Year 3 Wrangler-In-Chief

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about teaching writing. It’s something I don’t find particularly easy, hence why I think such a lot about it. My teaching is ok, and the childrens writing is ok. We get a fair amount done, but somehow it’s just never quite as good as I’d like. This is not to disparage the sometimes excellent work produced by my classes in the past, but I’ve always been aware of a little niggle – this could be so much better.

So this year, I want to stop wishing and start doing. Recently I’ve been reading An Ethic of Excellence, by Ron Berger. If you’ve seen the Austin’s Butterfly video, he’s the guy in that. I showed my class Austin’s Butterfly on the first day, because that’s what I want to encourage this year: the pursuit of excellence.

We started this in a small way in Literacy on Friday. At the start of the lesson I shared our aim: to write one, amazing sentence. By the end of the lesson, one of my average-ish writers produced this:

Screenshot 2014-09-12 19.54.31

Here’s how: we started with a very simple sentence: The children came into the room. We agreed it was boring. I suggested that we could alter the mood of the sentence, by adding something like “Skipping and laughing” onto the front. Smiles and nods all around. We tried out a few more openings, and settled on “frowning and ____”, with the children free to choose their second word. Once they’d done that, we all went outside the classroom and had a go at coming into the room “frowning and ____”. There were some fantastic stamping feet, stroppy faces and dramatic groans and sighs. As soon as they’d gone back into the classroom, the children sat down and finished their sentences. We then took three examples (all we had time for) for comment and critique, discussing both what we liked about each one and how we might make improvements in each case. This lesson lasted about 55 minutes, and everyone had, by the end, written a sentence they were very proud of.

That’s all well and good for one sentence, but what about a whole story? Here’s my plan: we’re going to be writing our own stories based on “I’ll Take You To Mrs. Cole” by Nigel Grey and Michael Foreman. Based on the Hamilton Trust planning for this unit, I’ve split the story into 5 main ‘sections’. For each section, I plan to have the children draft their story, which will then be marked and re-drafted before being copied up in ‘neat’ to form a finished book. For each section I’ve also identified a key skill, e.g. adjective use, or speech marks (sorry, inverted commas).

I have no idea if this will work out or not, and I can see it might end up being something of a slog, but hopefully, if I can begin to encourage and grow ‘an ethic of excellence’, we’ll be reaping the rewards all year.

Look ot for an update in a couple of weeks!

Same old, same….oh.

This is now my fourth year teaching in Year 3, in the same school. This has certain beneficial effects: not having to move classroom is probably the most prominent among them. Another benefit is that, even though I change a few things every year (if only to prevent my own boredom), I pretty much know what I’m doing. Minor tweaks here and there for the benefit of each class, but there are also other areas that don’t require much tweaking that I can more or less teach with my eyes closed, as it were. I’ve also gotten to know the pastoral side of Year 3 quite well – that transition from baby infants to big juniors, that some find easier than others. Getting the ratio of TLC to tough love just about right.

Why yes, there is a massive ‘however’ coming up. How did you guess?

However. This year’s class are Different. It pains me greatly to admit that they have a Reputation. I wish they didn’t. I wish they could be seen neutrally, as the beautifully hardworking students they very often are. But equally, I can’t pretend they haven’t been tricky, and they haven’t stood out, since they joined us in Nursery, then as one whole class in Reception. They’re boisterous, full of Personalities, who very often clash with one another. There are too many children who have to be right, who have to win, who lack the vital skills of give and take. This makes them, to put it mildly, a challenge to manage.

Before I go any further, something vital: I love my class. They’re mine, and while I’m (necessarily) tough with them, I’ll defend them till I’m blue in the face when warranted. They’re awesomely hard working, and rise to almost any academic challenge you throw at them. So if a lot of what follows sounds excessively negative, remember: I love them.

They’ve always found playground life hard – 15 minutes of break is just about enough, and often by the end of that tempers are fraying and someone’s either on the wall, or in tears, or missing their next playtime due to violent behaviour, or all three. In the classroom as well, they’re difficult to settle, and just silly. They have that terrible habit of feeding off each other – so someone says something silly (often about bottoms, or farts, or boobies), it’s whipped round half a dozen people before you’ve even noticed it starting and you’ve effectively lost 5 minutes of lesson.

As a result of all of this, it very quickly became clear in September that things – things meaning my practice – would have to change to accommodate this class. What has followed has been my most challenging year as a teacher so far. I’ve had to re-evaluate almost everything I do in the classroom, and I’ve had to continue to monitor myself and reflect on my teaching in a way that has probably been the making of me, but which has also been incredibly hard work.

So, time to get specific: what have I been doing differently?

The first major change was in seating arrangements. Typically in Y3 I still make a lot of use of the carpet area, at least for the first 2 terms. It gradually gets used less and less in the summer, but is still there if we need to gather in a circle etc. My current class, it quickly became apparent, can’t really cope with a carpet area. Settling them was a nightmare, no matter how many seating arrangements we tried. So now, we don’t use the carpet space, ever. Instead, the tables are in rows, with a central aisle, and each child has their own place – which they generally don’t move from, whatever the subject. I do re-jig the seating from time to time, and it’s never quite perfect, but they value the consistency of having their own space. That consistency is vital for this class.

Secondly, play times. More specifically, the end thereof. I don’t do lining up – I think it wastes time. However, this class need that very clear transition from break to work time. So, we line up. Once we’re all silent, I let the kids in half a dozen or so at a time, to go and sit quietly at their tables – there’s often a starter task out. I stand very deliberately at the door, greeting everyone, so as to establish that they’re now back in my space. No-one’s allowed in until children already in the room are settled, which allows for a gradual building up of a good working atmosphere.

Thirdly, instructions. I give instructions one at a time, always standing in the same place (front and centre). Every instruction starts “Year 3…”, and is given twice. Then I wait until it’s been followed, by everyone. So it might be “Year 3, books closed please [pause, 5 or 10 secs] I said, Year 3, books closed please.” Then wait. Thumbs up and a quiet well done to those who get there quickly, TAs mop up the few who are ignoring, then once everyone has closed their book, I carry on. It can be awe-inspiringly tedious, but again, it works for this class. They need to know that when I give an instruction, I expect it to be followed by everyone, every time. There’s no wiggle room. Again, consistency is king.

Fourthly, lesson style. These guys need to be busy. More busy = less trouble. They also do much better with a clear structure. ‘Draw a picture about this story and write 5 sentences to go with it’ will get you nowhere except hassle and bad behaviour. This has meant a big change for me as I tend to favour more open ended activities that give kids room to express themselves. I had also been experimenting more in the past couple of years with letting the kids lead the learning, taking lessons where they wanted to go. As you may have gathered, if you give this class an inch, they’ll have run a mile before you can blink. So it’s all very much teacher led, chalk and talk, demo and do. I think this has improved my teaching in many respects – I’ve had to think much more carefully about what I want from the class, in order to be able to communicate that clearly to them. This is a Good Thing, in that it focusses me more. It’s also meant more modelling, which as I seem to discover anew every time I do it, works wonders.

There’s so much more I could say: the minutiae of managing certain individuals, including helping the class not to get too stressed at endless door slams (tip: mark them out of 10); working hard to ensure positive relationships with all the children in the class; keeping parents reassured when they (understandably) worry about their children’s progress in such a tricky class. However, the points detailed above cover most of the bases.

To finish: when I was buried in the depths of frustration early in September, not understanding at all why these kids wouldn’t just be like Year 3s should be, a friend said something to me that has more or less become my guiding star this year:

You have to teach the class you have, not the one you wish you had.

Amen to that.

I was reminded this week that I had promised a post on the delightful piece of government policy that is free school meals for F2, Y1 and Y2 as of September 2014. So here you go.

The headline for my school is: unwanted, unnecessary, more trouble than it can ever be worth.

Our context: We’re a 1 form entry primary school with no recent history of serving school dinners. Every child brings a packed lunch, which they eat in the hall over about a 45 minute period – FS and KS1 start eating at 12:15, and KS2 eat on a rota, starting at either 12:15 or about 12:40, once the first half are out. The few children we have on FSM are provided with a packed lunch. We have no kitchen, and no space for one either, not without building new classrooms. (In case you were wondering, no, we can’t afford to do this).

The challenges:

Providing hot food: our current plan is to have this brought in from off site, and to have a couple of heated trolley type things in the hall to serve from. We’ll also need an industrial dishwasher, and somewhere to store plates and cutlery. Not insurmountable, but pricey.

Time: At the moment, the hall is normally tidied and cleaned by about 1:30, leaving enough time for a PE lesson in that first session after lunch (1:15 to 2:15). I can foresee that with hot dinners needing clearing up, it will no longer be practical to use that session for indoor PE, effectively cutting hall avaliability from 20 sessions a week to 15 – a cut of 25%. It will be very difficult for every class to get two sessions of PE per week, especially in the winter when both lessons are often taught indoors. So FSM will have a direct, and negative, impact on our ability to deliver the curriculum.

Money: Yes, there is funding avaliable. But think ahead a couple of years. School budgets are not exactly generous. Dinner ladies will need to be employed for longer hours in order to prepare and clear hot dinners. For a school like ours, where this has not traditionally been part of our budget, where will the money come from? Could it be that we have to reduce our numbers of support staff to pay for lunch time staff? Again, a directly negative impact on children’s learning.

Implementation: As so many people have pointed out, the timescale for this is just ridiculous. This is diverting time and attention at a time when we are already trying to get to grips with a new curriculum. Headteachers have got better things to be thinking about right now, in my opinion.

As a policy soundbite, it’s great: a free hot dinner for your little darlings. As something for schools to actually have to implement: a nightmarish distraction.


Further Reading:

For more things to consider with implementation, do check out not very jolley’s post: USFM Top Ten

If nothing else, I’ve achieved some alliteration today! This post is in response to a discussion between several primary type people on twitter yesterday – namely myself, @imagineinquiry, @redgierob, @educationbear, @rpd1972, @nancygedge and @michaelt1979. We were discussing the merits and otherwise of what is variously called ‘creative curriculum’, ‘cross curricular planning’, ‘context driven learning’, ‘topic based planning’, etc. There are, I’m sure, as many terms for this as there are schools, with each having its own nuance. I’m not particularly knowledgeable about curriculum design, so I’m not intending to spend (much) time on basic principles, but rather I’m hoping to talk about what it is that I do, and that we do in my school.

First though, a few things on which everyone agrees: creative curriculum can be done wonderfully or it can be done terribly. Links between traditional subject areas can be natural and helpful, or forced and contrived. Different people, and different schools, have things that work well. It’s my impression that schools who go completely for topic basic teaching have often spent a lot of time considering how to cover the whole curriculum in a different way. It’s not really something an individual teacher can do on their own.

On to my own experience. I’m fortunate in some ways to work in a small school, as it means that I have a lot of freedom to do things the way I want to – I don’t have to make sure that my planning matches up with a parallel teacher. I can just crack on. In my school, we’re encouraged to make worthwhile links between subjects – if things don’t fit, we don’t try to make them. A few examples of how this has worked for me:

This half term we’re studying mountains in Geography. I’ve linked this up to work in Literacy and ICT. In Literacy, we’ll be reading the diary of someone who climbed Everest, writing about aspects of his experiences and working towards writing our own mountain adventure stories. In ICT we’re working on research skills and collating information, using Freemind. We’ll most likely be researching different mountains or mountain ranges as a context for this learning. The three subjects are essentially kept separate, but the aim is that they all complement each other.

Similarly, we’re learning about the moon and the space race in Science this half term, and while the Science content is looking at rockets and moon landers, this is a great chance to learn how to write newspaper articles in Literacy – Man On The Moon!

For me, working in this way is more meaningful, and it enables children to go deeper into a topic area that hopefully enthuses them.

Another thing that we do in my school is an annual ‘topic week’, where the whole school essentially comes off timetable, we pick a theme (usually a subject area), spend an afternoon as staff throwing ideas around to narrow things down slightly, then get to more or less do what we want for a week! It’s a lot of work, but great great fun – one year our topic was History, so we decided that each class teacher should study the decade they were born in with their class. With my Y4 class, I took a different news event from the 80s each day and worked around that – so we found out about Mount. St. Helens and made volcanoes out of plastic bottles and newspaper, along with some baking soda and vinegar. We learnt about Charles and Diana’s wedding, the Berlin Wall and a couple of other things. It’s always an enjoyable week, and gives us as teachers chance to broaden the childrens’ education beyond the constrains of the national curriculum.

My experience is, I’ll admit, slightly constrained by the fact that I’ve spent most of my teaching career in the school I’m in now, which means that I don’t know all that much about how other people do things. In my school, though, we’ve found this to be an effective way of working and of planning.

Following the recent meeting that headguruteacher and others had with Ofsted,  there’s been various comments (including from me!) bemoaning the lack of a dedicated primary presence, I thought I should put my money (or, well, my blog) where my mouth is and share my own views on lesson observations.

Personally,  I don’t mind being observed. I like to watch other people teach, and in return I’m happy to be watched. I welcome feedback – I always want to know what could be better, but I find that being officially graded can get in the way of this.

I’ve been observed regularly since I started teaching 7 years ago, and have generally been graded as good with outstanding. That, however, has not particularly helped to improve my teaching. Some of the most useful observation sequences I’ve had have been aimed at one aspect of my teaching – a few years ago we did some work on AfL, which started with myself and a fellow teacher working with someone from the local authority to improve our practice and then lead to us working closely with two other teachers on a round of observations and discussions, all designed to identify what was already good and give clear targets for improvement.

I found this so much more helpful than what can sometimes be  the deficit model of a traditional Ofsted style observation. By this I mean a grading, with reasons given why you’re not good or outstanding. Those phrases that start “if you’d just done this“, followed by my heart sinking, and massive frustration. It also puts me on the defensive – I was given a 3 for a lesson recently, and while I could have defended myself any number of ways, in the end I didn’t bother as I was too dispirited by this number looming large. In effect, the number blanked out the possibly useful feedback. Without the number, it  might have been a more useful experience.  As so many people have pointed out, it’s not possible to teach a one off outstanding lesson! And yet teachers are left chasing this goal – and again, I include myself in that. It’s a distraction, and means that the final number becomes more important than the advice and feedback.

If gradings truly are coming to an end (and the signs from the above meeting suggest they are), then we should see observations becoming more formative and more useful, more focused on how we as teachers can improve our practice and ultimately improve our pupils’ learning. And since it’s half term, I’ll drink to that!

Spring Term, Week 6

I’m shockingly late with a review of the week – blame it on extreme busy-ness with all things church, plus babysitting duty for my friend’s kids. Still, here goes.

The ups:

  • Positive parent’s evening conversations: I was cheered up hugely by how many positive things I could tell parents on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Lots of children working hard, lots of children achieving well. Hurrah!
  • Children’s own pride in their work. I’ve been pushing for excellence a lot recently – on Tuesday we wrote weather forecasts. I gave these a really detailed mark in time for Thursday, when the kids had to then read carefully what I’d written, and rewrite their forecasts, making improvements. Yes, there were a few grumbles, but the number of children who brought me their improved work with a great big smile was fantastic. I was proud, but more importantly, they were proud.
  • Seeing a few children really show me what they’re capable of. Always rewarding.

The downs:

  • So, so, so bloody busy. I’m not sure I got up to the staffroom more than once or twice over the whole week. I’ve been stressed with travel-related difficulties due to the flooding, which has meant (even) longer days, and leaving for work not really knowing how I was going to get home. Add that to a hugely intense work week, and. Well. It’s a wonder I could stand up by the end of it.
  • Injuries. Lots of rough play, lots of blood everywhere. May need to review our playground equipment after the holidays!

No targets for this week coming, other than to chill! Oh, and write a few blogposts. I’ve got thoughts brewing on aiming for excellence, teaching writing, how teaching this class has been SO different…and a few others. We’ll see what gets written first!

Spring Term, Week 5

I’m a bit later with this week’s review than normal – it’s been tricky to write. A lot of stuff going on that, due to the fact I don’t blog/tweet anonymously, I can’t really write about. Still, teaching is like that sometimes. With that in mind, here’s the highlights and lowlights of the week that was:


  • Less shouting. I mentioned this in my aims last week, and while I wouldn’t say I’ve gone a whole day without raising my voice, I’ve certainly been much more volume conscious this week.
  • Good marking. Definitely getting more into the swing of this ‘next steps’ business. I still think that at lower primary (I include Y3 in that!), it’s more about responsive teaching than endless comments in their books, but they are taking notice of what I write. I think…
  • Good sandwiches. It’s been that time again, when the DT Sandwich Snack unit rears its head. They all did very well though, and thoroughly enjoyed their creations.


  • Poor health. I feel like I’ve been sick since October, and I’m sincerely fed up.
  • Plate spinning. Teaching my class (well, I suppose any class) is like this. Some days I feel awesomely in control of it all, other days…not so much!

Looking forward:

  • Parent’s evenings – hoping for some positive, next step conversations. And for me not to collapse with exhaustion!
  • Continue to monitor my volume. It’s effective, and good for me.

I tend to enjoy the Spring Term the most – it’s the one with the fewest interruptions, I find, so we can really get our heads down and work hard. This has definitely been my experience this term, and it’s something I’m keen to sustain both this week and into next half term. That said, the prospect of a week’s rest coming up is lovely…