12 fabulous gifts for the ELA teacher in your life

I don't know about you but as we hit mid-November I begin to get twitchy about Christmas shopping. As I live in London, I don't have the whole 'wait till after Thanksgiving' rule and as last few weeks of term always flash by, I feel the need to start planning my Christmas gift roundup. This year we break up on 19 December. I will need to get cooking. I won't have time for shopping that late.  Added to this, some of the trickiest purchases I have to make at Christmas time are not the kids in my family, or my mum and dad. Not even my brother. But it's the gifts I need to buy to show my love, appreciation, and utter respect for my amazing colleagues.

The teachers in my English department, all 12 of them, are some of the most fabulous people I have ever known. They deserve fabulous gifts, each one of them.  I work with 5 guys and 7 gals, so I have tried to add a good mix of ideas below.

So here is my gift guide for ELA teachers, there are 12 here for your to enjoy!

1. Grammar mug "I am figuratively dying for a cuppa".  Perfect for the 'I am secretly judging your grammar' colleague and friend. I love it.

2. Engraved cuff "I am not afraid of storms". I love this beautiful cuff. It's the present I secretly want for myself. The quote is from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (Chapter 44). What an amazing literary quote for the strong girl heroes in our lives!

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/248569166/louisa-may-alcott-inspirational-bracelet?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=literary gifts&ref=sr_gallery_11
3. How Teachers Swear coloring book. This 'adult' coloring book cracks me up. From What the Frog! to Fudgesticks it sums up teacherlife in one cheeky swoop.

4. Hang what you love on your tree. These super cute books make the perfect addition to a book lover's tree.

5. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, a beautifully haunting tale of a daughter trying to solve the mystery of her mother's illness.  Help your ELA teacher relax and recharge with some new reading material this Christmas.

6. Love Downton Abbey? Doesn't everyone? Give inspiration with this Downton quote poster. Perfect for the classroom or at home, foster a sense of peace and acceptance at the most maniac time of the year.
https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/165875972/downton-abbey-inspirational-quote-poster?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=downton abbey&ref=sc_gallery_3&plkey=80868c3a0b30eee6b07f9137d6b2f22c80b966cc:165875972
7. Sherlock tote. This bag is epic. It will carry a set of books and has a sassy Sherlock quote. It would probably carry Benedict Cumberbatch if we squashed him in really tight.


8. Looking for something a little bit wacky? These tights are printed with a copy of Emily Dickinson's poem 'I gave myself to him'.  The perfect talking point - although obviously we don't want to encourage any students to be staring out our legs. So let's keep these for the weekend!
9. Literary Paper Rose. It speaks for itself. Beautiful.
10. She reads books necklace. I love this one too. The perfect sentiment and will be shared by every ELA teacher under the sun. We read books like other breathe air.
https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/197600069/she-reads-books-scrabble-necklace-annie?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=book necklace&ref=sc_gallery_4&plkey=d8845ac2ae02bcdecfa24ced83750b50923d64b9:197600069
11. Harry Potter Butterbeer candle. Well, we had to have something for the HP loving teachers in our lives.  Make Christmas magical with this HP inspired Butterbeer scented candle. Yum, I could almost eat it.

12. Sherlock cufflinks. Perfect for Mr Literature Teacher to help him find his own mind-palace. Or perhaps solve all those 'missing homework' crimes.

And....as a free bonus idea for you.   Why not consider buying the amazing ELA teacher in your life a TeachersPayTeachers gift card? That way they can spend a little more time chilling this Christmas and a little less time planning.
Enjoy your shopping this season!

**Please note - I am NOT affiliated to any of these companies and take no responsibility for any purchases you may make.**

5 super cool films your ELA students will love

I love using short films in my classroom. I bet you already have a collection that you use again and again. Well, me too. I use short films for a bunch of different reasons: to introduce a new idea, or explain something we all found complicated. Sometimes to inspire discussion and debate, or to get stuck into some creative writing.  Short films are fabulous for both literature and writing.

So, here are my top 5 favorite films for high school ELA.  I've split them so you have: 2 for teaching literature, 2 for teaching writing, and 1 for debate. Enjoy!

The Tiger Who Came to Tea - introducing critical theory (literature)

I love using this short reading of the children's classic for my older literature classes. The first question I ask is "what does this text tell us about society?". 

At this point, I introduce critical theory. Gender and feminist theory and also Marxist theory.  *Warning* - this discussion does result in some criticism of Kerr's text. It's great to consider the narratives that shape our understanding of the world as children, but it's not always a comfortable discussion.
  • What does this text show about men, about women, about children?
  • What does this text show about work and social class?
  • What is the relevance of the tiger arriving and eating all the food?
  • Why a tiger?
  • What groups in society might the tiger represent?
At this point, I might draw a comparison between this text and invading forces: the Nazis in Poland, Kerr has spoken of this, and others in history.  The discussion is often lively.

An interesting counterpoint to this story is the another children's story - Where the Wild Things Are. Here we develop our discussion to include colonization.

Copy Shop - introducing concepts in literature (literature)

Copy Shop is an unusual silent film by Virgil Widrich, 2001. It received an Oscar nomination for a short action film.

The film is 12 minutes long and 'tells' the story of a man who accidentally photocopies himself until 'he' takes over his town.

I often begin this lesson by asking students to mind-map all of their thoughts on the topics of: identity, gender, relationships, reality, and society. After watching the film, sometimes twice, I ask students to add ideas to their mind-maps based on the film.  For identity and society - we discuss how we are shaped as people, how society shapes us into a particular mould. For gender and relationships - students often notice that the single female is replaced by the male, that the relationships show companionship, then threat. For reality - we discuss to what extent we can trust our senses, what we see.

The final step is to debate some of the big ideas in literature:
  • Our individual understanding of reality cannot be trusted
  • Masculinity and femininity are entirely constructed by society
  • Society is at its roots chaotic and disordered
  • Technology controls humanity
  • Capitalism and consumerism has made humanity self-destructive
I could go on!

Picture Perfect - the Jubilee Project (writing)

I use this short and sad story for a variety of different reasons with my classes: writing flashbacks, relationships, realistic dialogue, incidents, and memory writing.

It's a poignant tale and dedicated to survivors of Leukaemia, a sensitive one to use with classes but often generates excellent sympathetic debate and great emotionally intelligent writing.

Lock Up - by BloodyCuts (Writing)

*Warning* - this short film is the epitome of suspense and then a moment of terror. Your class will scream. Please, please, please watch through till the very end before you decide to use it!

Ok, you survived!  Here's how I use this film: to build tension, to create a character who has no idea what is about to happen next.  This short film is fantastic for writing a realistic moment of suspense - rather than one that is filled of creaky stairs and slamming doors. Write a character who has literally no idea what is about to happen to them!

You need to be speedy with the pause button here.  I watch with kids the bit up until the man collects his keys and write this as a narrative.  Then we pause / write until the very end.  As the students haven't seen the whole thing - when you first see the figure - they are shocked, their character can be shocked.
It's great for writing genuine expressions of a character's experience of cluelessness to horror.

Fireflies - the Jubilee Project (debate)

Another one from the guys at the Jubilee Project, I do love them, and to be honest you could use any of their films effectively in the classroom.

But Fireflies is something special.

I pose a bunch of questions when using this film, sometimes before, sometimes after, sometimes both!
  • What is friendship?
  • What is normal?
  • How can we truly know one another?
  • Can we know ourselves?
  • Does everyone have to be the same?
  • Why are children more accepting?
  • Can society change?
  • Do we need to let children teach adults how to behave?
That's it! My top-5 favorite short films to use in the classroom.  I really hope you have found something new or interesting to try out with your classes.
If you're curious to see how I teach writing, please have a quick look here!

Friday Freebie - 7 creative writing story prompts

Dear amazing teachers

I hope you're having a fab September!  This week was our first full back here and I need to say this right now - I am exhausted.  Don't just feel like you've forgotten everything, literally everything, over the summer?

Then you get back into school, all excited and nervous, and about 5 minutes into the first lesson it's suddenly all ok.

I've experienced so many highs this week, here are just a few of those gems:
  • Hugs from a girl, who I've never taught, but said she'd missed my smiley face over the summer.
  • A special visit from students, who have now gone onto study other subjects, but wanted to hangout in my classroom because it's 'still their favourite place'.
  • Meeting loads of new students for the first time and everyone of them being positive, hard-working and excited to learn.
  • Starting over with students I already know and seeing them older, wiser, more mature, more funny, and more human.
What a great week. 

So to celebrate Week 1 - this Friday Freebie is a brand new upload for you. 

This two pager has 7 different story prompts, ready to go.  Use for: substitute lessons, an introduction to any creative writing unit, homework, or stretch and challenge activities. 

Download it for FREE here and while you are there, do follow my store for updates.

Ta, ta for now.

Engaging reluctant writers in high school - postcard writing

Writing essays and creative writing can feel like a chore for some students. When extended writing is difficult (for whatever reason) then a blank, lined page can seem intimidating.  Here is just one way I tackle this challenge in my classroom.

A while ago I joked to a colleague that my year 11s knowledge of Animal Farm was just about enough to fill a stamp. Whilst I hope my hyperbolic tendencies are proven unfounded, this conversation also reminded me of a good friend from my university days.  Pete was (and is) an artist.  He delighted in being quirky and gauche, his best expression of this was the teeny-tiny notes left under my door, which needed a magnifying glass to be read.

This one is about the size of a post-it note!

This writing activity was inspired by Pete and his tiny writing ways.

The Postcard Essay

The idea is simple.  Instead of writing an essay in their books, students write it on a postcard.
Well - if I am honest - this activity started as a blatant gimmick to persuade exam-prep-exhausted students to write just one more paragraph on a Friday Lesson 5.  It's only a postcard, I encouraged them gleaming with positivity, it won't take you 5 mins to fill it with a lovely, lovely essay on Of Mice and Men.  My students were sick of writing essay paragraphs, PEEL paragraphs, PEZZ paragraphs - so for this one lesson I said - "Today you are going to write a postcard and nothing more".

Just the activity of writing on something small was different enough to engage my weary students.

Then we started to play around with the postcards.
  • Student A would send Student B a postcard essay, which they would improve and send back.  
  • I created a postcard postbox in my classroom.  
  • With multiple exam classes, across different ability groups, Class A can send Class B postcard essays, commenting, improving, celebrating and then sending them back.
  • Student A would write a postcard paragraph with blatant errors in it - Student B would correct and send back.

At first, the competition was to see how little they could write (number of words) and it still pass inspection with me.  Then because my boys are pretty competitive it became about how many words you could write to fit on a postcard. How small can you make your writing and it still be legible. How long can your paragraph be and still fit on a card. How many things can you include.

I was practically dancing on the chairs!

But then a genius idea struck. How about I just divide card-stock into 4 or 6 and have students write their essay paragraph on one side and draw an image related to the text on the other. I'll dig out some pictures of those to add here soon.

Any postcard template will do and at first - I just download ones and printed them. Try here for a start. 

If you are interested in more ways to engage reluctant writers - try this post on writing on the desks. See it here.

The best way to get-to-know your high schoolers this year (freebie included)

The first few hours or days back at school are hectic. Timetables to give out, courses to enrol, books to organise. Annndd in my case - uniforms to check, planners to sign, and inevitability parents to call about incorrect shoes, hair, make-up, skirt length, nail varnish. We are busy: sorting out seating plans, handing out new books, sorting out target sheets and stickers, homework schedules, IEPs and TA resources.

Yup - back to school is hectic.

Added to this, most schools encourage a full-pelt return to hard learning. "What the learning question for your first lesson?"

Sometimes we just need a little bit of time.

For my new classes with older students – I like to gain 10 minutes or so with a few easy ‘get to know you’ activities.  

Espresso Yourself - does that just that. Buys me 10 minutes to calm, followed by quality chat with the kids I have only just met.  While I am muddling through the register and seating plan, they are telling me everything I need to know about them.

How do you love to get to know your HS students?
I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below.
You can download my Espresso Yourself worksheet (and a few other goodies) here for FREE. Enjoy!

Go digital learners - using Yammer in the classroom

Going digital this year? Want to use more technology in your classroom? Yammer is a social networking app by Microsoft and it is the perfect, safe option for connecting your students online. Not only that you can use it for whole school collaboration and for connecting with parents. Check out my ideas and tips below!

Using technology in the classroom can be a bit of a marmite issue. You either love or you hate it.  Many of us are now at schools that are 1:1 or are transitioning to 1:1 - so not only are we grappling with curriculum requirements, we have a bunch of new technology to get our heads around.

Some schools are going Google, mine? We are all about Microsoft. 

Office 365

Office 365 is Microsoft's collection of cloud-based apps and programmes. It has the usual Office favourites - Word, PowerPoint, Excel and a whole bunch more that are fab for using in the classroom.

Today's blog is dedicated to my new love: Yammer. If you have Office 365 then you will have licenses for Yammer - check with your school IT department to get it all activated. It's worth it.


Yammer is a social networking app for business. It's set up for collaboration and sharing much like FB and Twitter.  Many teachers see the value in connecting with pupils in those condensed-social-media-style experiences but we remain wary of blurring the lines between in-school and out-of-school communication.

Yammer is the solution, the perfect solution.

Setting up your class:

Once you and your pupils are all registered, you have a couple of options, here's what I do:
  1. Create a new group for each of my classes. Find the button to do this on the bottom right of your Yammer page. The instructions are very simple.
  2. Add group members - I add my whole class using our internal mail list, so I don't have add each individual kid.
  3. Make the group private (if you want) which will mean messages will only be seen by the group.
  4. That's it - you're ready to go!

Curriculum uses:

  • Homework reminders - "err guys your essay is due in tomorrow"
  • Notices - "bring your copies of Hemingway in tomorrow"
  • Link - cool articles, links to YouTube videos, anything really
  • Run a competition - our history department ran a competition for the best drawings to represent "peace". Each one was uploaded, commented on and then voted for
  • Essay planning - upload the essay question, everyone has to add 2 ideas by the end of the week
  • Create a poll -  to discuss, debate, review or just for fun

Whole school uses:

We don't just use Yammer for collaboration in our subject areas.  Here's a bunch of ways Yammer can declutter your email box and make communication great again.
  • Send alerts and notifications to parents (yep you can add external members). I have created special groups for my examination students' parents - so they can see the work we do in the classroom.
  • Staff notices and reminders (no more email)
  • Collaborate across subject areas - we have a Textiles and Literature Yammer group where we are designing wall hangings of Shakespeare quotes.
  • Career education - discuss jobs, employment, work opportunities and further study.
  • Collaborate with other students in other schools - I am still working on this. If you are reading this and are studying Shakespeare next year - maybe we could Yammer our classes up!

So... if you are a Microsoft school, Yammer is where it's at. 

For some more suggestions for how you can use Yammer at school check out this: http://www.schoolnet.org.za/PILP/office365/yammer2-20ways.html and this: http://www.vlerick.com/en/about-vlerick/news/taking-education-beyond-the-classroom-with-yammer 

Tomorrow's technology blog post will on using Class Notebook.

Thanks for reading!

Flash fiction not flash bang

It's over 20 years now since I did my Bachelors degree in Creative Writing and Literature. A good long while since my Masters and the unfinished (will it ever end?!) Doctorate. 

At the youthfully optimistic age of 18 I wasn't an experienced writer. Now as I wallow in my 40s I am still wary of writing. The characters and stories still live just as comfortably in my mind as they have always done. My confidence in dragging them out and onto the page hasn't really grown with experience. My tenacity, resilience and those infamous avoidance strategies have all blossomed. But I cannot say in all honesty that I am a more confident writer now than then. 

And so when I am asked about writing and about teaching writing in my classroom, I often - always - must speak in tones and shades rather than absolutes.

Yet we are locked into an education system that is all about absolute. And I hate it. I really do.  Over the last few years, I have sort out ways to tackle head on the 'checklist / rubric' culture of writing in my classroom and in our schools.

Here's a little bit of where I'm at...

I recently presented at a teaching and learning conference in the north of England (the city of Leeds). The focus for my session was transforming classroom writing into real writing.  A link to my slides is at the bottom of this post.

But before you open it - I need to get a few things off my chest. 

So called rigorous assessment of writing (checklist driven) is robbing our students of their creative voice.

Department of Education legislation (in the UK) has forced creative writing into a technical corner from which it is very hard to escape.
I said at this conference that teachers are prisoners of the government legislation and while this metaphor is a tab hyperbolic, the constituent idea is true. 
When creative writing is most frequently discussed (and marked) in terms of its technical components, then it is easy to see writing as only a technical exercise.  It is no surprise that these requirements have resulted in checklists, success criteria, targets and marking rubrics.  These however have reduced creative writing pieces to another form of gap-fill. This time each sentence has to have a different technique (a simile, prepositions, gerunds - yawn).

Ok - hold your horses. Writing is a technical exercise. Yes, I agree. But... what the DfE have done is take literary techniques stretching across several centuries (not to mention numerous forms and styles of writing) and funnelled them in what is a very modern form of writing: flash fiction.

This is why it doesn't work.

Flash fiction

Flash fiction (a term somewhat unfairly abhorred by academics) is any fiction that does quite make it to short story length. Flash fiction can be anything from 250 words to 7,000. Our students are writing a few pages. They are writing flash fiction. It doesn't matter how you feel about the term. Call it a very short story. Call it concise narratives.
But don't mistake it for a novel. It isn't. It shouldn't sound or feel like one.

For all UK 16 year olds, the GCSE exam requires a piece of writing is spontaneous, unplanned (because a 3-minute plan at the beginning of an exam is not a plan) and unedited.
While this might mirror 'real life' writing scenarios (might), it does not in anyway mirror how writers of fiction (or indeed fact) work.
As part of my presentation I set out the main differences between novels and very short fiction (see link). What we teach explicitly and what we intentionally avoid.
I make the case the novels are long enough to absorb great literary flourishes. Short narratives cannot swallow them. The plot and characters become bogged down.

Over the summer, I will blog specifically on how we teach these individual elements and how we separate novelistic techniques from early writing and then eventually much later on begin to feed them back in again.

Here's the link to my presentation: Flash fiction not flash bang