No Pen Day: Sock puppets, Roman villa tours and Simon Schama mimicking

Last year in June I organised a No Pen Day at school to encourage teaching staff to make use of some of the technology we had access to, much of which had been languishing, unloved, or booked out to the Science department who took it to their hearts quickly.

A whole school event, I ran some after school training, completed a Learning on the Loo and offered my assistance with planning. It was largely successful. I got little feedback from the students but then, through this year, many of them have asked me when it is happening again and talked about it favourably, so we gave it another go.

This year, however, there is a dearth of technological equipment so I relied on student devices and my own ideas to promote good pen-free learning in my classroom. I particularly wanted to do something good for my Y10s, some of whom had found themselves in detention last year for not having a pen on No Pen Day (I think it was actually for rudeness to the teacher when asked to produce a pen – though I can see their point, that in fairness, they should not have required one for the lesson.)

So, I resurrected a lesson I did at the very end of the year last year, involving sock puppets and the development of the police force in the 19th century. White children’s socks can be bought cheaply in most supermarkets – mine cost £2.50 for 7 pairs – and drawn on with felt tips to create characters. They had to storyboard on a prescribed topic on their phones or other devices and present a short play to the class. I filmed this on the iPad Mini I currently have and was able to show them on the board right away via an VGA connector I bought. They’re viewable on YouTube here. In future I will be vetting the scripts a little more closely ahead of time because some of them were a bit light on content.

I backed this up today with a written quiz which students answered based on what they’d learned last lesson. We watched the sock puppets again and I filled in where I felt there were significant gaps, and it worked quite well.

With my Y7s, who are doing the development of Westbury, I adapted quite a didactic lesson so it didn’t involve writing. I went through the information with them on the board and then challenged them to build their own Roman villa using just the classroom furniture. I had originally intended to do this in the woods behind my mobile but started to worry about (a) mud, (b) splinters, (c) insect bites/hayfever and (d) trees being mercilessly torn apart in the name of a good building, so we did it inside instead.

After 15 minutes, they were ready to take the TA and myself on a tour. The best thing about this was that they really made an effort to pronounce the Latin names for the various rooms correctly, and worked together to make sure we knew what each room was for, with the tour guides chipping in. It worked well as a speaking and listening exercise.

Finally, year 9 did a presentation on the Magna Carta. I showed them a clip from Simon Schama’s History of Britain, which is a bit too difficult for them to understand; then I gave them text books and a rough plan and asked them to write their own speeches on the devices they had brought in with them.


Schama seems to move his head around a lot when he’s talking. I wonder if this might be because (like me) he naturally “speaks with his hands” a lot and when one tries to resist this, it usually manifests itself in another way. Anyway, it gives the students a sense of the theatrical when they’re presenting.

We had a good variety of devices – mostly phones, one Kindle, on iPad, and an ancient laptop I keep in a cupboard which I loaned out. I had pre-warned them so they were as prepared as they could be. We overran and I was pleased to see that most of the students still had the speeches saved on their devices when we finished off today. Historical knowledge everywhere!

Feedback from students has been quite positive so far. I definitely don’t feel they have learned less as a result of not writing. I remember a comment from the feedback last year: one member of staff said that they felt the exercise had the effect of dumbing down learning. This has preyed on my mind all year because I disagree with it very strongly; if the pedagogy is sound, the learning will still be great. I am reminded of what Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Open University, said when asked about getting teachers on board with new techs at EdFest (in a session which, helpfully, I appear not to have blogged) –

“Take your keen teachers and make them into rockstars. Your fence-sitters, the middle of the pack, will want a piece of it and follow eventually. The curmudgeons? Forget them.”

Second time round, there seems to be a lot more enthusiasm than last time. I saw paper planes being thrown in a lesson on aerodynamics; there was a murder mystery going on in MFL; the Maths department were recommended to me by the DHT as having done some great activities; my techno-phobe History colleague – keen but extremely time poor thanks to his additional roles within school – got me to show him Puppet Pals on the school iPods. I felt like the buy-in was greater this time around.

I’m looking forward to No Pen Day 2014.

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1 Response to No Pen Day: Sock puppets, Roman villa tours and Simon Schama mimicking

  1. shouldbemarkingbooks says:

    I absolutely loved this. Inspiring stuff.

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