Saturday, 28 March 2015

Growing Mindsets organically

What we're doing – and NOT doing – as we move towards becoming a growth mindset school

As a SLT and within our Teaching & Learning group we have unanimously agreed that growth mindset is an important way forward for us and our students. We have taken on board the theory behind mindsets and many of us have read the book 'Mindsets' by Prof Carol Dweck. Growth Mindset has been written into our School Development Plan as a core aim over the next 3 years. 

However, the spectres of Learning Styles and Brain Gym loom menacingly, and we are all-too-aware of the dangers of jumping aboard the Next-Big-Thing charabanc and taking everyone hurtling off towards a place that ultimately zaps our time and energy with no impact or gain for our students or for our staff. Been there, done that. So we have always been acutely aware of the need to do things well: thoroughly, steadily and with lasting effect. I will share what we've learned, what we've done and what we're going to do. I hope it's useful.

So far this year, then:

  • One member of SLT (me) has been given overall responsibility for its implementation and I'm working with another AHT, Tess (@Flickers4Eva), to build it via the Teaching & Learning group.
  • One middle leader, Simon (@economysir), is writing his masters about its implementation and using action research to feed into the school’s work on mindsets.
  • Our Straight-to-Teach trainee, Andy (@80Morrison), is writing a research project about GM, working with Simon and contributing to the action research project.
  • We have visited Huntington School in York and spent a fantastically useful day with @JohnTomsett and his extremely generous staff, learning how growth mindset has been part of their school development for the past 3 years. We wrote a detailed report about what we learned and presented it to SLT and the T&L group. This part of the process was invaluable as we were able to see where Huntington is now, three years down the line, and what they have done in order to achieve this.
  • Students have all taken the GM questionnaire and initial scores entered onto SIMs.
  • We’ve included information and tips about growth mindset in our student planners, which we design and print in-school. This has meant we can guide staff towards these sections as and when we want to introduce aspects of growth mindset as the year has gone on.
It’s vital at this stage to consider one’s own school. Every school is unique: it has its own history, ethos and context. It was important for us to discuss and consider what we felt would and would not work back at Christopher Whitehead. There are certain types of students that we feel could really do with some support into becoming more growth mindset; some schools will recognise these students, others will find they have different priority students. For us, we feel we need to address two main types of students:

  • our Pupil Premium students, who can lack self-esteem and faith that they can improve. They statistically are likely to be in middle to lower ability sets and, unfortunately, are more likely to be moved down sets and then stay down, despite their academic ability. With less support at home, we might be tempted to lower our expectations rather than raise them. We're hoping that a growth mindset focus will benefit both them and their teachers. Dweck's focus on improvement through effort, and intelligence NOT being fixed is essential for these students' school experience.
  • The other main group are our highest ability students: fantastically motivated students who want to please; who try their very best and also find any kind of failure potentially devastating. We have an increasing number of of our high achievers finding life very difficult at times of stress and sometimes having melt-downs. As we move towards linear courses and a build-up to high-stakes exam periods, we need to safeguard the well-being of these students by making them more resilient as early as we can; teaching them that failure is part of learning. Dweck's work is absolutely key to us tackling this: these students are clear examples of a fixed mindset. 

We highly recommend talking to a variety of staff at this point, if you are considering adopting growth mindset. Our presentation and subsequent discussion at the T&L group proved to be the key to our next steps.

GM has been a key theme of our T&L meetings this year and those staff that attend T&L. Our T&L group meets on average twice per half term and consists of one rep from every department plus anyone else interested. This gives us give us a wide range of voices from all subject areas and levels of experience.

Teaching & Learning Group discussions/findings

This academic year, we had focused on growth mindset as one thread of our discussions and practice. We had read a number of blogposts (@JohnTomsett and @chrishildrew in particular), viewed some videos and many of us had read the book Mindsets. Discussion was also key, in answering questions, exploring doubts and also considering counter-arguments.

@ecomonysir later presented on his own view of it and why it is forming the basis of his Masters study this year. He has been running a study on a set of students who took the growth mindset questionnaire and had returned low scores. They fitted one of the profiles of some of our focus students at CWLC: bright, able and fixed mindset. His research involved he and @80Morrison meeting with the students weekly to talk through their learning experiences in the week; observing the students in lessons, conducting interviews with individuals and also interviewing many of their teachers. @economysir will continue to feed back as the year continues and he will share his findings in the summer, which will in turn inform some more of our strategies with students that fit this profile.

As a group we agreed unanimously that growth mindset was definitely something that we can a) all agree as being important b) would like to share with colleagues across school c) would now like to learn more about how we can build growth mindset thinking and teaching into our practice. We discussed the pitfalls of introducing initiatives whole-school and discussed how we could learn from past experiences in using what went well and avoiding what didn’t work/what didn’t resonate.

From discussions in groups, we came up with the following points:

What to avoid
  • Don’t impose
  • No big ‘jazz hands’ launch heralding growth mindset as the Next Big Thing

What to do
  • Sustain SLT support and belief: prove growth mindset has longevity and can be sustained by key people championing it
  • ‘Drip feed’ at first – read up on it; find resources you like; trial its use; experiment with activities, language, thinking in your classes /Learning Mentor groups and gradually spread the word
  • However, a whole-school session to bring our thinking together later this year would be useful. By that time we would have some of our own evidence (Simon’s pilot and our own trials) to feedback. How it is introduced and who shares it will be important: we would like staff from the T&L group to help in this process.
  • Give practical hands-on advice about how to use in classrooms, in LM groups, in assemblies, across school and in our own CPD
  • Make resources easy to access on the staff Shared Area and easy to use
  • Make it realistic, considering middle leaders’ and teachers’ workloads, i.e. small, marginal gains, ‘instead of’ rather than ‘in addition to’
  • Evidence and research to show how it will benefit staff, students, parents and the school (What’s in it for us?)
  • Share with parents and invite them to come on board: suggestion that we share using the same format as we introduced our new reporting system on parents’ evenings as that worked well.

Plans for the rest of this year:

  • We are designing and printing our own staff planners this year, as well as the student ones we do already. This means we can include key growth mindset information in there that staff can regularly access and refer to.
  • @economysir will continue his pilot and feed back to us in the summer.
  • He has also begun an action research project with a number of volunteers from the T&L group who would like to try some more overt strategies in their teaching. The findings of this pilot will be fascinating and allow us to share with all staff at a later date, with findings that focus on our own students and within our own context.
  • ‘Drip-feed’ into whole staff meetings, focusing at first on the language of growth mindset. At our first staff meeting back after Easter, we have been given a slot to share some ideas with staff: our initial thinking will be to share the excellent video here and then focus on the language of growth mindset in our lessons.
  • The Head has generously bought 10 more copies of Mindsets for our staff T&L library (thanks Neil!) so now we can encourage as many staff as possible to read the theory and not just tap into soundbites or surface understanding.
  • We have a bank of posters and infographics available via T&L group, encouraging the principles of GM thinking, for staff to choose and put up in their classrooms.
  • We will use the new T&L area of the school website to share growth mindset thinking with other interested staff and also parents. We'd really like to involve them and share our ideas and thinking as soon as possible.

Two strategies that have had a particularly big impact so far are:

  • This growth mindset language poster (adapted from a number of sources found on Pinterest, originally though from 'Mindsets'). One of our Directors of Studies (Head of House) has had this printed onto large stickers and given one to every student in her house and stuck into their planners. She's also run an assembly on it. We'll include this as part of everyone's planner next academic year now.

  • Monsters University! Watching this film with my kids just before Christmas, it struck me that this film is the ultimate tale in growth and fixed mindset thinking. So in the last week before we broke up, with both my top Year 10 English classes (which contained many of the students from @economysir's research project), we watched Monsters University together then they applied growth mindset thinking to a reading of the movie. The subsequent work was fantastic and showed an excellent understanding by the students. Here is a short excerpt of one review.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

"The Best CPD I've Ever Had."

Thursday of last week saw the culmination of months of planning and preparation: our CPD day, delivered exclusively by our own teachers delivering the things we know they are good at.

As a big fan of Pedagoo, having been to #PedagooLondon for two years running now and #TLTSouthampton last year, I have long been waxing lyrical about the messages of bottom-up CPD and @kevbartle’s Trojan Mice effect.

My esteemed colleague @Flickas4Eva, Tess, and I had a ball at this year’s PedagooLondon and it wasn’t long before we suggested to our Lead Practitioner team that we should follow suit and set up a Pedagoo-style CPD for our own staff, and – most importantly - delivered by our own staff too.

Our Line Manager Alan, who is also our DHT, soon secured us one of the designated CPD days and then it was up to us to get it sorted. The four of us (DHT, 3 Lead Pracs: Paul, Tess and me, and our amazing admin support Therese) met officially once every two weeks, with lots of little unofficial meetings and grabbed conversations in corridors.

What follows is a step-by-step of how we made it happen, in the hope that other schools will be able to see that this kind of day, although no small undertaking, is perfectly achievable using a set of excellent resources that you already have in your own school: the staff.

(You’ll notice each step is categorized by an Abba hit. The reason for this will become apparent.)

Step 1 – I Have a Dream

We firstly decided on a model based on 4 workshop slots, department time to reflect and ending in a Teachmeet. We ran 5 workshops at a time and planned to run a few of them twice if there was enough demand.

We then pooled ideas about what kind of workshops we might offer, based on our own areas of strength as Lead Pracs who do a fair bit of outreach work between us, but also from staff we know to be very strong practitioners in their own fields, not in subjects taught but in areas we had seen them succeeding in observations and through word-of-mouth reputation.

We came up with a list of around 20 possible workshop sessions under particular headings and then created a Survey Monkey (which has been our SAVIOUR. Highly recommended).

For all of these options we asked staff for a Yes or No for whether they’d be interested in attending a CPD workshop on any of the following areas. In the free version of Survey Monkey you are only allowed ten questions so we sorted all sessions into categories some of which had sub-categories so we could fit in our 19 workshop ideas :

1. Improved impact in the classroom.

Dealing with low level disruption
Using LSAs more effectively
Improved marking & feedback
Literacy in your lessons
Numeracy in your lessons
Effective differentiation strategies
Teaching revision and study skills at Key Stage 3

2. So you want to be a middle leader? (But aren’t yet on the MLDP)

3. Dealing with difficult situations.
Drugs awareness (run by the police)
Difficult parents
Difficult students (pastoral)

4. Improving teaching & learning through peer observations.

5. Effective use of ICT
Excel spreadsheets for data tracking – Basic
Excel spreadsheets for data tracking – Enhanced
Using iPads in the classroom

6. Making the most of Guidance Time.
(our daily extended tutor time within our vertical House system)

7. Homework: the issues and the solutions.

8. Running successful trips from school (day trips, residentials, home and abroad).

9. Well-being: A session that promotes your health, happiness & sanity!

We also asked colleagues to use the comments box at the bottom of the survey to add any additional ideas for workshops that had not been already offered.

An all staff email (including Learning Support Assistants and support staff like the cover supervisors, behaviour and careers co-ordinators) was sent out with the Survey Monkey link and a deadline to complete the survey by.

We decided not to chase anyone – at this stage the responses were anonymous anyway, as we just wanted to gauge numbers and interest for different areas.

We were banking on about 120 people attending on the day: teaching and non-teaching staff, plus invited guests from partner schools we had been working with in our outreach work. On the first day we had 36 responses alone and over the next week we gathered 66 replies. This gave us enough feedback to determine the nature of the workshops and then we could decide on sizes of groups (no more than 25) and confirm with presenters that we’d love it if they would support us on the day by running a workshop.

Step 2 – Knowing Me Knowing You

Our knowledge of the expertise existing within our staff was absolutely crucial. Some sessions leapt out as ‘belonging’ to certain staff due to their previous work/experience or current areas of interest or expertise. And then the four of us pooled knowledge of certain skills that individual teachers had in order to create a good mix of those who were more experienced in delivering CPD with complete novices: we knew colleagues would support one another in the preparation of sessions.

This was our final list of workshops:

Making the most of Guidance Time
Using iPads in the classroom (x 2 sessions)
Dealing with difficult parents (x 2)
Improved marking and feedback
Literacy in your lessons
Using LSAs more effectively (x 2)
Drugs awareness
Improving teaching and learning through peer observations (x 2)
Dealing with low level disruption
Dealing with difficult students (pastoral) (x 2)
Teaching revision and study skills at Key Stage 3
Well-being: Mindfulness and "Calm session" (3 of the Art Dept led a decorative glass-making session)*
Well-being: Mindfulness and "Active Session" (A PE teacher supervised Staff Dodgeball in the Gym)*

*both sessions were started by Head of Drama, Simon, who’s shown an interest in the theory and practice associated with mindfulness recently. He led everyone in a 10 minute introduction in how mindfulness can relieve stress and actively support our mental health.

Each workshop was 50 mins long. We decided that after lunch, we’d utilise the time that we could have easily slotted another session in by asking staff to meet back into departments, discussing what they’d learned and looking at what they might build into their own and their department’s practice as soon as they could. Tess very often rightly asserts that she wants CPD that has a take-away aspect that she can use in her classroom tomorrow; I think most staff would agree with this, as well as the tools to build strategies with medium and long-term impact too.

Last session of the day would be a Teachmeet to bring everyone back together for a sharing opportunity: for most of the staff, this would be their first experience of a Teachmeet; even though it was a fairly short one, it gave staff the chance to listen to what others had gained from the day and get a sense of that powerful collegiate energy that comes from a peer-led Teachmeet.

We then emailed all staff with another Survey Monkey, this time one that allowed staff to give their names, choose 1st choice workshops and then tick a list of remaining workshops they wouldn't mind being given if they couldn't get 1st choice. We made sure staff knew it was strictly FIRST COME FIRST SERVED with a cut off of 2 weeks.

Step 3 – Take a Chance On Me

A tricky area for anyone organising CPD, whether you are using outside services or those from within your school is quality control. How could we ensure that the sessions would be high quality when presenters were out of their comfort zones, possibly presenting to peers for the first time, and perhaps having a limited experience of good CPD.

The CPD day itself was centred on the theme of ‘High Expectations’, one of our key messages for the coming year and a central part of the school development plan. This gave us some ideas about how to ensure a standardised approach whilst still allowing presenters the flexibility and creativity to deliver an exciting and stimulating session. We asked for the following common elements:

1.       The session should feed into the umbrella theme of High Expectations
2.       Colleagues attending each session needed to know that they would learn more about approaches firmly embedded in educational research with proof of high impact on students’ learning. We provided further reading for all presenters based on research detailed by Prof John Hattie, the Sutton Trust and Dylan Wiliam amongst others. Strategies were linked to effect sizes for each workshop theme.
3.       Wherever possible, links to improving attainment for Pupil Premium students should be mentioned in each session; again, a key theme in our whole-school approach over the coming year, as previously.

We offered as much or as little support as presenters wanted. But one thing that I thought might help was to ask nervous presenters to create their session not as a CPD delivery but just as a really great lesson, something we knew they would be able to do with bells, whistles and knobs on. I think this approach worked: the more nervous colleagues could see now how they might structure their sessions; what resources they might use and how they might think about making their sessions have long-term impact.

Paul and I held an after-school meeting a couple of weeks before the day, to reiterate the make-up of the day, the aims and some of the house-keeping like room allocations. Some presenters were delivering solo, some had decided to work in pairs, many of which were cross-curricular, giving colleagues their first opportunities to work together. After the admin, we asked presenters to join up with others and share what they had planned for the sessions. This worked brilliantly, and it really helped colleagues with the ‘planning aloud’ benefits of explaining why they’d made certain decisions and even discussing where there might be gaps in the planning so far. There was a really positive buzz about this meeting and we knew we were onto something very special.

Step 4 – The Day Before You Came (alternatively, SOS)

Ok, not exactly the actual day before, but on the run up to The Day, we worked like eedjits trying to make sure we’d dotted every i, crossed every t and umlauted every u. Rather them than me, but Tess and Therese spent a number of happy hours filling all of the workshops with people’s first choices, as far as could be managed, second choices where sessions were over-subscribed and no choice for those who’d missed the deadline. I assume they were happy, at any rate: every time I went near the office and said ‘You two OK?’, they made high pitched noises that I think were positive replies; I couldn’t hear properly as they seemed to have their teeth clenched tightly. Jolly good.

The final programme looked like this:

The end of Wednesday found us in the Science Block Hall shifting tables with the very patient care-taking team; building a mini-stage and ‘one-twoing’ for all our worth with the p.a. system. Signing–in sheets were sellotaped to tables, individual stationery and folder packs for each member of staff (a lovely finishing touch sorted by Paul and our fab Repro team) stacked onto desks; coffee and tea laid out.

We felt like the (dysfunctional) family the day before our offspring’s wedding but luckily we no longer had any nerves, as they had been completed shredded by this point.

Step 4 – Super Trouper

As soon as we arrived, we knew it was going to be an epic day. Spotting my silver T-shirt as I stood with my 1 female and 2 male team colleagues, the Head began to refer to us as Abba. It stuck.

I can’t lie and say there were no hitches on the day, but they really were only minor ones in the great scheme of things. I managed to attend one other session as well as the two I was running and I loved the mix of people in the room; the pace and excitement generated by regular discussions; the sense that we were being truly collaborative, creative and energized above all, at a time of year when everyone is on their knees with exhaustion. It reinforces my belief (long-held by fellow Pedagooers) that this kind of peer-led, bottom-up CPD is truly empowering and very exciting.

The day went by in a high-octane blur and before we knew it, we were back in the Hall for the Teachmeet. We’d asked departments to sit together at large tables which we’d covered in lining paper, marker pens and chocolate bars (thanks to Tess’s husband, John, who works for a well-known chocolate factory). Departments were encouraged to write down shared ideas onto the lining paper and then take it back to pin in their offices to refer to when making further plans.

We’d provided each session with a feedback sheet which we asked to be filled in at the end of each session (below).

These for the majority of workshops:

And these for the mindfulness/well-being sessions:

We collected these in and then, after the Teachmeet, asked staff to fill in a post-it stating WWW and EBI, to be stuck to a big whiteboard we’d set up.

Perhaps the first indication of the success of the day was at the end. The usual end-of-CPD-day response is akin to a flock of velociraptors chasing a truckload of cattle out of the school doors, yet even after we’d thank everyone and officially wrapped up, a significant number of staff stayed back to chat.

The previously-nervous presenters were delighted at how their sessions had been received. We now need to harness this energy and build on the confidence that has been established when staff are given the chance to work outside of their comfort zones and embrace the challenge of collaborating much more with their peers.

We could see the Head was happy by the end of the day (and not just with my sparkly silver top) but he was positively effusive about what he’d witnessed as he popped in and out of sessions and chatted to staff from our own school and the 12 colleagues from partner schools (“Are there any jobs going here?” was one request he’d had.)

The amazing Therese sorted through the post-its the next day and typed up the responses. Here is a representative selection (with numbers in brackets if replicated):

What Went Well:
·         Excellent ideas (especially Guidance Time) which I really will try
·         Great discussion and ideas on homework and behaviour
·         Presentations by different staff it was refreshing to see different people ( x 8)
·         Well organised, structured  and very professional (5)
·         Meeting and chatting to staff from other departments and schools (x 8)
·         Our staff are amazing! Thank you everyone who delivered a session!
·         Making cool glassware in the “calm” session
·         Being able to choose your own activities from a range on offer (x 7)
·         Chance to share good practice with colleagues at school not generic training (x 6)
·         Training from colleagues who know our particular staff and students (x 2)
·         One of the best training days I’ve ever been on (x 2)
·         Calm / creative sessions should be a regular part of TED/CPD

Even Better If:
·         Whole day of workshops (x 3)
·         More time for each session to allow discussion time at the end (x 19)
·         More such sessions on a regular basis
·         Longer time for practical
·         Do it again! September  TED, to enable us to get on sessions missed
·         Less options could lead to a more focused discussion
·         More selection for lunch, carrots not peas

We’ll definitely re-group very soon and consider where we’re going next (will there be another chance to run a CPD day next year? What can we do to improve it?) but there is no doubt it was a very special day. Many staff took the time to personally approach each or all of us to say how much they’d enjoyed the day and – crucially – they felt it had been relevant and energizing using the set-up that we’d borrowed from Pedagoo.

We also received a number of emails that evening. My favourites:

“…it was great to see how much good practice is happening in school and time was given to actually sharing for a full day instead of just having it thrown at you in a 10 min meeting.”

“Thanks for the encouragement and suggestions about doing a session on the TED… I have had some really very positive responses from some unlikely sources who have sworn that they will dismember me if I reveal that it had an impact on them. 
It is really odd that we feel embarrassed to admit that we need to just get some relief at times. I know I felt awkward admitting to colleagues I sometimes sit down quietly for ten minutes?? Also the respondents said they felt a bit vulnerable about admitting it worked and that they would continue to mock me in public. 
Thanks again.

And lastly, from our Head:

“Dear Abba,

My vision – that oft used ill thought out phrase - was to run a school where colleagues wanted to attend, were happy to be there, were full of ideas, felt challenged to develop without the fear of constant judgement, where respect and values were not words that were left in the dictionary and, crucially, where leadership occurred at every level, not apportioned as the job of the senior leadership team.

The last two days have given me great hope that we are getting there and that a great school is attainable.

Well done


Happy doesn’t even cover it…

I really hope other schools are inspired to follow suit with us and other schools that are opting for this type of CPD. Do get in touch if you have any questions about putting this type of CPD on in your school.

POSTSCRIPT (August 2014)

I thought it would be worth adding a few comments about keeping up the momentum of this CPD day after the euphoria had died a little. This perhaps is the most important part: so often it's easy to be enthusiastic about inspirational ideas but the reality of day-to-day school life can have a habit of dampening our professional ardour.

"What's the impact?" is a phrase much needed in the wake of any CPD. It's easy to see the immediate impact in the buzz great CPD can create; even more heartening was the written feedback that we took the time to wade through and analyse. That's why it was important to include a section in the feedback forms for staff to start considering what the medium and long-term impact might be of each of the sessions they'd attended. And also crucial was allowing departments time to discuss and share what they'd learned as individuals. It was fantastic to learn just a few days after the workshops that the Science department had created a policy for all of the their staff on working more effectively with their Learning Support Assistants, created directly after two of their staff attending the workshop run by a teacher and a LSA.

To harness this type of positivity and action, I made sure the last Teaching and Learning meeting of the summer term rode of the back of the CPD day. It's a large group these days and contains representatives from every curriculum area. I asked each member of staff to make a pledge for the coming year to implement and follow through at least one idea or strategy they had learned on the day, in their own classroom practice and/or (if appropriate) one thing for the whole department to try. I've pinned all of these pledges up in the Staff Development Room, which is where we make the coffee before T&L and Middle Leaders meetings so they can't be missed (I'll take a photo when I go into school). And I'll make it my job to follow these pledges up and see how they are working - and if not, why that might be, so we can continue learning and improving.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Dynamite Paragraphs - How to teach your students to analyse brilliantly

This method is suitable for analysing both language and literature.

This strategy comes from material that was shared by an AQA adviser for English at a recent course attended by my super colleague Karen Cunningham @kcquietcorner.

The adviser gave a bank of words that can be used to construct deeper, more probing analysis of language and encourage more detailed responses, especially under the time constraints of exams. However, as I have found this week, this method works equally well with students in lower years.

So I took the word banks and created two posters that I stuck up in my room. 


After seeing students keen to take photos of the posters I reckoned it would also be useful to create printable versions, which I now have.


The first poster demonstrates how paragraphs might be started, encouraging a wider range in vocabulary right from the off. I’ll use the first class I tried this with as my initial example and I’ll replicate actual responses from the students. It was my Year 11 set 4 (out of 5 sets) and we had been studying the poem “Bayonet Charge” by Ted Hughes. I was trying to teach them the old ‘write a lot about a little’ strategy and students had picked out 3 quotations that they thought would be worth further exploration (and hopefully would then replicate in the exam).

Here’s the poem in its entirety: a brutal, powerful and heartbreaking snapshot into what must surely be the final moments of a WWI soldier as he goes over the top.

Bayonet Charge

Suddenly he awoke and was running - raw
In raw-seamed hot khaki, his sweat heavy,
Stumbling across a field of clods towards a green hedge
That dazzled with rifle fire, hearing
Bullets smacking the belly out of the air -
He lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm;
The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye
Sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest, -

In bewilderment then he almost stopped -
In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations
Was he the hand pointing that second? He was running
Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs
Listening between his footfalls for the reason
Of his still running, and his foot hung like
Statuary in mid-stride. Then the shot-slashed furrows

Threw up a yellow hare that rolled like a flame
And crawled in a threshing circle, its mouth wide
Open silent, its eyes standing out.
He plunged past with his bayonet toward the green hedge,
King, honour, human dignity, etcetera
Dropped like luxuries in a yelling alarm
To get out of that blue crackling air
His terror’s touchy dynamite.


I modeled how to create a Dynamite Paragraph with the help of the students, as a whole class activity; the students were then expected to do two more on their own. To start off, one of the students chose the line from the second stanza:
In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations
Was he the hand pointing that second?”

It’s a complex and challenging extract: the second stanza sees almost a slowing or a freeze-frame of the soldier charging as his final thoughts occur and he begins to question his existence.

We first looked at what we considered to be the first two words worthy of exploration: “cold clockwork”. We discussed each word in turn. What did the word ‘cold’ connote? The students came up with suggestions such as ‘heartless’ and ‘unemotional’.

Then we moved onto ‘clockwork’ which seemed harder for the students, but in its purest form they agreed related to time. Therefore, the two words together gave a sense of time being uncaring.

We then tried the same method to look at the words ‘the stars and the nations’. Through discussion and questioning, the students deduced that this might relate to the universe (stars) and conflict between countries (the nations), or war.

Now we needed to write the paragraph so we referred to the first poster to get a starter sentence. Students will need practice in order to embed this type of sentence starter but it doesn’t take very long to get the hang of it.

In the second stanza, Ted Hughes creates the impression of the soldier questioning why he is there: “In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations/ Was he the hand pointing that second?”

We now moved to the second poster to construct our first PEA bit of the paragraph and we chose: “this suggests” from the first column and came up with our first layer of meaning.

In the second stanza, Ted Hughes creates the impression of the soldier questioning why he is there: “In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations/ Was he the hand pointing that second?” The words ‘cold clockwork’ suggest that time will move on whatever happens to this soldier; that it is unfeeling and doesn’t care.

Many students that struggle to move from D-grade-type responses would probably end their analyses here. But, instead, you return to the second poster and choose a word or phrase from the second column in order to take the analysis a step further, e.g. 'This could also imply that...' or 'In addition to this...' and then move onto another point about the same same quotation. This is what we came up with at this stage:

Further to this, the mention of ‘the stars’ seems to suggest the universe, backing up the idea that time is moving on, whatever happens on Earth at that moment. The soldier is realising that his life is very small in comparison with the universe. The mention of ‘the nations’ suggests the countries on Earth which are at war with one another.

Pretty good so far! But we’re not done, because we now need to add the final layer, the piece de resistance: an interpretation of the entire idea evoked by the quotation. This is where A* students come into their own and the idea of interpretation might seem out of reach for many lower ability students. However, when given a structure to work from I’ve found some students are more than capable of coming up with some astonishing ideas: a great example of setting the bar as high as possible and seeing what happens.

So we go back to the second poster and now choose a third layer of analysis using the third column, one that allows some left-field thinking and encourages imaginative thinking. “Maybe”, “This could possibly mean”, “Perhaps”. 

It could be that because the starters are suggestive rather than concrete, the students feel confident in trying some original ideas out. Higher ability students are much more confident about suggesting outlandish ideas; lower ability students much less so: they fear failure and are embarrassed about getting things ‘wrong’.

So we had a go at a third layer in our model paragraphs, each student having an individual go and then we shared and discussed some of the outcomes. They were AMAZING. Sheri’s in particular blew our minds so we chose his answer for our model:

In the second stanza, Ted Hughes creates the impression of the soldier questioning why he is there: “In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations/ Was he the hand pointing that second?” The words ‘cold clockwork’ suggest that time will move on whatever happens to this soldier; that it is unfeeling and doesn’t care.
Further to this, the mention of ‘the stars’ seems to suggest the universe, backing up the idea that time is moving on, whatever happens on Earth at that moment. The soldier is realising that his life is very small in comparison with the universe. The mention of ‘the nations’ suggests the countries on Earth which are at war with one another.
Hughes may possibly be suggesting that the soldier is actually having an existential crisis in this split-second, which is ironic as he now almost certainly is facing death. Hughes could be emphasising here how pointless our lives really are as humans when we are so tiny in the universe and the history of time. The fact that war has made life even shorter is the cause of anger for Hughes, I think.

As our fab LSA Andy commented as we were packing up, “If someone had ever told me I’d even hear the word existential in this class, let along used in such a powerful way, I’d never have believed them!” I agreed. Sheri obviously has a great vocabulary, but he’s shy and often reluctant to commit pen to paper. This simple structure actually gave students the tools with which to construct sound analytical paragraphs but, added to that, an opportunity to go a stage further and attempt to be creative. Other students’ work, although perhaps not in quite the same league as Sheri, surpassed anything else they’d done in terms of analysis of language all year.

I’ve tried it with all of my classes now, including a Y8 cover class I’d never taught before in their study of The Lady of Shalott. They lapped it up. Here are some example of the Dynamite Paragraphs written by the year 8s in response the question: “How does Tennyson create the sense that Camelot is a magical place in this part of the poem?”

Tennyson describes the appearance of Camelot from the outside: “Four grey walls, and four grey towers/ Overlook a space of flowers” This actually suggests that Camelot is not magical because the word ‘grey’ is repeated and we usually associate grey with something dull and quite boring. However, the ‘space of flowers’ suggests beauty and colour as a contrast, which might smell lovely in the air. In addition to this idea, Tennyson could even be suggesting that, from the outside, Camelot might look ordinary, but if you are on the inside looking out, it looks beautiful all around. Perhaps he is saying that you only really feel the magic of Camelot when you are in there as it is so special and surrounded by beauty.

And another one:

Tennyson starts with the description: “On either side the river lie/ Long fields of barley and rye”. This highlights what surrounds Camelot and show how it stands out from the landscape of ordinary crops. Although they do not seem magical described like this, if you imagine it, it could imply that the crops’ colours of yellow and gold are beautiful. Tennyson could even be showing the difference between the ordinary farmers and worker and the people that live in Camelot. The farmers see the fields as part of their normal day of work but the people living in Camelot would look out of their windows onto the gold of the fields and the silver of the river, making it seem precious and magical.

The Dynamite Paragraphs are such a simple concept but they highlight an area of analysis that seems such a leap for many students to make and they’ve worked really well so far, including when practicing Paper 1 language questions that ask how writers create effects.

I must give full credit to the lovely @kathdarliston85 who came up with the name Dynamite Paragraphs when I shared this with her and the equally lovely @FranNantongwe when they visited the other day. Thank you both for your insights and views as we discussed this strategy. 

Just look what @JamieClark85 did with the idea of Dynamite Paragraphs!

Just wow. I LOVE Twitter!