Let’s Go Crazy… or how re-igniting a passion has made me re-think my attitude to teaching.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. 

Electric word life. It means forever and that’s a mighty long time.

But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else…”

So begins the song ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ from Prince’s 1984 masterpiece, Purple Rain. But why am I starting a blog post, ostensibly about my experience as a teacher, with a quote from Prince?

I’m a Prince fan. Indulge me.

In February this year Prince came to the UK and began a series of ‘guerilla gigs’ in a tour called Hit n Run. It was term time. I was in Liverpool, he was in London. I was devastated, thinking I was not going to get a chance to see him.

The last time I’d seen him was in 2007 when he did his legendary residency at the O2 Arena in London. 21 Nights in London. Great show. (He’s awesome live. If you haven’t seen him, you should try to. I’m going to explicitly put that out there, though it will no doubt be implied throughout!) Seven years had passed and, although he’d toured in Europe during that time, life – work, finances etc – had somehow always got in the way.

Cut to 2014 and we now live in a social media world. I was fascinated by the #princewatch hashtag as people shared information and sparked rumours of his whereabouts. Gigs were announced with just hours’ notice. (Again, I rued the fact that a) I didn’t live in London any more and b) I had a sensible job!) A real sense of hype and drama was created. Prince was back in the news. People were discovering his musical talent and talking about it.

More importantly, through social media, I was suddenly in contact, virtually at least, with people who shared my passion. (Of course my non-Prince-fan friends and family had to vicariously suffer the agony as I waited to see if he’d leave the capital and come anywhere nearer. And when I say ‘waited’ I actually mean moaned incessantly!)

Finally, as he and his band, 3RDEYEGIRL, presented an award at the Brits ceremony, I got the news I’d been waiting for. Prince announced he’d be “heading up North so we want to see you in Manchester. We’re gonna rock it up there a l’il bit.” Simultaneously, a tweet announced the tickets were on sale.

I pounced. My hours on virtual #princewatch had paid off. I got a ticket for both nights at Manchester Academy.

If you’ve even got this far, you may still be wondered when even a tenuous link to teaching is going to appear. This is, in many ways, an even more self-indulgent post than normal. This is me in full-on fan girl mode.

I’d apologise, but actually full-on fan girl mode is what I want to talk about.

I went to Manchester for the gigs. (Thankfully it was half term.) I queued all day for the chance to be near the front. It rained. In fact, at one stage there were hailstones. Even in layers of thermal clothing, it was freezing.


But the joy was palpable. I met people from all over the UK, from Paris, from the Netherlands, from Italy. We laughed. We shared our Prince stories. We marvelled at those whose fandom was extreme: hundreds of gigs, monthly Prince-fund, sleeping overnight outside the venue.

I felt like I was a teenager again. This was sheer, unadulterated pleasure. I forgot about the marking, the exam result pressure, the observations. I left vaguely sensible Head-of-Department-me at home and revelled in just doing something I love – watching live music – with a group of people who felt the same thing.

I won’t go into details about the gigs.*

Suffice to say, I had a blast. The hours of queuing paid off. I was front row. Front and centre in fact. Underneath the man’s microphone; about three foot away from him. Living the dream. I got to spend hours watching a genius at work. I sang along. I let myself get lost in the music. Everywhere I looked people were doing the same thing. The shared sense of awe and wonder was incredible.

And I did it all again the following day.

As I said, full-on fan girl mode.

I floated home on a purple cloud, the music still ringing in my ears. New friendships forged and memories to last a lifetime. My passion for Prince, if it ever really needed to be, was completely rekindled.

At some point in the following days, I realised that something had happened. And this, finally, is where I get to the teaching bit…

I was smiling. Lots. I couldn’t stop talking to people about how good the whole experience had been. I realised that I need to re-connect with the things that make me happy. I need to surround myself with people with shared interests and shared passions.

And I want to feel that about my teaching. 

I’ve made myself a promise to reconnect with the joy I felt when I first started teaching. I’m going to find my career passion again. I’m going to surround myself with positive people who feel the same way.

Because my students deserve that. They deserve the version of me who is focused and driven, not weighed down and cynical. I became a teacher because of my love of my subject and my desire to do something that meant something. I need to show that every day.

Seems odd to have had this sort of career-epiphany in the queue for a gig.

One of the friends I made as we queued told me that the Academy gigs had been life-changing. I agree with him, as hyperbolic as that might sound.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. 

Electric word life. It means forever and that’s a mighty long time.

It is a long time.

Too long to not do the things you love. Too long to not find joy in your work. Too long to let things overwhelm you. Too long to be cynical.

So as I plan for next year, I’m planning to teach in full-on fan-girl mode.

“And if the elevator tries to bring you down
Go crazy punch a higher floor”

And to Richard, Jay, Simon, Keira, Dave, Ian, Emma, Farah, Shana, Sonia, Lucas, Dani and all the February crew: thank you for being a part of it all.

*Look them up:

SSAT National English Conference

SSAT English Conference – Friday 7th February, 2014 at Hilton Kensington Olympia. 

The 5:27am train from Liverpool to London Euston is a strange beast. It doesn’t really get full until it hits the commuter-belt of Milton Keynes. In fact, it is almost deserted as it pulls out of Liverpool’s Lime Street station and I’m willing to bet I’m the only passenger who is taking her early morning coffee with a generous side-helping of A Level Literature essays….

So, why was I up and London-bound at such an unearthly hour? To attend the SSAT’s annual English Conference.

I was alerted to the conference by my Deputy Head prior to Christmas. At the moment there seems to be a dearth of courses run by training companies promising enlightenment about all things ‘new curriculum’. This seemed different; not only would there be a discussion about curriculum design, but also a chance to attend some practical workshops delivered by outstanding English practitioners and a keynote from Ofsted’s National Lead for English and Literacy, Patricia Metham. It’s difficult to get out of school in the run up to exams, so if I was going to miss my classes for a day then I wanted it to be for a worthy cause. I’m heartily glad I was allowed to attend.

And I don’t regret the early start*.

The day began with a keynote speech from Patricia Metham, HMI & Lead for English and Literacy. I appreciated the clear distinction between English and Literacy. She pointed out that too often, the two are seen as synonymous. So, what is literacy? It is a set of non-negotiable skills; it is NOT the sole preserve of the English department and it should be a focus across the school.” So that’s everyone told then!

It was reassuring to hear that Ofsted’s main question is always: “what is the impact on students’ learning?” I felt that this gave me a good standpoint from which to review my own department’s practices. Metham kept coming back to key questions: “where is the evidence?” and “what is the impact?” I can feel my departmental self-evaluation becoming a lot more focused!

And so we moved onto the subject of school libraries. Ah yes, the ‘library’ which is all too often a glorified computer room with books. Or possibly worse, as Patricia Metham anecdotally shared from one school’s inspection: “the room you get sent to if you’re in trouble.” The school library should be at the heart of a school’s drive to improve literacy. She said Ofsted will ask:

  • Do you have a school library?
  • Where is it?
  • Who is responsible for it?
  • How is it used?
  • What works well?

And then, something which might install equal parts joy and dread into the hearts of many English teachers, Ms Metham said:

“I want to put any school without a library in special measures immediately… but unfortunately I am just not allowed to.”

All in all, I found the speech to be full of thought-provoking ideas. I appreciated the insight into the Ofsted Inspector’s focuses and priorities. In short, reading matters, writing matters and speaking and listening matters. Build them in to your curriculum in a balanced way and whatever you do, be able to evidence its impact on your students.

Next, I opted for the workshop on Outstanding English Subject Inspections, delivered by Emma Speed from Belvedere Academy in Liverpool. Emma spoke candidly about the subject inspection process, from the initial receiving of the letter to the final judgement conversation. Her delivery was warm and humorous. It was good to hear from someone who had been through the process and survived. As someone who is currently an Acting Curriculum Leader, it also gave me a few ideas about what we need to do to ensure that not only are we are inspection-ready, but that we are moving forward as a department. No time to stand still!

My second workshop was Raising achievement at KS4 level and how to use data effectively to improve performance. Delivered by Tom Street, the Director of Achievement for English at Harris Chafford Hundred Academy in Essex. Tom talked us through the many measures his team have in place to deliver excellent results. (And when I say excellent, I mean it: 100% A*-C in GCSE English last year.) At times, his outlook seemed to run contrary to much of what Patricia Metham had said, particularly when she warned against too much teaching-to-the-test in KS3. However it was hard to argue against the rigour and single-mindedness of Tom’s approach and the resulting outcomes for his pupils.

After lunch, we were treated to a presentation from Fiona Banks of Shakespeare’s Globe. It looked at ways of creatively teaching Shakespeare to ensure that students “have Shakespeare’s words in their mouths and their bodies.” (Fiona was supported by a professional actor who led the practical activities but whose name I have, regrettably, not noted. She was fantastic.)

I’ll admit to some initial scepticism, given the limitations that a classroom environment can potentially bring to teaching drama. These were completely unfounded; Fiona’s approach was tailored specifically to classroom-friendly activities which still felt much more appropriately ‘theatrical’ than your usual written analysis. I will be taking back these ideas to my department and hope to build them in to our future programmes of study. And let’s be honest, channelling one’s inner ‘luvvie’ is always fun. We English teachers are often frustrated thespians, after all. (No? Oh. Just me then!)

Next up was Tom Middlehurst, Head of Research at SSAT and former English teacher, who gave a presentation entitled: “Principled Curriculum Design.” I’ll admit that this is where my worries lie at the moment. How do I translate the new national curriculum and GCSE proposals into that innovative and appropriate curriculum Patricia Metham spoke of? Tom asked us to describe the landscape for a Head of English at the moment. The answers were poignantly revealing but reassuring, because yes it does feel uncertain and stormy out there for all of us. So it is important we get this bit right.

After some discussion of “a world after levels” and the new Progress 8 and Attainment 8 measures, Tom spoke about Dylan Willam’s approach to ‘principled’ curriculum design. I felt this was as good a checklist as any to apply to curriculum planning:

  • Balanced
  • Rigorous
  • Coherent
  • Vertically Integrated
  • Appropriate
  • Focused
  • Relevant

I particularly like the idea of how to achieve focus. William advises asking what are the ’10 big ideas’ in your subject? Once you have decided on them, then build your curriculum around them. If it’s not related to one of those ten ideas, then it doesn’t need to be there. I’ll be going away and looking at this in more detail. (William has written a pamphlet for the SSAT on the subject. Worth a look, I’d say.)

There was a chance to have a chat to all of the speakers and workshop leaders in a series of round table discussions at the end of the day. All-in-all, it was a great chance to meet with other practitioners and get some fantastic ideas.

What will I take away from the day?

  • Departmental focus: I am planning a half-term departmental review based around the Belvedere subject inspection presentation: where are we now and what do we need to do?
  • GCSE focus: My Head Teacher and I have already discussed many of the ideas in the Harris Academy presentation. Time to make some changes, methinks!
  • School libraries matter: a great message to be able to take back to my school with the “but-Ofsted-said-so” seal of approval!
  • Curriculum design: I will be discussing this with the department and seeing what we feel the ’10 big ideas’ are. From there, we will begin to plan for our new curriculum.
  • Creative approaches to Shakespeare: Year 9 are about to start Shakespeare post half-term so I will be disseminating some of the activity ideas presented by The Globe to the department.
  • Renewed enthusiasm: it’s always good to be reminded of my passion for English.

My head was filled with ideas and questions and, despite the inevitable tiredness caused by my early start, I left feeling invigorated by the challenges ahead. It’s an exciting time to be a teacher of English. Daunting, yes, but exciting too. As Patricia Metham said: “with freedom comes accountability” and I am looking forward to being  a part of that.

Thanks to all at Team SSAT for organising and to the presenters for giving up your time. I certainly hope to attend future conferences.

(* Well, I don’t regret it much anyway!)

Daisy Christodoulou at #TLAB13

Grammar: the domain of pedants or necessary and vital for our students?

As an English teacher I have a confession to make… I find teaching grammar really hard. In fact, I’m not sure I do it very well.


Having listened to Daisy Christodoulou at #TLAB13 I may have to re-think my attitude (trepidation?) and embrace grammar. I want the best outcomes for my students and I need to equip them with the tools they need to express themselves clearly beyond the English classroom.

I found Daisy’s presentation refreshingly honest and simple: grammar matters. We need to teach pupils grammar and, perhaps like Daisy, do that discretely. She argued that what was needed was separate grammar lessons with pupils drilling the skills they needed. I was reminded of my French and German lessons, many years ago, when I learned what grammar I know. That’s what we did then. It worked. So why would I treat grammar teaching in my own language any differently?

As Daisy said:

You can’t do this in a starter activity.

It is important.

It isn’t going to be learnt innately.

It’d be great to think there was a ‘quick fix’ when it comes to grammar, but there clearly isn’t. Again, I’m paraphrasing Daisy: you have to decontextualize and teach the abstract concepts sometimes and sometimes it takes a whole lesson on ‘the verb.’ If we want to help our pupils become better writers, we all need to do our bit and get their grammar right.

Daisy has designed a three-year cycle of grammar lessons. This has been introduced at key stage three. It strikes me that this is exactly what I need to do. KS3 needs to build a solid platform for pupils to succeed, not only in their GCSEs but in their writing generally.

Dare I say it, but my attitude to grammar may be changing. We’ve all got to do things that challenge us and fully embracing grammar might just be my biggest challenge yet!

Some biographical details: Daisy Christodoulou is the Chief Executive Officer at The Curriculum Centre and is TCC’s English Language, English Literature, History and Geography lead. She works at Pimlico Acadamy. She is @daisychristo on Twitter.

#TMLpool: an educational “bring and buy sale”?

At #TLAB13, Alastair Smith spoke about TeachMeets. He’d attended the TeachMeet held at Berkhamsted the night before the main conference. He called it “an educational bring and buy sale” or a “carboot for teachers” and praised the counter-cultural, bottom-up rather than top-down nature of the TeachMeet format.

It made me think, as much of what was said at #TLAB13 did.

I’m currently organising a TeachMeet in Liverpool.

TeachMeets, along with the weekly #ukedchat sessions and the edu-extravaganza that was #TLAB13, have been the things that have re-energised my love for teaching. It’s easy to get caught up in the pressure and the negatives, but meeting people from across the country who are engaged, motivated and brilliant at what they do makes me realise why I love this profession.

Not many of the staff at my school seem that engaged – yet. They seem somewhat reluctant to commit to an event on a Saturday. And I appreciate why: we’re horrendously busy at this time of year and the majority of us give up lots of time as it is for revision, extra-curiccular activities etc on top of a huge workload. However, I believe the chance to meet, share and learn is important.

I’ve currently 12 people signed up to present and another 35+ coming to watch, meet and network. I’m confident that figure will rise. I’m looking forward to the chance to meet educators from across the North West.

So here’s to our counter-culture bring and buy!

If you’d like to come along, then sign up here: http://teachmeet.pbworks.com/w/page/64371633/TM%20Liverpool

#ukedchat – a year or so on and I’m still a fan!

I blogged in August 2010 about the weekly #ukedchat discussions that happen every Thursday on Twitter between 8 – 9pm.


A year on and I’m more enamoured than ever with the whole #ukedchat ‘thing’.

Why? Well, for a start I have now got professional contacts from all over the UK who provide me with advice, support and inspiration on a daily and weekly basis. Sometimes I think there is a tendency for teachers to become quite inward-looking. We get very caught up in “this is how we do it here” and “our focus is this”… #ukedchat takes you out of your own classroom and gives you a privileged insight into hundreds of other schools, methods, pedagogies etc.

It’s free. It’s fun. It’s fantastic.

Join us?

Twitter for Teachers

This feels almost like a 12-step confessional: my name is Clare, I’m a teacher and I’m addicted to Twitter.

Well, addicted isn’t exactly true, but I do use Twitter increasingly to aid my professional development and practice. To non-tweeting colleagues that seems strange. They don’t ‘get’ Twitter and they don’t understand how or why I use it.

I’ve blogged before about my participation in the weekly twitter discussion #ukedchat  https://dailydenouement.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/ukedchat/ (if you wish to read it again!) but today I’m thinking more generally about the myriad uses I find it has to help me on a daily basis.

Take today for example: I’m looking for inspiration to update the corridor displays in our new English block. At 11:41am I logged into my Twitter account and wrote:

“#engchat #ukedchat Our English dept is in desperate need of beautifying (just moved bldgs) Seeking corridor display ideas. All ideas welcome!”

For the rest of the day I’ve been receiving tweets from a variety of English teachers and other subject specialists with some great ideas for displays. The very generous @daveterron even went so far as to send me some quotations and display documents via DropBox. Fantastic support!

Where else but Twitter would I have received this wide-ranging and prompt support? If you teach but don’t tweet, you should!

This weekend I’ve contributed to a discussion with English subject colleagues about the new GCSE spec, I’ve commented on a great linoit for @tomhenzley’s Year 4 class, I’ve read some excellent articles which were sent via links on Twitter and I’ve shared some thoughts about why the careers service shouldn’t be cut with Andy Burnham, MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Education (@andyburnhammp on Twitter.)

Twitter connects me with other people who share my interests. It makes me reflect on my work. It makes me better at what I do.

If you still need convincing as to the value of Twitter, perhaps this article by Lucy Tobin (@lucytobin) will help: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/may/09/twitter-teachers-forum

To tweet or not to tweet? There really should be no question.

New Year Resolutions Update #1: Phoning Home

Yesterday I made four phone calls home to the parents of pupils who had made positive starts to their English lessons. It was an absolute joy to speak to their parents and share a good news story.

All week I’d been keeping a note of pupils who had made good contributions to class discussions, settled in well or produced excellent work. In my free period yesterday I made the calls. When I made this resolution for the new academic year I hoped I would find the time to keep it. Hearing the pleasure, pride and (in one case!) relief in the parents’ voices when I shared my news, I’m more determined than ever to keep it up.

One Mum said “I was worried for a moment then; I thought it must have been something bad.” That’s what I want to change. I don’t think communication with parents focuses on the ‘good’ often enough, certainly not from a subject-specific point at secondary level. I’m hoping to change that.

I’ll be sharing my good news story with my department as term progresses to encourage them to do similar. In the meantime, I’ll just bask a little in remembering the warm, fuzzy feeling I got after I’d made the calls. It brightened up a very hectic Friday, hopefully for those families as well as for me!