are three 3 tips for making whole-class discussion easier:

Tip 1: Let students discuss their ideas with a partner first. Usually, I provide the question/topic for discussion before giving students a chance to write down their own thoughts. Then, I give a few minutes to talk to a person nearby. Finally we move onto whole class discussion. I promise, if you do this, your discussions will be more inciteful and will have more people speaking than if you start with everyone talking.

Tip 2: Use a conch; i.e. any item that learners must hold if they are speaking. No conch, no talking. It doesn't matter what you use for a conch, but if you can make it something fun students get more involved. My first conch was my Liverpool FC bear but it was too political for some football fans. I now alternate between a koosh ball and a light-up skull!

Tip 3: Use a 'speaker's map' to tame loud students. Some learners are so enthused by the debate they talk a lot. To keep them interested but quieter ask them to be 'map maker'. Simply this involves sitting with the class list and ticking next to the name of each person speaking. For you, this keeps track of who is speaking and you have a record for assessment.

The more complicated version involves students drawing lines between those speaking - hence 'mapping'. THis is really good for seeing if certrain groups take over, or if the conch is only passing among friendship groups.

Finally, the super-complicated but brilliant way of doing this is that the 'mapper' has a sign that they can hold up when someone has spoken more than a set number of times. This signals that the person has a responsibility to get others involved and that they must now take a 'back-seat' in the conversation. In fact, this can be a good time for the 'mapping role' to be passed over!

Monday, 27 April 2009

Inspiration for Teachers

Surround yourself with things that inspire you. First thing on a Monday morning, you might just need them.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Revision Tips #3: Haiku Time

Haikus are an excellent revision tip for students. Their structure means it is easy to remember when you have missed a word and the rythmical nature means students pick them up quickly.

The Haiku structure is 5 syllables - 7 syllables - 5 syllables.

For example, here is my 'out of office haiku' for when I am on holiday:

Emails. Sit in my inbox (5)
unanswered. While I (7)
enjoy Easter eggs. (5)

Ask students to create these as a starter, plenary or for revision. Here are some of the best examples I have heard:

Sex Education
Condoms: check date, tear,
no nails, check right way around
roll down carefully

Sociology - theorists
functionalists are
parsons, murdock, charles murray,
think family good.
Business studies - ratio formulaes
working capital
gross profit, net profit and
solvency rating

Let your students' creativity run wild....

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Revision Tips #2: Re-imagining exam locations

Revision tips are key during this term as students are taking their all-important external exams. So here's another off-beat tip to help learn keywords and concepts.

If possible, arrange for students to complete a lesson where they will sit their exam. It might be a gym, hall or a classroom. Even if there are no desks laid out, take the students to the space to have a look around.

Get them to sketch the room -- they should include as many details as possible. Think about windows, doors, lecterns, lights, pictures, and so on. Everything they draw should be in the room when the exam is taking place, so they should ignore anything temporary (e.g. trampolines in a gym!)

Next, ask students to suggest key concepts and relate them to items in the room. For example, in RE you could relate pictures around the room to the fourteen stations of christ. Or, in science, have different parts of a plant relate to different things around the room (e.g. the floor, ropes hanging from curtains, lights, etc.). The more creative the students can be and the more they meld the items with the concepts, then the more effective this tool becomes.

Back in the classroom get students to re-imagine their exam location and, again, recall the concepts along with the items in the hall or gym. In doing so this gets the concepts into the students minds but also, should they panic in the exam, they will have key reference points around the room to get them back on track.

Where did I get this idea from? My own high-school RE teacher Ms. Usher. It worked like a treat!

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Website of the Week: Trouble Getting Students to Listen? Use Oddcast!

Struggling to get students quiet and listenting is a daily battle for most new teachers. You've tried counting down, you've threatened detentions, you've even wrote the work on the board to see if they will start without verbal prompting and yet you are still being ignored. What to do?

A colleague of mine noticed that students listened to recorded instruction -- even when it was of her own voice -- much better than they would listen to her in person. Using an old tape-recorder stolen from the Languages department she would tape instructions and play them on a cassette player. It worked! At least until the novely wore off....

Recently I came across Photoface Oddcasts. This software easily injects novelty into recorded instructions. Simply upload a photo of a face (I used mine in the trial but I expect celebrities would go down well with students), write what you would like it to say and 'send' to yourself. The result is a photo that 'speaks'.

In the example below I am reading Benjamin Zephaniah's poem "The British". This was used as a word-gap exercise. Students had a sheet with the poem on and had to write in the missing word from the recorded instructions. (Again, this idea is thanks to Catriona). Try it and see what you think!

PS - Yes, it does make your face look scary - but that's half the fun!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Revision Tips #1: The 3-Step Revision Worksheet

As students vary in ability and learning preferences, in-class revision can be difficult to manage and boring for learners. To provide for differentiated learning I devised the '3-tier' revision sheet.

Each sheet is printed on A3. Students always respond to 'big paper' so it gives learning more impact. If your school allows it, use coloured paper. It is more relaxing on the eye and students associate the topics with the colours.

But what are the steps?

Step 1 - This part starts with information needed to get the lowest grades. E.g. keyword crosswords, definition matching, short answer concepts, diagram labelling, etc.

Step 2 - incorporates 'middle' difficulty questions in a more complex format. For instance, gap fill exercises, graphic organisers or ranking information.

Step 3 - only has open-ended exam questions with space for answers. Questions should be those that push thinking, e.g. evaluation questions or those starting with "Give reasons for and against..."

Classroom Management
Explain the structure to students and advise them to start where they are comfortable. The only rule is that they must be confident in the first tier before they start the next one. This means they should be able to complete a tier without any help or copying before they move on.

To support this have extra 'step sheets' ready. E.g. have extra key words challenges, extra gapfills and organisers, and extra open-ended questions all on smaller A5 sheets. If a student fills in Step 1 but it took a long time and a lot of help, then they can complete another Step 1 to gain confidence.

On the other hand, students who are bright can start at Step 2 (I rarely let them skip to Step 3) and race into Step 3 before repeating as many high-end questions as possible.

In doing so all students see progress, they can start where they feel comfortable and everyone is engaged right from the start :)

Monday, 20 April 2009

Bulletin Boards; Display your long-term plans

I'm a stickler for knowing what is coming next. I need a great big list that I can tick off as I go. Some students are exactly the same. They arrive at the door inquiring "What are we doing today?" or "When do we finish this topic?" Adding to the limitless distractions of a class trying to settle as you wipe away the remains of last lesson and aattempt uploading the new lesson's powerpoint. SO -- while you're feeling energetic after the holidays -- consider updating your classroom noticeboards to include your long-term plans.

All I did was give the name of the topic we studied each half-term and put it into a grid so students could easily see what their year held. Pupils like being able to see is next and also enjoy seeing what other students are learning about. Looking at the wall, they would reminisce about topics from previous years and look forward excitedly to future topics.

As you might notice, I didn't actually have a noticeboard on the wall so I stapled up some material bought at a market instead. This had the added advantage of being unrippable and my pupils (generally) refrained from writing on it too. At the end of the year you can wash the material then stick it back up re-refreshed in September.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Rewards for secondary students and sixth-form: Bring on the pin badges!

Lots of companies make good reward pin badges for students; some are advertised on the sponsored links to the left. But, though good for KS3, they are too baby-ish for older students, especially sixth-formers. They can also be expensive, sometimes costing 50p+ per badge.

To find something more thrifty and mature I scoured ebay to find 'job lots' of badges. With my rewards budget fixed at £10, I found many ex-collectors offer deals on variety bags full of random badges. For example, the lot displayed to the right is of 50+ badges and is currently selling for £3.50. That's 7p a badge - almost as cheap as stickers!

At the beginning of this year I bought three lots for less than £10 and kept the badges in one of the boxes sent to me. When students deserve a reward they 'lucky dip' into the bag. Sometime the badge is brilliant; sometimes it's rubbish. Yet they appreciate the randomness and the individual nature of the prize.

Altneratively, if you like to give rewards regularly, keep with stickers but customise them with more grown-up phrasing. I have used every year I've been teaching. You can save your customised phrasings for future orders and their multi-image, multi-captioned stickers mean you can get LOTS of different phrases at a reasonable price.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Growing plants in the classroom

Growing plants in your classroom helps use 'dead-time' during the summers month while also teaching invaluable lessons about responsibility and development. Simple plants such as sunflowers or peanut-plants can be grown in planting trays and cared for by your pupils. I did this in the summer term of my first year and was amazed to find a number of macho, difficult boys turned into responsible caring gardeners. They would come each morning to water their plants and were thrilled at seeing the first shoots and obsessively measured daily progress. Luckily, sunflowers grow fast which helps keep their enthusiasm.

How to manage this?
First, I bought a series of garden trays, pot plants, seeds and a bag of soil from the local garden centre. The whole of Year 8 had their own plant in my classroom-- that's 180 students -- so the total was about £50. It would be much more reasonable if you do this with only one class. Otherwise, if you know anyone with a garden they might have some of this stuff hanging around so ask about.
When the plants get large you may need to prop them up to keep them growing. You can buy expensive gardening sticks but we used a huge back of straws from the Poundstore!

When did you find the time?
I was teaching 'The Environment' in citizenship and used the plants to develop 'nurturing' skills as part of the students' pshe work. However, plants can be related to many subjects - e.g. science, different country's plants for geography, writing poems/stories about the plants in English. Plus, it took less than 20 minutes at the end of the lesson for each student to fill their plant pot from the bag of soil and push their seed into the soil. Afterwards, student's vied for the position of 'daily waterer'.

What were the benefits?
1. Students rushed to see how their plants were growing. This did become a little difficult at first as I would have to peel them away in order to get started. Still, it was better than their drifting in ten minutes late which had been the previous state of play.

2. Students developed genuine responsiblity skills and, those who didn't, saw the consequences when their plants withered. There was an awful moment when the waterer from 8M realised she hadn't watered the plants for a week and the class was faced with almost-dead plants.

3. For the rest of the term, I compared the students' progress on their topic with the progress of their plant. We considered what was the water in our classroom? (e.g. helping each other, being on time, etc). And what things stopped us from growing? (e.g. yelling out). Students grasped 'tracking' in a whole new way.

4. Even an ugly classroom like the one I inherited looks better with plants!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Website of the Week: Strip Generator

Strip Generator is a free online comic-strip maker that helps create fun resources. Using the website's ready-made figures and icons you can quickly make clear diagrams showing students how complete tasks. It's super-simple, as you simply copy-and-paste your new picture into powerpoint or a word document. This supports visual and EAL learners brilliantly.

For example, here's one I included in a lesson about University Aspirations:

Or try adding the names of students in your class for further interest at the start of your lesson....

I use these on worksheets, for starters, plenaries, instructions and -- in the future -- I plan to get students to create them in lessons to explain concepts. Just think, cartoons explaining a scientific investigation or a timeline of historical events!

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Resources to support new EAL learners

We've all been there. A child turns up for school on Monday with barely anyone aware of who they are. Half-way through Period 2 they are brought to join your class but lo, they don't speak a word of English. Ensuring students are welcomed can be done with social skills and good manners. But finding appropriate activities that will give confidence to such students is tricky, especially if current pupils are working on a complicated topics. There are two ways to get around this:

1. Always have a stock of 'language-related' activities ready
Generic English language worksheets introduce learners to the language while you can source more appropriate material. Such sheets give students a head-start with their English and provide learning at the right level for their language learning - i.e. beginner, or just above. On the downside, students from abroad are often very intelligent and become jaded with continually learning English in a 'baby-ish' fashion rather than grasping new content. This leads to tip 2....

2. For each topic you cover, have some KS1/2 resources ready on a related subject
While students may still be frustrated by having 'easy' sheets, worksheets that are on the same topic can be reassuring for EAL learners. Having resources that are related means the student feels less isolated and becomes less concerned about 'missing out' on topics.

Good worksheets that vary in difficulty and include appropriate pictures without feeling 'babyish' can be found at There are 99 free downloadable sheets on a variety of topics and straightforward 'english skills' for those subjects which do not easily lend themselves to KS1/2.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Creating imaginative assessment tasks with Rubistar

Without SATs at KS3 there is no longer a need to stick to exam-format assessment to find levels for learners. In many subjects, but particularly the humanities and arts, assessments that tap into artistic or verbal skills are appreciated by students but finding ways to objectively assess these skills may be time-consuming and downright difficult.

If you would like to use a greater range of assessments check out On this site you can use ready-made templates to assess everything from scientific drawings, to persuasive essays and role plays to set design. The templates are fully adaptable so you can write in language from subject level descriptors and any other elements that you have asked students to include.

To the side is an example from a Year 8 assessment framework that worked really well with a naughty all-boys' class who appreciated being able to speak a newscast rather than writing a lengthy script.

Look out for more details of in future posts

Monday, 6 April 2009

4 Tips for Teachers Without Classrooms

For those teachers who do not have their own classroom, moving materials from place to place can become the bain of your life. Forgetting a particular item can send a well-planned lesson into calamity. Remembering scissors, sellotape, tissues, marker pens is difficult when you are trying to re-set a classroom and make a dash across 4 corridors to your next room.

However, there are few things you can do to make your life a little easier.

1. Get a toolbox

These are reasonably priced and available in homebase, wickes and large tesco stores. Toolboxes have separate containers on the top for easy access to items you use every lesson - e.g. marker pens, stickers, biros.
Inside there are compartments that can lift out where you can keep more precious items - e.g. scissors, glue sticks, hole punch. Mine even houses a teddy bear, a squashy ball and a dictionary!
While students may tease at first, I've found that they are impressed by my organisation and it even inspires them to tidy up their own study bags.

2. Have a box file for each class
Teachers are often wedded to their planners, but having an A4 box file for each class means that you can put any materials for the lesson inside. It can also be used to house exercise books, folders, letters or any work that was left at the end of the class. By carrying it to the next lesson with the class you are immediately 'back where you were' at the end of the previous lesson.

3. Have student 'hosts'
A colleague elected class 'hosts' whose job was to set the classroom up as she made her way to the room. These students pledged to get there early, make sure the room was neat and tidy and get everyone seated. For those who are particularly organised, my colleague would put a sheet with the lesson objectives on the desk before lessons that morning. When she got to the class one of the hosts would already have wrote the objectives onto the board! Only do this if you trust your students with board pens :)

4. 'Where to find me?' cards/notes
Without a classroom students will often struggle to find you at the end of the day. At the beginning of the year I give students a letter which has my email address and 'office hours' on. Before I had an office I used a friend's classroom for a set time after school each week as the time to 'easily find me'. If you can display this somewhere - in the classrooms you teach - or on a website, this will also mean that students can find you at crucial times.
An alternative that I used one summer term was to work in the school library after school. In doing so I could carry on with work but students who needed me could find me. Even better was that staff often did not look there for me so I could work uninterrupted!

Finally...make sure you look after the classroom and return it exactly as it was when you arrived. By doing so the more-permanent teacher might return your requests for display boards or a locked cupboard!

"He hit me!" - Dealing with tiffs between pupils

Students often want allies in their arguments. Particularly at KS3 pupils do not have the emotional maturity to deal with insults or negative behaviours and they turn to you as an 'insitu parent'. Throughout my day I often hear comments like:

"He hit me!"
"She stole my ruler"
"Miiiissss....he sucked his tie and then wrang the spit out on my book"

This then escalates into a great big argument that you are expected to ajudicate.

One of the most effective comebacks I learned was a caring, but sharp, "What would you like to say to him/her about this?" This works because it shows the student that you are listening and willing to help solve the problem, however you are not taking over. Instead, you are showing the learner that they have a choice in how they deal with the situation and they can use words to defuse the situation.

Sometimes students don't know what to say. Here, I prompt them: "Could you explain how you feel?" or "What would you like her to do to repair this?" Occassionally the imaturity of a student means this is not productive but most of the time the two students work out their problem and you are free to get on with the business of focusing their learning back towards the topic at hand. Besides, there's nothing better than the next time this happens hearing a student turn to their partner and in the same caring, but sharp, voice say: "Anthony, when you wring that tie it makes me feel ill, please stop!"

About the author....

Hello....My name is Laura McInerney and after training through TeachFirst I am now in my 3rd year of teaching in a TF School in East London. This website shares some of the tricks I use to keep my students learning effectively. I'm not a pro-blogger (as the layout gives away) but I love talking about teaching and hearing the ideas of others, so please comment away! If there is a topic you would like tips for, or you wish to contribute an idea (I promise to credit you!) then, please email

The first two years of my teaching experience were in intense and I regularly trawled the internet to find practical tips. At the start I focused on behaviour management but increasingly it became about classroom management, assessment, time management and practical tips for organisation.

Let me be clear, on this website, I Don't Have "The Answers". But having read so many sites and trialled many, many techniques in my classroom I have worked out a few things that help students learn effectively. Whenever I mentor new teachers it is these tricks they are looking for. Not because they will work everytime with their students but because it gets them thinking about how to use the advice in their OWN classroom.

So, i figured, a repository of 'good advice' never hurts anyone. Writing down all the 'tips and hints' means they can be quickly shared, that others can add to the bundle and that I will be able to remember these tricks when I find myself facing a class who are eating me alive.