What I’m reading now

Now that down time is kicking in I am going back to the books to consolidate the year and prepare for next year. Here’s what I’m reading at the moment.

Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains

I’m teaching a brief history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to my year 12s in preparation for their NEA, and this has been recommended to me so many times it was my top pick to prepare for it. It is a cracking read and pacy enough to be good for the bus. I’m supplementing with a little from Hugh Thomas’s epic The Slave Trade, which I need to sit down with for a good hour to get my head around. I’ve got Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese waiting in the wings, as recommended by a local activist. Finally, I’ve got hold of a second hand copy of Black Ivory by James Walvin, for some accessible background for the students, and I’m excited to see he has a new book coming out in July focusing just on sugar, which I think will be helpful several units I already teach.

Daisy Christodoulou, Making Good Progress?

It’s time to review this year’s scheme of assessment and tweak for next year. It’s been about 18 months since I finished my course on assessment with the CIEA so it is good to get back to some of the theory with this book.

Tracy Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors

After a year of reading about the Tudors I now feel a lot of knowledgeable than I did at the start, so I’ve moved to something a bit lighter and chattier to finish off the school year. This one is good for dipping into at bed time.

Kim MacQuarrie, The Last Days of the Incas

I’m off to Peru next month, so I thought I should read something in preparation for that. My brother recommended this one.

Please feel free to share what you’re reading: I’m always looking for new recommendations.

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Policing other people’s teaching

When December rolls around, I get annoyed by the inevitable complaints of people proclaiming that it is too early to put up the Christmas tree. Why does it matter to people so much? There is no rule about this. If you don’t want yours up, don’t put it up. If you do, do. I was particularly tickled by this article on the Daily Mash, which I now make a point of sharing with people who make a fuss.

Unfortunately, a lot of this goes on in teaching, as well. I’m not talking about the big stuff: of course if someone’s teaching methods are (a) hindering student progress or (b), arguably as bad, not creating progress whilst at the same time being a massive time suck for the teacher or (c), being arbitrarily imposed on them with no basis in evidence, then it’s worth a discussion. However, I do come back to the leaving speech of an AHT, who reminded us that, once we’re in the classroom and we’ve kicked the door shut, it’s just us and them and we can do what we need to (that sounds a lot more threatening in type…it was quite motivational and moving at the time). We make dozens of professional decisions every day about the best way to teach, and that is what we have been trained for.

To wit: using PowerPoint. I use Smartnotes because I hate ppt, and it has considerably lightened my workload in the long term because the starters, assessment scaffolds and key words are already there, saving me writing them up every time, and the writing I add to the slides in the lessons remains for me to refer back to in subsequent lessons. Don’t want to use PowerPoint (or equivalent)? Don’t. Do? Do. Want to tell me what I should do? Not advisable.

Similarly, learning styles. Adopted wildly out of context and clearly scarred some teachers for life, particularly if they’d had to reference them in lesson plans (see b above). I’ve read a lot about them. I never bought into the idea that lessons should match learning styles because I’ve never really been in the business of removing what I see as reasonable obstacles in learning: your university lecturer isn’t going to provide a role play for you so you’d better get used to all the styles, kind of thing. However, I did, and continue to, plan activities that speak to a variety of learning styles so that my classes get a good smorgasboard of different things. This is partly to help them work out what activities help them learn best, which I think is vital self-knowledge to have before any serious revision kicks in, and partly because I prefer wondrous variety.

Want to use learning styles? Do. Don’t want to? Don’t. Want to tell me what I should think, why I’m wrong? Really, really don’t.

The frustrating thing about seeing these debates play out over and over again is how trivial it all is. I know it doesn’t feel trivial to the (seemingly very aggrieved) people who have found themselves under attack for not doing things they didn’t agree with – I get that – but in the grand scheme of things, as a profession we have bigger fish to fry. I am tired of seeing teachers attacking other teachers, like there aren’t enough people out there attacking us already. I’d prefer it if we recognised that teaching well is the work of an entire career; picked up bits and pieces from each other that we liked without needing to comment on what we didn’t; and, above all, supported one another’s professional judgement about what is best in our own classrooms.



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A Tale of Two Year 11s

I inherited two year 11 groups upon my arrival at the new school. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The best: sparky students, quicker relationship building due to seeing them more often, the promise of future down time. The worst: two sets of mocks, two sets of coursework that they handed in in June and therefore desperately want back, two sets of lessons to plan: to begin with I had to finish off the Germany course with one set and begin Medicine with the other. To add to the confusion, the school is following this course for the first and last time this year, having adhered strictly to Modern World previously. So, a dearth of resources too. Fun.

I thought, however, that once I stopped teaching Germany to group A, I could start reusing my lessons from group B to teach them Medicine. A few tweaks needed, maybe, but the same basic activities and so on. It has quickly become evident that this is not the case, in a way that helpfully demonstrates why I think pragmatism in the classroom, rather than a strict adherence to the church of trad or prog, is the best way to go.

In November I had a performance management lesson observation with group B. I wheeled out one of my favourite prog activities. It involved answering questions from a video, group work, animation (Commoncraft-style, which is one of the few I’ve found where the knowledge building isn’t subsumed by the process of animating) and using iPods. The class loved it. The observer loved it. I loved it. We all loved the resulting revision videos. It was a lot of love.

When the time came to try this with group A, it quickly became apparent that this was not going to fly with them. Group A like being told things. I apologised once, at the end of a lesson where we had timelined a period from the Medicine course on the board and I had spoken for nearly 45 minutes, for too much copying from the board. “Please keep doing this Miss,” they replied. “We like it. It means we have stuff to revise from. Most teachers don’t put enough on the board.” They did not like the video lesson. We sacked it off and I told them the stuff.

I duly planned more traditional lessons for group A, going forward. They overtook group B as they have an extra lesson a fortnight, so in the last week of term I recycled one of group A’s lessons for group B. “Miiiiissss we’ve done soooooo much writing from the board today! Can’t we do something else?”

Going forward then, a more pragmatic approach and different activities for each class, it seems.

A caveat: I’m not advocating that everybody doubles their workload to ensure the activities are tailored to class preference. In this case, I’m going to do that as far as possible, because this is year 11 – they’ve had a year of building a relationship with one teacher, only to find themselves with a new one at the most critical time. I think I owe it to them to make this transition as smooth as possible. I’m the professional, after all. They’re stressed teenagers. I’m not pandering to their preferences to extract good behaviour from them. I’m packaging the topics in the way they will find most accessible, to build their confidence and knowledge of the course. I’ve been teaching a while and know Medicine inside out, so this is not a significant commitment of time for me. I also enjoy planning lessons…

However, I do favour a mixed economy across the board, which is why my KS3 lessons have a broad variety of activities in that cater to a range of preferences. A diet of fudge sickens the stomach, after all. Was it Tebbit who said that?

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WLFS History conference: Tamizian

Narrative construction.

Vartan begins with two questions:

What makes a good narrative?

What was the last narrative you read and enjoyed?

Definition. A story? Yes, but chronologically ordered and limited by evidence. An underrated skill – Lang, 2003. A form of text/thinking – Bruner. 

Or – the art or technique of narrating. 

Megill suggests narrative blends description and explanation, whereas Tosh suggests it blends description and analysis, sitting between them. 

It is the type of history that most of us choose to read when we have the time. 

Vartan talks about some narratives, referencing Narration, Identity and Historical Consciousness (Straub) as a good read on the problems of leaving out the narrative. He recommends some good narratives – Holland; Schama’s Citizens; Gombrich’s a Little History of the World; Larson’s Dead Wake, on the sinking of the Lusitania. He also recommends several TH articles. 

Vartan explains how students begin to construct narrative, to consolidate the knowledge before completing something a little more nuanced. They repeat this with KS4, pointing out that the narrative that construct – a bit at a time, over a couple of terms – provides their revision tool. Vartan has also done this with ks5 as a revision exercise.

Pick out context, characters, then timeline. This helps to connect slightly forced distinctions, eg domestic and foreign policies. Agree a narrative. 

It provides a bridge – fun for them to write but leads to analysis. Students can use to consolidate, transform their knowledge and revise. Teachers can use to engage, challenge (or access) and evaluate – helpful diagnostic that helps with intervention planning. 

Vartan then shares lots of examples from across the year groups and from History and RS. There’s a wealth of suggestions and ideas here on why to do it and how it contributes. Vartan warns that there is a time commitment and that some students might use it as an excuse to avoid other homework they find more challenging, but the arguments to include this sort of thing are strongly made. 

A good one to end with – write it as a film script; choose pictures/staging to go with it. 

Though these are probably my least coherent notes, the session was absolutely jammed with ideas. So much to take back with me. 

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WLFS History Conference: Walsh

Prosopographical! This is the term of the session for me. Definitely need to go and do some reading

Sources and interps for ordinary pupils in ordinary classrooms. 

Ben begins by talking about his experience of students as an examiner. Some ask for a C, or tweet that he is a prick. Some write long essays in their exam papers about why the system is broken. He says both approaches are common – from my previous examining experience, I strongly concur. 

The mindset he presents – that sources are difficult and not a fair test – comes from the idea that history is just stuff, and that sources are just unhelpful versions of the textbook – something that doesn’t agree with what they’ve been taught. They consider sources as information – unnuanced, factual and not open to interpretation. 

Why do they find it difficult to adopt the historian’s mindset?

(After Jim’s session, I wonder if this is because they are so rarely encouraged to adopt it)

Because it’s difficult. Building an argument is hard, particularly when you haven’t seen many examples of it.

‘You are not entitled to your opinion in this classroom. You are entitled to make an argument.’ I’d like to put this up in my classroom but I think there would be student uproar: maybe that’s a good reason to do it.

This is threatening – you have to open up and say what you think. 

It’s different from other subjects, which are often ‘Here is stuff. Write stuff down’ whereas we’re doing ‘Here is stuff. What’s the important bit of stuff?’ – Ben suggests we are against the signature pedagogy of the classroom. 

Finally, it flies against binary thinking – there’s not always black and white – and confirmation bias – the source does not say what they think it should. Historians ask why it disagrees, whereas students tend to dismiss it or ‘torture the source until it does agree’.

Ben makes an argument for using a simplified pyramid instead of exam board markschemes with students, to show the hierarchy or how to tackle a source – comprehension, inference, the story *of* the source rather than in it. 

He shares his favourite source ever – a weight change diagram of a year in the life of school children in 1906. He uses it as a source that enables a clear inference generator, but also encourages us to consider how the publication of the source itself is important: why was it made? What had changed to enable it to be made?

An interesting side conversation occurs this point about teaching to the test, in which Ben points out two things I strongly agree with – that exams and marlshemes should not inform lessons and that if the exam asks them to go a mile, you make them go two in a lesson.

The dreaded useful question. Ben gave his students sources and asked then to consider – what are they useful for? Bringing their knowledge of the period will help them to make this assessment. He gives us a couple of source examples, showing how content and provenance can both be pulled in by simply asking students to assess what they are useful for, rather than just if they are useful. Giving students source collections can help them when considering this question because they can begin to create a hierarchy.

A good way of characterising it is to give students sources and tell them they’re going to sell them on eBay. How much would you charge – which ones would have the highest starting price? 

We tend to have a view of history and struggle when a source does not meet it: a picture of a medieval woman cutting someone’s head off; a conscription appeal for someone who wasn’t a CO. Can consider *why* these things are surprising/shocking – what’s skewed about our view of history?

Just after Ben recommends that we look at Putin’s rehashed interpretations of Stalin, the projector goes blank so we are forced off to lunch. Ben finishes by saying that he doesn’t think students need to construct their own interpretations to critique historians: why get into the ring with a grizzly bear when you can choose another grizzly bear to fight back? But, I guess you have to know a few grizzlies for this to work. 

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WLFS History Conference: Carroll

Jim Carroll on, how can we get students writing more like historians? 

History is an argumentative discipline. 

Scrap “I think/believe” – don’t encourage then that beliefs are important, because it’s about evidence, not belief. 

Make the cause the subject of the clause, where it will begin to act as the agent. “One reason” gives no indication of the relative importance of clauses. Similarly, “because” gives no indication of the role of the cause. (Fig 1)

Having picked out some problems, Jim returned to scholarship to look for solutions. How does Kershaw do it? He talks us through a paragraph to model. He packs in an enormous amount in a small space, bundling up events into abstract phrases like “consequent government stalemate” and uses verbs instead of connectives to link and characterise causes – adds nuance and flavour. 

Having considered academic historical writing, it’s hard! Key tenets?

Literacy can’t be ‘bolted on’ to history. 

Construction of argument must be explicit. Even writing a narrative is an argument, says Jim. 

Create writers from readers. Give them scholarship and teach them to read it. 

Don’t model language that a historian wouldn’t realistically use; avoid heuristics that shut down scope for argument. 

Lexicogrammar. Jim started with just providing vocabulary but then started to think about sentence structure: you can’t write a counterfactual without knowing how to structure a counterfactual clause, for example. 

Secure substantive knowledge enabled students to think about argument construction. I like to point out to students, when they ask me how much they need to write, that they should think about how much they could write about themselves in half an hour – because that’s how well they should know the topics. They can then focus on modelling their clay, so to speak. 

Consider the different linguistic demands of specific second order concepts, and make them clear to the students. 

Abstract generalisation also needs to be made explicit to students. 

Support working memory in essay planning to help students avoid ‘knowledge vomit’ where they just blurt out all they know without considering relevance. 

We look at some examples of abstract generalisations by students and I am struck by the difference between a student who can do this from a place of knowledge, and students who trot out the generalisations that clearly are not underpinned, and the very subtle differences in language that indicate the two. Something to think further one. I find students will argue well with logic and struggle to see why this isn’t enough: I wonder whether I can get onto abstract generalisations until they can understand how to use knowledge to construct an argument.

We do a cardsort and I get too busy to take notes. We have to organise the cards into groups and then make a generalisation about them. A favourite activity of mine: just did this with year 8 on why the British Empire grew, but I begin by giving them two categories and challenging them to place as many of their cards in categories of their own choosing as possible – this seems to provide a place of safety for the confused.

Jim circulates like a good teacher should and at one point asks the insightful question, what changed to create the cause?

A great session, providing lots to think about. Here are the handouts: 

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WLFS History Conference: Counsell

The odds are stacked against the poor. They have little chance of climbing into the corridors of power. And the odds are also stacked against peace. In many countries, history is about knowing a particular story and being able to shout that story loudest. This can lead to a lot of rock throwing. 

It is difficult to create a fixed, agreed story that keeps everybody happy – Christine talks about her experiences working with history teachers in Beirut, trying to organise a history curriculum change for the first time since 1968. They look to the British history community as a model of how to come up with a curriculum that acknowledges difference and disagreement, and encompasses it. 

Christine talks about changes in school history in the 20th century and the marginalisation of substantive knowledge. We need to unpack what sits under our own proficiency and fluency, if we are going to be able to prepare particularly the poorest children, to join the speech community at the very least, and then the educated community. 

The responsibility of the history community in this country is colossal – our students, our country, the world – and we must measure up. What locus of authority should we look to as our lead? We should look to academe, and SLT should support that. 

Arguments for knowledge. 

Christine shares a passage from Schama about 1066 (‘bones under the buttercups’). We have plenty of memory space and a fluency that enables us to understand it. This is coffee table history – most people should be able to leave school understanding it. Christine breaks the extract down into words we need substantive knowledge to understand and words related to the second order concept, pointing out that we need to understand the former to help us with the latter. This is a clear argument for specific teaching of knowledge. 

Christine references an article from TH157 by Kate Hammond, which points out a lack of discriminatory markschemes from exam boards. Always worth noting that those are written to go alongside examiner training. Anyway – this led to a masters project on the reasons why some good students collapse in the exam due to a lack of substantive knowledge. 

A critical mass of knowledge is vital to crafting a nuanced judgement; when I explain to parents how their children are doing I say that it’s like clay work. You need to know your clay really well to be able to shape it into the request of the examiner: children often acquire plenty of clay but then present it as a lump, rather than shaping it appropriately. This seems to fit what Christine is sharing (I think). 

Hirsch. Read ch2, says Christine, though the rest is optional. He’s a valuable starting point, because he explains beautifully the psychological structure of background knowledge. He reminds us that we can interpret a text because we can bring schemata to bear on a text within a microsecond. We don’t even know we are doing it. This I’d what we need to teach and foster as we teach. 

Implications? Fingertip knowledge and residual knowledge: consider how they are different, what they are for each lesson and how you can best teach both. 

It’s important to be clear on the fingertip and residual knowledge and what they are in each topic. This goes beyond knowledge organisers. 

Regular, varied, low-stakes assessment, ensuring steady and cumulative mastery of knowledge, in the context of disciplinary processes. 


Genericism – what works for one subject does not necessarily fit all.

Gaming the system.

Grumble, grouse and grievance – it’s hard, yes, but in the end it will make it easier. 

Christine finishes with a comment about the damaging view that the knowledge camp comprises neo-con restorationists. She states that she is not a lackey of the Tories, that the focus on knowledge is much broader than that. Understanding the canon helps us to critique it, so let’s teach it to them. 

What are our responsibilities? Be scholarly.  Model being scholarly. Make it possible for other teachers to be scholarly. Pass on moral courage to enable children to challenge that with which they disagree. Make the child want to be part of the conversation, and provide them with the ability to join it.

(Once again, just a flavour…too much good stuff to write it all down).

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