The Devil Is In The Detail

Today started off with a sense of tranquillity. We had planned a day in. The new story building Lego was out and it was a chance to play. The Special Interest; currently all things ‘Harry Potter’ came into play. Given freedom, in my house all routes usually lead there. It was decided the world of Harry would be recreated…

Silence reigned. All was peaceful. Until… Meltdown. The only long Lego hair available was ‘girl hair’ and there was no way Hagrid could have girl hair. That would be unforgivable!

Both at home and at school, it is those tiny details, the things I haven’t thought of that derail things. The things that I haven’t given a thought to, because in my head they aren’t important are often the very things that to my students and my daughter are critically important to the success of whatever it is that we are doing. It’s why the lessons that I expect to be challenging often aren’t (because I’ve covered, double covered and triple covered all of my bases) whereas those I think will go swimmingly often end in disaster.

Unless I become psychic (and therefore can pre-empt these disasters before they happen), there has to be another plan (because these events are and will continue to be a part of my daily existence). Today we were saved by a book delivery through the post. Just as quickly as the disaster began, it ended. And this is so often the case.

Had I tackled the problem head on, and said of course Hagrid could have had girl hair, I would have exacerbated things further. Because whilst in my head that is the obvious solution, it is a battle I can’t win, I can’t win it because I simply don’t understand why it is so important in the eyes of my daughter. Distraction therefore, as is so often the case is my best course of action. It is my excuse for why I am so good at talking ‘random rubbish.’

In fact, I would go so far as to argue, that the art of distraction, the ability to intersect a conversation and take it in a random direction until the moment of potential crisis has passed, is one of the most crucial differentiation skills needed when working with students with high anxiety levels.

Once the moment has passed, the anxiety has dissipated; the original activity can more often than not be returned to and enjoyed. In the dining room here, mission build Harry’s world has once again resumed (I haven’t enquired as to the solution of Hagrid’s hair though I may risk a sneaky look later), just as I know that after a brief distraction my students will return to their work.

So next time a student has a moment that seems irrational to you, let it go, talk about something else for a few minutes. You might just be surprised at the results…

Why Am I In Trouble? (Lego Style)

Now you know me; if in doubt use Lego! So this handy trick is one I love.

My students hate consequences, but much more than that, they hate consequences that they don’t think are fair. One easy way to prove fairness (total transparency is important); is by building Lego towers. This visual representation of what has happened will show students that their feelings are validated and also help them to understand why they have been given a consequence.

First, sit together with your student(s) and decide on a scale of zero to ten how many bricks breaking a rule deserves. Being grumpy for instance may get two bricks, swearing five bricks, insulting someone’s mum nine bricks, hitting someone ten bricks etc. The key is to involve the students in deciding; they need to know it’s fair.

After an incident, as a student is talking you can award the various perpetrators (including yourself or other staff members) bricks. As the towers grow, students will not only see that you are listening to them and taking their concerns seriously, but will also begin to see why they have a consequence (because they’ve been grumpy, sworn at someone, then gone on to hit them) whereas even though their friend started it (by being grumpy) they don’t have one.

This is really easy differentiation; differentiation which makes a big difference to students. It reduces anxiety and confrontation, and helps students to understand that they can rely on you to be fair. So next time a student is upset because they think you have treated them unfairly, why not get out your Lego and show them your thought process…

Oh No! Voldemort Has Been In The Classroom!

Having a Harry Potter themed classroom, it seemed only appropriate that when we entered the room this morning to find a bunch of shrunken superheroes (and angry wolves – think Minecraft), that it was Voldemort who got the blame.

I love those days when my English lessons are first thing in the morning; I can go round and plant clues to inspire my students. Today, it was once again the turn of my Lego superheroes. Students came in the room to find them planted around the room complete with post-its of what they were saying. The story – Voldemort had slipped into our room overnight, where the superheroes had been sleeping and cast a shrinking spell, now they were only the size of Lego men, and they had to find a way of escaping the room.

Each student chose a character (or wolf – I have a student who loves to do anything Minecraft related), and came up with a post-it of what they thought the character would say. Theirs admittedly were far better than mine; apparently my superhero knowledge is only 3%!! Then when all of our quotes had been assigned around the room with our heroes, students devised a brief plan for escape and regrowth. My students’ imaginations never cease to amaze me – Flash burned through the door, Catwoman walked up the wall and took the tiles off the roof, the wolves became angry, whilst Robin very sensibly got all of the members of the Justice League together before plotting his next move.

There was great excitement all round! It had taken us around an hour, but we were ready to begin planning our stories, this time with our trusty Cue Cards as our prompt. Students lined them up along their desk and completed a post it note for each card. The plan was accomplished and the story writing began!

One student wrote an article for the ‘Gotham Times’, others wrote in more traditional story formats. What’s more, because of all the preparation we’d done together, half of the group were able to produce their finished story independently.

Admittedly, a good proportion of the early part of the lesson was spent with them laughing at my inferior knowledge. But hey, they all knew they could do better so it was all in the name of engagement. Maybe once in a while it pays to let them teach us a few things…

Superhero Connectives

Today I wanted to focus not on the quantity of writing my students produced, but on the quality. I’m only too aware that for some of my students, getting the work done quickly is their primary objective. There are times when that is fantastic, but I like to have a balance.

So there are days I take the pressure of quantity away and we work on building our sentences one word at a time. We explore new words, look in thesaurus’ and generally learn to enjoy language. Today was one of those days. I wanted to work on using and understanding more complex connectives, so that students would become more familiar with them and more likely to use them in their written work.

I’d had a delivery of some very exciting Lego-like (but much cheaper) Superheroes, each one individually wrapped. So it seemed like the perfect time to be exacting about my standards! Students walked into the room to find 10 un-built superheroes on their tables along with post-it notes (yes they’re creeping into my lessons again) and individually written ‘wow’ connectives. The excitement in the room was palpable. My students couldn’t believe their luck! The deal: choose a character from the pile, write one amazing sentence using one of our connectives, then build the character. Next, choose another character, write an amazing sentence about them and a further one combining both of your characters, then build your character, and so on. Never have I seen them look as happy about a literacy lesson!

The sentences were incredible, in fact some of the best they’ve ever written. But that wasn’t the real magic. The magic was the confidence with which they wrote, the willingness with which they engaged with new language, and the conversations that surrounded their writing. It was a lesson I won’t forget in a hurry.

Tangible things to look at can really help with creativity. They are a ready made base to hang ideas from. They take the stress away and add the excitement factor. So what are you waiting for? Get raiding your cupboards – find your wow factor! Your students can write incredible sentences, you just have to start one word at a time.

As for me, whilst Superhero excitement is here, I’m already thinking about how to incorporate them into my next few lessons…

Minecraft? Batman? Mortal Kombat? In Lessons? Why Not!

So much of differentiation isn’t about creating a resource, or planning a different lesson. I mean, sure you can do those things, and sometimes doing those things is a great thing to do. Realistically though you can differentiate for many students without doing those things every single lesson.

All you need to do is remember that students are people just like you; they have likes, they have dislikes, they get scared, they get sad and they get excited. You need to learn what makes them tick. Do they love dolls? Are they a Batman fanatic? Is minecraft their one and only true love?  Whatever their thing is, it pays to educate yourself. You don’t have to become a world-leading expert, just arm yourself with a little bit of knowledge, believe me it will pay off.

A quick chat on the way out of your room or in a corridor about a topic that interests a student, goes wonders towards making you interesting, and if you’re interesting you are worth working for. And well, if you’re going to make yourself interesting you may as well use it to your advantage! Do you want a story written by a Minecraft fan? Try suggesting they incorporate a character called Steve, or an Angry Wolf in there. Do you want a Science experiment carried out by a Mortal Kombat fan? How about, figuring out a way of making clean drinking water for Scorpian. It doesn’t matter what the interest is, with a little bit of creativity you can incorporate it into virtually any task. You get the lesson objective met, the student thinks they’ve spent the whole lesson doing something they want to do and therefore learns enthusiastically, it’s a win win situation – and best of all not an extra worksheet in sight.

After all, we all work better for someone we like, someone we respect, and someone who cares enough to find out a little about what makes us tick. Why should our students be any different?

Lego In The Classroom

Ok, Let’s face it, as teachers we love to play. In fact that’s probably one of the main reasons we’ve spent our life in school. It allows us to be Peter Pan. As my GCSE class frequently tell anyone who will listen; I do stand on tables, pretend to be a goat and have been known to be a princess. I mean let’s face it, in what other job would we get to have so much fun on a daily basis?

So when I read about Lego’s range of educational products last weekend, I have to say I was thoroughly excited.  Not having any budget left though, I turned not to those but to my daughter’s closet, where I raided her lego supply to spice up my lessons. So this week we’ve used lego as a starter both in maths and in English, and I have to stay it really worked, in maths we had 100% engagement from all students, and in English even my most reluctant writers managed to write a full side of A4.

In English, students (both in KS3 and KS4) built their lego models to give them a starting point for their story. I have never seen more excitement in my room, and the task involved zero preparation time, I literally picked up the box of lego and put it in my classroom.

In maths, my lego work involved slightly more preparation time because I prepared individual lego bags for students based on their own learning objectives (e.g. a bag of 12 one by two bricks for a student working on his two times table) – that said, the bags are now made, and I know I’ll use them again and again, so it was well worth it; especially when students arrive expecting to see a worksheet on their desk and instead saw a bag of lego. Maths has never been as much fun!

For more information about Lego’s exciting range of products check out https://education.lego.com/en-gb/lesi