Friday, 29 May 2009

Homework Excuse Notes - Downloadable Template!

Collecting in homework is a chore for many reasons but one of the most difficult is managing student excuses. While I'm fairly hard-line with students I feel like a 'no excuses' policy on missing homework is unfair. In the past students have been required to flee their homes in the middle of the night to avoid abusive parents, or were locked out all night by neglectful ones. Heck, I even remember one 14-year old girl who spent the night in a cell as her mother falsely accused her of assault so that she could spend the night partying. Sure, homework is important, but giving a student a punishment without listening to these circumstances is only going to make their situation worse.

That said, when I'm dealing with the collection of 30 papers, listening to excuses is tiring. Particularly if they are of the "I lost my memory stick" variety. I therefore insist that every student hands in a piece of paper -- if they don't have homework, they turn in a Homework Excuse Note. The format of this note was stolen from somewhere many years ago and adapted to my classroom needs (I can't remember where so if anyone recognises please let me know!).

The note works for 2 reasons. One, it is discrete, meaning that students with real problems write without having others over-hear and it doesn't make for a din in the class when 10 students try to explain why their work is missing. Secondly, it is on paper as physical evidence of the excuse. Students are reluctant to commit lies to paper, particularly as they know I check stories (wherever possible) during my homework-marking sessions. If they lie, I have proof. I also keep all the notes in my class records so I can discuss them with parents if required. The dread of this means that almost all students get their homework in on time - mission accomplished!

Update - I found the website I stole this from, it's A brilliant site with hundreds of free templates of forms that teachers might use - e.g. hall passes, homework passes, etc.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

My 3 'Recommended Reads' about Teaching

When tutoring beginner teachers at TeachFirst Summer Institute I'm often asked what 'recommended reading' I would give before entering the classroom. During my first year teaching I consumed books believing they would give 'the answers' to all my problems. Sadly, they don't. However, having spent so long reading educational material, my recommended reading is based on the 3 books that gave me enough ideas to start creatively experimenting with procedures in my classroom until I did work out what 'my answers' were.

1. Teaching Outside The Box - LouAnne Johnson.
This book literally changed my life during the first half-term of teaching. After 6 weeks of being sworn at, breaking up fights and having resources thrown around I'd had enough. I don't remember how I came across this book but its written by the woman that 'Dangerous Minds' is based on. Given that I felt a bit like Michelle Pfeiffer at this point, I probably sought it out. Boy, did it make me want to get in there and sort out the situation.
The genius of Teaching Outside The Box is it's conversational style mixed with hundreds of awesome and well-explained ideas. It also doesn't shy away from reality. There is an honest (almost brutal) section about the times when you want to chuck it all in, and some advice on what to do in this situation. I have photocopied this several times for friends/colleagues in melt-down.
Each half-term, even after three years of teaching, I come back to my well-thumbed copy of Teaching Outside the Box and each time it teaches me new things. Definitely my 'Number 1 recommended reading' by an English Mile.
Also, check out her website - it's pretty good too!

2. 101 Ways To Make Your Classroom Special - James D. Sutton.
I bought this in America because Americans have much better books about this stuff than we do. I was concerned it might be a bit saccharine but all the ideas are sensible and help make students feel appreciated and special. Some ideas are for younger ones - e.g. having a ridiculous 'don't go there' hat that you place on the desk of students who are starting to be disruptive. [By the way, in my school I am certain this would result in said student putting on the hat and being a further disruption]. But other ideas are great - for instance, homework passes. I have a system by which students can earn a small slip that allows them to skip a homework at their convenience. I have NEVER seen students work so hard for anything.

3. Fred Jones' Tools For Teaching - Fred Jones.
A huge, colourful, interesting and useful book. It's heavy, the pages are thick it's an odd shape and it's in colour people! It also has a DVD with it but i've never watched it. Apparently it has some examples of Mr. Jones in action.
The subtitle to this book is 'discipline, instruction, motivation' and that says it all. Mr. Jones is pretty prescriptive so you might not agree with everything he says. Yet he takes care to talk about the reasons behind his behaviour policies and procedures, explaining why they work with students. Also, while I do agree that it's about "experimenting" and "finding your own way" beginner teachers often desperately want some 'answers'. Well here are some very specific ones. If they don't like, fine. But at least there's an answer they can start with and work from there.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Website of the Week: Folder Lock &

The inevitable finally happened. I lost my memory stick. And not just a stick, it was my 40gb external hard-drive that I have lovingly carted around for the last four years. I've been in denial for the last 3 months but acceptance has now stepped in. It's lost.

Sensibly most of the work is backed-up but my concern is the material on the memory stick. Grades, personal documents and student letters. Again, I'm reasonably cautious about the material I have on my drive but I was still concerned.

So, my new stick/drive is using Folder Lock, a free encryption programme that works on USB sticks. It does need to be downloaded so I can't use it on school computers, but I have put it onto my school laptop and will only be transferring files from that.

Equally, I've become a big fan of keeping files online rather than on a memory stick. is possibly one of the best applications I've ever come across. It gives you a 100mb drops for free, meaning it's big enough for almost all documents. And it's fast too - way faster than uploading documents to email.

So, try them out and if you happen to see a blue and silver hard drive with 'L.McInerney' sharpie-d onto the side please drop me a line!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Put Your Clock Where YOU Can See It

After half-term, my school is piloting silent classroom transitions. Gone are the dreaded 10 second alarms at the end of lessons and twice at the end of break. I am ridiculously pleased. My previous school was a no-bells school and it worked well. The corridors were less crowded, students didn't get irate at the end of lessons plus students and pupils checked their watches frequently. New School definitely could do with these things. Plus I can't help feeling like moving around to buzzers is a bit demeaning. When I first started at the school my reaction was akin to Julie Andrews being made to whistle at the Von Trapp children. It just felt, erm, weird?

That said, we are going to have teething problems for one main reason. Many classrooms don't have clocks, and the ones that do have them above the whiteboard. This drives me crazy. Even though I move around my classroom my 'teacher-spot' is at the front, by the whiteboard. If the clock is behind me I can't see it and I'm less likely to stick to time.

Clocks should always be where you can see them -- preferably opposite your teacher-spot. If you feel super strong that students should be able to see a clock without turning around then ask the school if you can get a second one, but the main priority is that you can comfortably and easily see the clock.

PS - If anyone else has experience of silent transition schools and tips for helping with the change-over I would be grateful to hear from you.

Friday, 22 May 2009

5 Key Items Every Classroom Needs #5: Tv-Head!

For plenaries, creating adverts, getting attention, doing role-plays, making people laugh, miming to songs, doing infomercials or faking a newsbroadcast.

Enough said....

5 Key Items Every Classroon Needs: #4 Small Paper Guillotine

I cannot draw or cut things straight. Ever. My bulletin boards are famed for their wonkiness. So before I began teaching I invested in a small paper guillotine. The sharp bit is hidden inside so I can't chop off my thumb but just watch it make short work of card sorts or halving worksheets.

I simply can't explain how time-saving this device is and how much students respect the straight lines it provides. Even if your school resources room has a big one, I still suggest getting your own. You will use it more than you can imagine.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

5 Key Items Every Classroom Needs #3: A Sorting Hat or Jars

Every classroom needs an item that helps selecting students - whether for teams, a raffle prize or a volunteer. Hogwarts has the Sorting Hat, but I have Mrs. Elswood's Cucumbers. This jar amused me the entire time it sat in my kitchen. Eventually, when the sale-date was gone, I emptied the final cucumbers and washed it out. Monday, it went to school and since then it has become legendary.

I use a lot of groupwork and co-operative learning. To do this well I firmly believe in mixing students; it teaches them to communicate with new people and breaks down prejudices they hold against each other. However, I teach in schools where students don't trust each other so the resistance to being put in groups was enormous. Until... I began putting their names into Mrs Elswood and selecting groups randomly. Although they don't love the choices, they understand and don't believe that I am personally out to ruin their lives. I explain why it's important to work with diverse groups of people and I change up the groups often so no-one is permanently stuck.

Sometimes this leads to difficult groupings -all the bright ones together, or all the noisy ones, and occassional whole groups of boys or girls. This can be disheartening and I've thought about fiddling things. But I slowly realised that the groupings are also for me to manage. Just as pupils must learn to get along with each other, I have learned how to deal with difficult groupings. Mrs Elswood teaches us all how to work smarter in groups of people we are unsure about.

Any 'sorting' item is good for this process. I've seen people use a 'Sorting Hat' like the one in Harry Potter. MrsMc uses The Fairness Bin and keeps the names in there at all times to pull out volunteers. A TeachFirst colleague of mine keeps the names written on lolly sticks in a cup (one for each class) and uses them for the same principle. But I am wedded to Mrs. Elswood.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Website of the Week: Puzzlemaker

Occasionally I find a teacher who has never used Puzzlemaker. How do you live without it? It's FREE (you don't need to buy the CD although I'm sure it's great) and simple. Cryptograms are an essential part of daily working life. Working with EAL students also requires a healthy dose of crosswords and wordsearches. Personally, I'm useless at Fallen Phrases but many students love them.

When you get to the page, click on the name of the puzzle you want and you will be given a template to fill out. Finished puzzles are displayed as html and can then be copied into Word/Powerpoint, etc.


Tuesday, 19 May 2009

5 Key Items Every Classroom Needs #2: A Koosh Ball, Teddy Bear or Skull

In 3 Tips for Whole Class Discussion I mentioned the use of a conch - i.e. something students must hold in order to speak. Whoever has the conch has the right to be listened to by everyone else in the room (including teachers and TAs).

Interesting items that can be safely thrown around are vital to behaviour management. Conches are uesful for quick Q&As, picking volunteers or managing confused discussions about homework expectations. Whenever talking gets out of hand, I go back to the conch. It takes practice and clear judgement at the beginning of the year to drill its use. With younger groups we spend time practicing 'a communication' - i.e. saying the persons name, looking at them and then gently throwing the item. Some older groups have even needed to be taught this on occasion!

What makes a good conch? Crucially, it should be soft and students should want to hold it. Anything that students can play with while they talk is good (it helps with the nerves), and the more amusing the better. But it can't be too valuable.

In my room I have three options:

1. A koosh ball - mine is bright green and lights up! I bought it in a science museum sale for a £1

2. A teddy bear - I use my Liverpool FC Bear because it represents the place I grew up. My previous colleague used a soft toy Owl because it represented wisdom.

3. A squashy skull - Again, from a science museum. This is a bright red squashy skull. It's gross, so 12-year old boys LOVE it.

Monday, 18 May 2009

5 Key Items Every Classroom Needs: #1 Tissues

It does not matter what age, gender or subject you teach: Every classroom needs tissues. Boys with dripping sweaty faces enter your classroom after a game of PE; give them a tissue to wipe their brows. A pen leaks all over the desk and a child? Grab a tissue and get them wiping. Your board rubber has lost its erasing super-powers? A tissue will do the job. Sneezing children? Spilt water bottles? Nose bleed? The list is genuinely endless....

Some teachers steal toilet roll from the bathrooms but I find a box of Tesco Value Tissues (approx. 19p) each half-term does the trick best. A 19p investment that brings a hundred thank-yous.

And before someone says that giving out tissues teaches children to rely on you, I would like to point out the number of times I've had students cry in my room. And I'm talking big, burly 18-year old boys who beg me never to say that they cried. This is not the time to berate them for their lack of tissue-carrying habits. Now is the time to take the Tesco Values from the desk, quietly place it at their side and just wait. Sometimes we teach responsibility and sometimes we must take responsibility.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Get your board straight!

If you always put information in the same place on your whiteboard students will know where to look to find it. Organise what information you need by placing reminders on your board. These ones were created on the computer, printed on card, laminated and stuck on with blu-tack.
This photograph came about the day I left a student to clear my room as a punishment at the end of a lesson. When I came back the board sparkled and he had filled each section in with reference to his detention. It always seems the worst behaved ones have the best sense of humour!

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A lesson in consistency

Tip #1: When you create a rule decide whether you can be consistent with it. If not, it's probably not worth making. Being consistent is almost more important than the rule itself.

The reason I say this is the impression left by my own form tutor Miss. Watson. Twelve years on and she is still my teaching role model. Why? Nothing explains it better than this true story....

Every morning Miss Watson lined us up outside form room: boys on the right, girls on the left. This separation drove me wild and I still disagree with her decision but regardless of our moaning separate we must. As we entered her classroom she would smile, say something personal and interesting while quickly checking our uniform. Once seated, the routine continued. Every single day she reached into her stock cupboard and picked out a bottle of nail varnish remover and a tissue. She then placed this on Emma's desk for Emma religiously painted her nails every night even though it was against school rules. With a sigh Emma picked up the bottle and scrubbed her nails clean.

I delighted in the regularity of this event. Every morning Emma would wear new nail varnish. Every morning, Miss Watson silently and patiently waited for her to take it off.

Until the fateful morning when Emma triumphantly slammed the bottle down and pronounced, "I can't take the varnish off, the bottle is finished!" Her smugness was quite clear. She had won the battle.

Quick as a flash Miss Watson leaned into the stock cupboard, silently pulled a new full bottle of remover from behind the door and placed it gently on the desk. A FULL bottle. Who knew how many more she had in there? It was clear, Emma was beaten. The next day, Emma didn't bother to wear nail varnish anymore. And I never again complained about the boy/girl separation, it wasn't worth it. The woman was as consistent as the hills and I knew it was going to be her way or nothing.

I've told this story a million times to new teachers and I repeat it to myself on those days when I worry that imposing rules makes me a mean-dragon. But clasroom rules are rules - make sure they have a purpose and then stick to them just like Miss Watson.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Website of the Week: Optimist World

Students at my school have pretty tough lives already. Because of the way they are portrayed they often turn their nose up at watching the news or reading the media, and they are often bitterly cynical about the world.

To get around this I have started sharing during form time. Optimist World provides daily 'good news' stories about the positive things happening in the world. For examples, diseases that have been cured, lost items that have been returned to owners or amazing sporting feats.

Gimundo also has updated good news to share. Updates were very rare until recently but it now appears to have new owners and is re-establishing itself.

Starting the day with positive emotions has been shown to broaden students' thinking repertoires and build long-term resilience. So go on, try and share a little happiness today.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Text me your thoughts: Concepts in 160 characters or less

I straight up stole this idea from and it worked a treat. Students often overcomplicate issues and struggle to explain a concept succinctly. The final module for our Health & Social Care class is "Independent Learning" and I knew this was one term the students would (a) want explaining, and then (b) still get confused with.

So, at the start of the lesson, I asked students to explain their understanding of 'independent learning' in one text message - yep, 160 characters or less. Immediately everyone had phones in hand writing furiously. I could hear that silence: you know, the one where you can practically hear brains whirring even though there's not a pin drop in the room.

After a few minutes, and a lot of erasing meaningless words, we shared our ideas on the whiteboard and then looked for commonalities. It was easy as most students had used similar concise ideas. Slowly we whittled it down until our final text said:

"Independent learning is studying away from your normal environment, and finding out new things that you will need to do your work. You learn."

While I don't agree with all of it the class were ridiculously proud of nailing something complicated in one sentence and felt a sense of ownership as they had created it together. Even better news is that our next lesson is about 'good writing' and one of the criteria is conciseness. I can see yet more uses for this activity.....

Monday, 11 May 2009

Inspiration for Teachers: Inject novelty into your day

This year I was provided with a shared office. Frankly it's no substitute for your own classroom and it makes teaching very hard (see here for tips if you don't have a classroom). BUT it does allow me to play pranks on my office room-mate. Early in the year I hid our boring school-issue phone (it was on his desk) and replaced it with this stiletto shoe phone. It raises a smile each time a student, teacher or technician comes in to make a call and is a great talking point with new visitors. Sure, an occassional grouchy person tells me I need to "put the other phone back" but it's been 9 months and so far I haven't been sent to the head.

When I did have a classroom I sometimes replaced board rulers with foam swords (you can still draw straight lines on them) or provided a giant pencil, like the ones you find in gift shop, as a replacement to a child who had snapped theirs in frustration.

I challenge you to find your own items to replace. See how many smiles you can raise!

Friday, 8 May 2009

Plenaries: 5-4-3-2-1

Consolidating what students learn is key for recalingl information in future lessons. On Fridays I also like to do a 'whole week' recap. We can then walk away feeling smug about how much we achieved.
A simple method to aid recap is 5-4-3-2-1. Thankfully it requires no preparation so it can be planned or you can use it when you have an extra 10 minutes to fill at the end of a lesson.

How does it work?
First, I ask students to draw a triangle and split it into 5 parts with lines across -- a bit like Maslow's hierarchy. I then ask for 5 somethings in the bottom box, 4 in the next one up, then 3 and so on.

For example, an end of the week reflection could use:
* 5 keywords
* 4 theorists
* 3 things you learned that you didn't know before
* 2 questions you still have on this topic
* 1 picture representing how confident you feel about this topic

Why does it work?
It's clear, students like having a fixed number of items to complete, it appeals to all different types of learners and it is surprisingly effective for recall.

Will it take a long time?
A 5-parter like this can take a while, maybe 20 minutes for younger groups. For a super quick version try a 3-part triangle and ask for keywords, things learned and a picture. It has the same recall effect and helps give the class something specific and measurable to focus on in the last 5 minutes of class.

It is particularly good for Friday afternoons!

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Homework: Why practice makes perfect

My Teach For America colleagues are all too familiar with the process of 'drilling'. Here in the UK it isn't really talked about, but I am a secret fan.

"Drilling" is the process of completing several questions on a topic. For example -- answering 10 maths or comprehension questions -- similar to the exercise drills of sports teams. Repetition is vital for our memory and drills help settle students at the beginning or end of lessons.

Their controversy here comes from the lack of 'active appeal'. Recently OFSTED criticised schools for being boring and teachers encouraged to make lessons more interactive. I wholeheartedly agree and most tips here will help you do that. BUT, my Sociology class have spent the whole year creating sociological exhibitions, covertly breaking social norms and designing essays in the shape of burgers. Yet, on May 12th they will be judged solely on their ability to write an essay. Excitement aside, we need to practice this skill.

How to do this and not interrupt our exciting lessons? I use homework. 4/5ths of the weekly homeworks I set are past exam question drills. If this includes several essay questions I let students do 'draft outlines'. Otherwise it is a full drill with complete answers expected. Once handed in I mark to end-of-year standards with complete explanatory remarks.

Teachers sometimes complain on two accounts when I explain this system.
1. They argue "Students won't do their homework if it's boring..." They will, I insist, if they understand why they are doing it. Students are thankful for two hours of engaging lessons but they fully understand that their grades depend on practicing the hard stuff.
2. Teachers say: "You mark every week?!" Yep. Every week. Luckily I'm a quick marker and I have strategies for getting quicker (I will do a separate post on these eventually) but I simply make the commitment at the beginning of the year to put the time into it. When everything else is falling apart in my week, marking comes near to the top of the priority list. Sometimes it's difficult but my motivation comes from the difference it makes to students. If I expect them to put time every week to a serious exam drill then I need to do the same. Besides, how else can I see how their learning is progressing?

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Website of the Week: Online Stopwatch

Give students a competitive edge by timing them with tasks. One of my favourite revision games "I have, who has" requires students to match a series of keywords a bit like dominoes. So, each student has a card that goes something like, "I have Four Pillars of Islam, Who has the name of the Prophet?" Then, hopefully, the student with "Mohammad" on his card says, "I have Mohammad, who has Mohammad's wife?". And so on....

Timing this makes the whole process extra special and the class take to it extremely well. Online Stopwatch means I can time students visually by having an extra-large stopwatch on the board. This gives added excitement!

If you teach more than one class, create a 'leader's board' where each class displays their best time.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Starters: Read! Think! Write!

Giving students an interesting activity to start as they enter the room is vital for settling a class. A thought-provoking starter is created by giving students something to THINK about. I use the read-think-write format to do this.

First, the starter sheet (or overhead) has a THINK! question -- e.g. "Imagine that you have been imprisoned for a crime you did not do....."

I follw this with a short article about the question. I use free newspapers, internet articles, blogs, anything relevant for this part. As I teach lots of students with reading difficulties I try to pick something simple or I will pick two articles -- an easier and a hard one -- before letting students decide between them. Students must READ the article carefully.
Finally, I add questions that students answer in WRITING. The writing doesn't need to be long but it should be reasoned and in full sentences.

By going through this process students have a chance to think, read and write and we are only 5 minutes into the lesson. Whatever else happens between now and the bell at least we know we've achieved that much!

Monday, 4 May 2009

Bulletin Boards: The Skills Tree

A simple yet effective bulletin board is "The Skills Tree". I was lucky enough to inherit this from Ms. Morrison, my classroom predecessor. On each branch were the skills crucial to our study (in this case, Active Citizenship). At the end of a lesson each student takes a post-it note and writes down the skill they used most during the lesson and why. As they leave students stick the post-it note to the corresponding branch.

Voila! A neat reflective plenary and quick feedback for you as the teacher to see which skills were developed. Alternatively, if you're feeling flexible with your planning, ask students at the beginning of lessons to pick the skill they are least confident and put their post-it note on the relevant branch. You can then brainstorm skill development with students and practice during the lesson.

This can easily be extended to other subjects -- perhaps grammatical rules; with history consider comparative or essay skills; in science think about identification, description, explanation and evaluation. Any other ideas?

Friday, 1 May 2009

Rewards for secondary students: Everyone loves a trophy

Secondary school and sixth form students are difficult to reward because everything that teachers think is a 'cool' gift is seen as unsufferably nuff. [Note to teachers: Don't use the word 'naff' around students it, too, is uncool].

Tesco have started a line in cheap trophies and medals that are helping get around this conundrum. In the 'party favours' section I picked up 4 trophies (like the one pictured) and 5 medals. Each pack was £1. Although they are made of plastic students audibly "ooooh-ed" when I pulled them from my bag and were enthused more than I have seen this year. When the prize stakes were upped to "a packet of hula-hoops and a trophy" their work-rate tripled!

Any other good ideas for 'grown-up' rewards for students? Please let me know at