Little successes build resilience

The other day in the hotel where my English Language exam training was taking place, a young family caught my attention. The group consisted of a mother and 3 boys, 2 aged roughly between eight and ten years old, and the other much younger at four. As they were leaving the hotel all three boys were desperate to go through the revolving door. Their excitement was palpable. The two older boys charged ahead, smiles beaming from ear to ear, but the mother was reluctant for the little one to go through with them, preferring to take the side door. She was clearly a caring mother as evidenced by the warmth in the way she spoke to the boy explaining that she was afraid he might get stuck, and to his credit, the young boy didn’t complain. But what I took from this seemingly innocuous moment was that an opportunity was missed to provide the child with a chance to achieve a small success.


There existed an opportunity for the child to have gone through the doors with either some assistance or some instruction, so that he could have come out the other side with a feelings of contentment, achievement and success. Of course there’s probably about a thousand reasons why the mother didn’t facilitate this on this occasion, and as I stated, she was clearly a loving parent and I in no way mean to disrespect her in describing this situation (I too have been there with three children under the age of six), but it really got me thinking that it is in these types of moments that children build confidence and resilience. It is these little opportunities for successes repeated over and over through an entire childhood that have a significant influence on the amount of resilience and ability we have to persevere in tasks. It was clear from his calm reaction that the young child above had already had access to many little successes and would have many more in the future, but it’s really important to note that some, if not many children we teach, unfortunately come from far less supportive family contexts, and as such, find themselves inevitably hundreds of little successes in the red in comparison. The result is that when the going gets tough, many of these students are not tough enough to get going.

As teachers we need to identify this, and rebuild. We need to rebuild the self-esteem, the capacity to persevere, and we can’t do it by simply putting some posters on the wall or telling the students to study harder or forcing/punishing them to be more resilient. We need to provide opportunities for small successes so that these students can slowly catch up their success tally, and we need to be patient but also wise enough to realise that we may need to go back to basics in some areas of the learning to facilitate achievement, even when curricula are demanding full steam ahead. There’s really no point in trying to proceed anyway if there are gaps in the learning, as errors only compound on themselves.

The real benefit of such a consideration is that there are few better motivators than success, so if we concentrate our efforts on providing realistic opportunities to achieve, students will eventually acquire the confidence and capacity to tackle more difficult and challenging learning, and engage with curriculum and indeed life as we would hope.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more educational discussions and English teaching resources

TEACHING POETRY – know thy context



Of all the complaints about the new English curriculum, none would be louder than those directed towards the poetry section. This is primarily because of the sheer number of poems students are expected to memorise; up to 18, depending on which examination board is used. To be fair to those examination boards, there’s a considerable amount of scope between passing and excelling, but obviously a student with a thorough and perceptive understanding of all 18 poems is certain to be in the top band. But I contend that achieving this thorough understanding is achievable for most students, and that committing to memory such a large number of poems is not only doable, but a necessary condition for students to then engage with the poems in a deeper way.

Here’s how I do it

The first thing to do is to ‘chunk’ the poems to prevent cognitive overload. Grouping poems immediately reduces the strain on the working memory. Some are natural fits: war, nature, time etc, but for some others I will need to make more abstract connections. The groupings will determine the order in which I will deliver the poems, and I really think this is the key: the order will act like a story, and because everyone is captivated by a great story, it will serve to assist the retention of the poems’ contents and help students to be able to make connections to other poems more easily.

Context is king

Because of the increased engagement that results, truly exploring the context of each poem is really worth your while. Take for example teaching students Romantic era poetry. I explicitly created a section called The Romantics, consisting of 5 poems in the Eduqas anthology (analogous to most other boards), and I taught them in chronological order. I began with Blake as he is the first of the Romantics in the anthology. Blake’s poem “London” was a perfect way to get stuck into the cause of the movement with some historical information about the French Revolution and industrialisation, but perhaps even more relevant to the students is the notion of the rebel, the artist speaking out against hierarchy and the establishment, with guts and bravery, considering the possible consequences of it backfiring (easily linked to modern artists or revolutionaries as starters). The students were immediately hooked, and the link to learning from other units, in particular the connection to 19th century Victorian historical discussions which took place in the Language course Non-Fiction section became immediately clear to the students, and their disgust at the conditions the chimney sweepers endured, and indeed the church’s ostensible participation in the exploitation of them, deepened the connection to one of the central themes of the poem. All of this added to their ability to recall the poem at a later date. In fact, by creating an easy mnemonic for how many key themes are in the poem (LONDON: 5 fingers), and by setting up opportunity to exploit what’s known about ‘elaborative retrieval’ by creating a mnemonic based on the feudal system for students to help connect to the themes: the corruption of the monarchy at the top, followed by the church, followed by financial inequality, oppression, and finally the death of the family unit, students were well on their way to having them secure in their memories. The next mnemonic exploited the clear structure of the poem and the rhythm created by the rhyme scheme. In fact the rhythm is so strong that it only took a few chants to get close to nailing it, and sending it to the long term memory was complete after returning over time, at least twice, to several recall activities, including jumbling up the lines and then putting them back into the correct order, and short quizzes on the order of the lines. The greatest benefit of these strategies though is that all the while key quotes were implicitly being learnt. But rather than simply rote learning the lines, by focusing on the tight structure ironically employed by Blake to symbolize a superficial London: appearing to be in control and running smoothly, but in reality riddled with lots of issues and irregularities under the surface (emphasized by punctuation), all building towards the the final comment of the poem: the destruction of family, and thus life, the poem became one the students really ‘got’, and not just some disjointed quotes that they just try to remember.

After Blake we moved on to Wordsworth, and explored the notion of him looking back over his childhood in the poem “Excerpt from The Prelude” (Eduqas version) and whether or not this was a fair thing to do: or is the evaluation full of bias? It’s a pertinent question as students are often told by parents and adults that childhood is the best time of their life, yet many students of GCSE age often don’t feel this way because of the seemingly endless pressures and a myriad of things to be thinking about. But the poem is cleverly balanced, with the extremely positive reminisces in the first half equaled by the strong negative semantic field towards the bottom of the poem. The student identifies with the balance, as opposed to the anecdote. At last, a chance to connect the adolescent to the natural but often unacknowledged feeling of melancholy that teenagers experience, the melancholy caused by the transition from childhood towards adult hood; the child moving into the pre-operational period, and often experiencing for the first time an identity truly removed from others. Ensuing discussions about the scariness of such a period ensures that the poem’s theme will be remembered, regardless of any front students present. Concurrently, as there are several colons and semicolons used in the poem, I pre-empted the contextual discussion with activities based around these high-level punctuation devices. In fact, this coupling of a punctuation technique or grammatical feature activity with the main content of each lesson is something that I am finding works very well, effectively killing two birds with one stone. Of course there are numerous opportunities to revisit punctuation and grammar throughout any unit, and the spacing and interleaving of testing to consolidate learning provides the perfect avenue to secure these skills.

The next poet on the list was Byron. To say that the students were intrigued by the contextual discussion around the poem “She Walks in Beauty” would be an understatement. Describing the scandal of Byron’s affair with the older, married, high society socialite Caroline Lamb, together with his affair with his stepsister Augusta (cue communal cringe), a relationship which produced a child named Medora who died at just five years of age, and then his eventual marriage to Anne Milbanke, a marriage that produced Ada Lovelace, one of the first ever computer scientists and good friend and associate of Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin (brilliant links to the Science course), the great Charles Dickens (obvious links), and Charles Babbage, the man closely associated with inventing the concept of the computer, was simply fascinating to the students, and they were hanging on every word. Byron’s scandals and eventual failed marriage after just five years, and Milbanke’s refusal to allow Byron any connection to Ada, forced his departure from England to Italy, but it was at the height of his fame in London in 1814 when he saw the character in his poem at a party. Mentioning then that the character in the poem is Anne Willmott, Byron’s cousin’s wife, was immediately met with great aghast, and expectation of further wrongdoing. But when students read the poem and realised there was no sexuality at all in its content, and when they were informed that Byron was supposedly sexually abused on two occasions in his childhood, a greater understanding of his issues with relationships was felt by the students and the poem’s content took on a deeper significance. The students interestingly felt a sense of empathy for Byron, knowing that having led an obviously difficult and troubled existence, he was still able to produce a poem of such incredible purity. Again, the advantage of such engagement in the story: a poem that the students can easily recall at a later date. In terms of ease of memory of the lines, the structure and rhyme scheme make it easier to memorise the poem, and mnemonics can easily be invented to help remember the key descriptions of the beauty.

Byron’s escapade to Italy resulted in a continuance of his friendship with Shelley, and the students loved hearing the story of the creation of possibly the original bratpack: Byron, the Shelleys, and Clara Clairemont. When Byron arrived in Italy with his friend Clara, who was besotted with him, he discovered that Shelley was having an affair with Mary Godin, Clara’s half sister (oh oh!, the class erupt, here we go again!), which surely had a part to play in Shelley’s wife committing suicide by drowning. Shelley and Mary’s elopement only weeks later was met with shock by the students, but when I mentioned that Mary then becomes Mary Shelley, the author of one of the greatest stories in all of literature, Frankenstein, written when she was just 19, it became a perfect introduction to the poem ‘Ozymandias’. Add to that the fact that Shelley shifts from 1st person to 3rd person the first line so as to possibly avoid getting into more trouble (cue discussion about him being expelled from Oxford for being an atheist, and losing his large inheritance in the process) and the students were well and truly hooked into reading the poem. A link to Blake’s explicit criticism of the church is evident in Shelley’s “king of kings,” but when students were informed that Shelley was risking treason with the implicit link to King George III, mocking his tyrannical warmongering ways and massive ego, the discussions around language techniques that emphasise the themes became thoroughly enjoyable for the students. The irony in the fact that Shelley himself died from drowning only several years later when he was only 30 years old was the icing on the cake in terms of cementing the poem into the long-term memory, but it was also worth mentioning that he was found with a copy of Keats’ poems in his pocket. Who is Keats the students cried: I’ll tell you tomorrow I said.

Keats is also an interesting tale, a sad tale that appeals to the students’ sense of justice and sympathy. It begins with the death of his father whom he was very close to when he was very young, and the subsequent remarriage of his mother to a man whom he didn’t like. In fact the mother left the family and Keats, being the eldest, had to take care of his 3 siblings. The mother only returned when she was on her deathbed, and it wasn’t long before she died of tuberculosis. He effectively educated himself, and trained to be a doctor, but had a tremendous passion for writing poetry. However, his poetry was continuously mocked and received countless rejections and scathing criticisms. Nonetheless, it didn’t prevent him from continuing. However, the death of his brother, whom he was very close to, again to the cruel master tuberculosis, severely affected him emotionally, which is why the acceptance of time passing as irrevocable in the 3rd stanza of To Autumn is incredibly impressive. It was in fact after his brother’s death that Keats wrote some of the most famous poetry of all time, including Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to Melancholy, and Ode To Autumn. But it wasn’t until well after his death, also of tuberculosis, at the ridiculously young age of 25, that his poetry was finally recognised to be amongst the greatest of all in English literature. It’s a tale of a troubled existence peppered with moments of genius; a perfect hook into the reading of the poem To Autumn; it’s the students’ connection to the underdog that secures it. The poem itself is long, and potentially the most difficult in the whole anthology to memorise. However, structure returns to the rescue again, with 3 distinct sections. The final stanza reflecting Keats’ acceptance of the passing of time is a relevant point of discussion, considering the context he was in, and indeed, considering the context the students are in also: Carpe Diem and all that. The story-like nature of the poem, as well as the tremendous amount of imagery also assists in its recall, and again, many mnemonics can be devised to help.

The Power of Story

The process described above should be applied to all the poems in the anthology. The essence of the strategy is that by making the poems come to life for the students, absorbing them in the journey of the poets via good old fashioned story telling, and setting up numerous opportunities for them to recall the key ideas, structures, and images in each poem, you’ll have a far greater chance that they will remember the poems, know them thoroughly, and be able to make perceptive comparisons with other poems in the anthology.

Ps – further contextual discussions of the other poems will be added over the next few weeks

I’m @edmerger

Selling your own resources: a mug’s game, or cultural?

Selling your own resources: a mug’s game, or cultural?


To begin with I want to make it explicitly clear that the conscious selling of other people’s resources is abominable. I can’t understand the thought process of someone who engages in such an activity, and sincerely sympathise with James Theobald, and in what seems to be coming to light as endemic, the many others who have had their freely distributed resources bastardised and/or pillaged by the unscrupulous. But I don’t think the issue is as clear-cut as suggesting that the selling of all resources is a corrupt practice.

Some things to think about

  1. Creating resources in your own time should not automatically render those resources as belonging to the school in which you work. As people we are not indebted to our workplace 24/7. We work hard enough in the allocated time in our contracts. If a teacher is entrepreneurial enough to want to create extra income to, quite frankly, subsidise their poor pay level, surely s/he should not be made to feel like they are somehow cheating others? @positivteacha helps elucidate this more here.
  2. Some argue that it’s not right to sell resources because everything has essentially come from the same place, and are merely adaptations of original ideas. But if someone spends a lot of time and effort and initiative to develop a resource it’s probably because what’s out there presently is not sufficient, and they can see the gap in the market. Of course there are distinctions to be made here: is collation enough to constitute a ‘new’ resource, or must it follow copyright laws and be an appropriation of information that must suit a new context for it to be legal? Maybe the new resource constitutes a particular insight into the subject, and if so, what’s the difference between that and somebody who moves up the hierarchy in education because they are perceptive in their workplace and have insight into better practice; a hierarchical move that results in a substantial pay increase, whether it be within a school or in consultancy or in speaking or publication ranks. Besides, if we apply this rationale across the board, there could never be any enterprise at all in any field, and in fact capitalism could not exist. And before you rush into this as being your very argument, that education should be devoid of enterprise at all, I alert you again to point no. 1, and that money is not and never will be distributed evenly across schools.
  3. What’s the difference between selling resources you’ve created and those selling books on education? Is there some sort of threshold in terms of the amount of time spent on developing the resources, whether they be individual lessons or units of work or books? Does the moral argument about sharing of education to improve the lot of all stakeholders apply to those selling books? And does the issue of point 1 come back into the equation: does the publication become the intellectual property of the school, and if it’s in the school’s domain, is it justifiable to demand it be free?


The above arguments seem to only raise more questions than provide answers. To prove that take a look at this ultimate conundrum in the sharing of resources: if you share quality, then others will use them and improve their classes, which in turn improves performance in those classes, which in turn improves performance in examinations, which in turn means the grade boundaries need to be adjusted to accommodate the norm referenced allocations, which means teachers need to work harder in the next year to ensure they don’t fall on the wrong side of the boundary. Having said that though, selling resources certainly doesn’t fix this situation, as those with the capacity to afford the quality resources will then succeed more than those who can’t: inequity in education caused by finance ensues, with the rich getting richer. Arrggghhh!!!!


It goes to show you that in education, complexity rules.

I’m @edmerger



Pedagogical progress, or second best

If there’s a better solution, use it!

darwinI often hear schools tell me that they’re just going to keep with their existing software because it’s the easier on the staff than changing. They tell me that they have already spent considerable energy trying to get teachers on board with their existing solution, and that it would be a nightmare to have to change again. However whilst I empathise with the situation, I think the cost of bowing to such a context and neglecting pedagogical progress can be greater than a school might think.


School tone is all-important. It’s what drives everything within, it is what message students get loud and clear over and over again, it is what message they take with them when they go home each night, and beyond. One of the clearest and most useful tones we can create is that of being the best we can be, and trying your hardest as much as possible to achieve it. Imagine arriving at a school whose motto was ‘Settling for second best in anything we do’. Of course you’re never going to see it, but sometimes schools implicitly deliver that very message to their students when they accept that change for their teachers may just be too hard to manage.

I’ve never worked with a teacher who accepted the shrugging of shoulders by their students when asking questions, or being content with half-hearted efforts in tasks assigned by them. But I pose this question to you: do some teachers in your school do this very thing when confronted with changes in the system?


experience teacher ruleLet’s put this into context. Experienced teachers quite rightly are now on permanent guard of ‘new’ teaching and learning strategies, being acutely aware that many of them are simply rehashed forms of past techniques. The resistance is perhaps directly proportional to the enthusiasm of the leadership team in delivering them as revelations. But sometimes new ideas emerge, better ways of doing things, and when they do, it’s important that we are open to them and willing to take them on, even if it means more work, otherwise we set a ‘We’re just happy with the way we are’ tone instead of a ‘We want to continually develop’ tone. Why is this important? Because actions are louder than words, because most people learn more by what you do than by what you say: if teachers choose to maintain the status quo because it’s easier or less work, then that tone permeates throughout the school, and leaches into the students. It would then be shockingly unfair to demand anything more than this standard from the students.

There is perhaps no greater illustration of this than the use of technology in schools. Quite undeniably, technology can enormously assist schools, from centralised data holding, to parent communication, to facilitating access to information anywhere a student goes. And whilst being wary of ineffective technology is imperative amongst a growing wave of edtech vendors exhorting their wares, it is essential that teachers learn to do just that, and not paint all with the same brush to dismiss any new approaches.

Promote pedagogical progress

Of course price would also be a factor in an ever-stretched budget, but if schools are going to consider wholesale change by taking on a new technological solution, or changing from an existing provider, there should only be one single factor that guides the decision: will the solution promote pedagogical progress. And if, after extensive reviewing and evaluating, the answer is yes, pedagogical progress should never be compromised because a school is afraid that its teachers won’t take it on. Everyone knows that transitions aren’t easy, but if a school understands and embraces the pedagogical progress ethos, it will work hard to provide the necessary time and support to make the change.


owlSo always be open to new technological approaches and solutions. Even though not all inventions are beneficial to the learning environment, the very nature of technology driving it to create enhancements suggests that there’s usually something interesting around the corner. Don’t be content with second best. If technology promotes pedagogical progress, a school owes it to the students to implement it into teaching and learning. But maybe more than that, a school owes it to its teachers to always expect the best.

I’m @edmerger