To be absent, or not to be absent? That is the teacher’s dilemma

My day (up until now) has gone something like this:
6.45: Arrive in front of computer. Plan lessons, respond to and write emails, enter data, file reports, resolve network access issue with network manager etc etc
9.00: My watch, with a single, short bleep, announces that it is 9am.

So, nothing surprising there then. I am a teacher. I arrive at school early. I get lots of work done early in the day before classes start.

The only difference is that today, I am not actually in school. I am ill.

So don’t come too close.

To put everything in place for my absence though, I had to spend time doing the list of tasks above. Meeting report deadlines and setting cover work wait for no-one.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not on a crusade to bring to your attention the poor lot of the teacher. However, I feel it’s not as cut-and-dry as sometimes you might think.
When you stand in front of the cover board in the staff room and you discover that a colleague is absent, it is fairly stark.

Teacher X is not in.

However, that does not quite capture the dilemma that we all often face. Do we go in or not?
Sometimes, this dilemma is removed from us. In 2008, I was forced to take 12 weeks off school due to an attack of reactive arthritis. The consultant waxed lyrically about the amount of fluid she was able to drain from my ankles. I was a medical phenomenon. In this case, there was no question. I was off.

The dilemma arises when something more non-debilitating and short-term occurs. The cold, sore throat and general ‘under-the-weatherness’ that comes from spending a large proportion of your working week surrounded by hundreds of young, active germ-carriers (students).

More often than not, staying off can result in more workload. Not just the doubly frustrating ‘setting-work-for-the-classes-that-you’d-already-prepared-lessons-for’, but knowing that those exercise books / tests are stacked up in your room all longingly waiting for someone to mark them. What about the parent / colleague you are supposed to be meeting, never mind the poor soul who has to spend period 5 with 9Z French*?

With this in mind, we struggle in, hardly able to make it the short distance from car park to staff room without head swimming and the onset of exhaustion. To be met with adulation?
More like, ‘What are you doing here? You look like death.’
At least the students will take it easy on me in my current fragile state.
Er, no.

It really is a no-win situation.
And if Mr Kirby’s ‘perfect election promise’ comes to fruition, we will be facing this dilemma for 6 more weeks a year.

Pass the Strepsils, someone.

* I would like it put on record that I teach NO classes that would fall into this category and that I used this example for literary effect only.

GCSE Roving Reading – a new way to approach a past paper

For the Roving Reading Recipe, you will need:

1) Copies of 2 Spanish GCSE Reading papers (one Foundation paper and one Higher)
2) Dictionaries
3) Lined paper (one sheet per pair in your group)
4) Mark scheme:
We use AQA. Mark schemes from 2010 are available at the link above. For ones prior to this you need to access e-AQA

1) Separate the exam papers out into individual sheets and place them on a total of different tables which is equal to the number of pairs of students you have in your class. Some tables may have more than one sheet on. Ideally, one sheet from a Foundation paper and one from a Higher paper on each.

2) Divide students into pairs and give each group a sheet of lined (but not grease-proof) paper between them.

3) Move students around the room (in a pre-determined order) so that each group stops at each table for 5 minutes. Use a (kitchen) timer to ensure the 5 minutes is precise (we don’t want them to overheat!) Students must mould as a team to answer all the questions from the sheets on that table. No dictionaries!
Students must number their answers carefully as they may be answering the questions out of sequence.

4) When the 5 minutes is up, the timer rings and they move round to the next table. This happens until all groups have visited all tables and written down their answers. The teacher then reads out the answers (add some reasoning to taste), students swap sheets and mark.

5) Testing / Tasting?:
Students pass the exam paper sheets amongst themselves, this time, studying where they went wrong (if at all) and what the key items of vocabulary were.
The aim is to come up with a list of (at least) 20 new key words from the papers that they have translated into English (probably after looking some up in the dictionaries)
They then (as a team) have 10 minutes to learn these words before they go head-to-head with another team, swap vocabulary lists and test each other to see who can remember the most key words of vocabulary.

All grades should rise nicely as a result!

The Voice – Using it (and losing it) in the MFL classroom

Only when you lose it do you realise how often you use it.

That is certainly true of your voice. I sit here with that most common of teacher ailments, the sore throat. I turned to thinking about just how versatile and powerful a tool the voice is for teachers in general, and MFL teachers specifically.

In behaviour management, the use of the voice is well-documented. Full-on shouting is not an advisable strategy (who is the adult in the room, after all?) not merely for the effect on your vocal chords but also on your relationship with the class in question. The voice should be used in moderation as a tool of finesse for guiding, not as a would-be weapon of mass destruction, seeking to send students cowering behind their pencil cases for fear of where the next vocal salvo could land.

Only yesterday, I saw two PGCE students use their voices well to control a class. A sudden rise (not too high!) in teacher volume brings a class to attention, followed quickly by a drop in volume to quiet will have students straining to hear and ‘shushing’ each other to ensure that they can follow. There will be times though, when the next key string to the bow may be required.


(Insert appropriate picture of tumbleweed cartwheeling in the desert breeze with the solitary bell of the frontier town church tolling regularly and mournfully from the middle distance)

We’ve all done it. The eternal wait for a class to be silent. Have you got the nerves of steel required?

If so, most of the time, it will pay off. If not, sanctions kick in.

I also tend to use the ‘counting down from five’ chestnut, in whichever language is appropriate (and occasionally one that is not). As soon as zero is reached (and my shared expectation is that it will not be) I will start to count up again. Whichever number I reach before silence is achieved equates to minutes at break time, most often served by the persistent offenders as opposed to the whole class.

Pausing mid-sentence is another well-used strategy, as students …………. wait to hear how you are going to finish it off.

In MFL, the voice really comes into its own. Songs are always a hit, even with the older year groups. The Alphabet Chant, Head, Shoulders etc, Quelle est la date  de ton anniversaire, San Fermin  are all tried and tested for me. I am looking forward to picking up some more at ILILC4.
High voice and low voice to distinguish between masculine and feminine, particularly with adjectives (such as nationalities), gives Year 7 specifically the challenge to go as low as me for the masculine (and me to go and squeak as high as them for the feminine)

No doubt, there are many others as well. In fact, some we develop as we go along in teaching to such a point, that we hardly know we are using them. They are second nature.

My main aim now though is to go and search for the voice that I have lost. I need it back now please.
Pass the Strepsils.

Multi-faith, multi-cultural – an assembly idea


I did this assembly this week with years 7 to 10 and it seemed to work equally well with all of them. My context is a small-town mixed comprehensive in Somerset. Bear this in mind please!

Firstly, ask the form captains to come out to the front and stand behind you. Tell them that they are going to represent their tutor groups in a true or false ‘culture quiz’. If they believe the statement to be correct, they move to your right and if they believe it to be false, they move to your left.

When these statements are read, there is often some influence exerted by the audience. This should be encouraged!

1. In Saudi Arabia it is impolite to refuse a cup of coffee. True

2. In Spain a woman named Helena Lopez who married a man named Hector Portillo would be known as Helena Lopez de Portillo. True

3. In China the most junior person generally enters the meeting room first. False

4. In Ukraine all businesses are closed between 11:00 a.m. and noon for staff shopping escapades. False

5. When you visit someone’s house in Poland you may be asked to take your shoes off. True

6. You may feel free to cross your legs in the Middle East. True

7. When someone gives you a present in Japan, you should open it immediately. False

8. The numbers 6, 8 and 9 are considered lucky in China. Therefore, these three digits are firm favourites when choosing phone numbers, car registration numbers and room numbers. True

9. In the Arab world people stand closer than in Europe: one metre or nearer. True

Use as many or as few of these questions as you have time for. Ideally you will arrive at a point when there is a winner. Congratulate them on their cultural awareness. Award a prize as you see fit!

I then talked about diversity in school. I asked the students to guess how many miles from our school you would need to travel to find a school that spoke 21 languages and came from 15 different ethnic backgrounds. After taking some answers from students (which ranged up to 1000 miles), the answer came back as zero, as it was details about our own school that I had requested from SIMS. The idea is for students to reflect on the cultural diversity within their own institution.

Then, describe a multi-cultural experience where you have felt very isolated / alone / out of place. Say how you felt. I described being the only white man as far as the eye could see in a town in Ghana. Ask students to imagine how an ‘outsider’ would feel coming into our school.

Ask them to reflect on how difficult it would be to come from another culture, speaking a different language and trying to settle into a new school.

End with the thought that we are all different. Life would be exceedingly dull if we were all the same and these differences should be welcomed and celebrated.

Let me know how you get on!

Using team competitions in MFL – a new approach


We all know the scenario.

Ask a group of students to look up some words in a dictionary and they instantly appear as tired as if they have just emerged from a two-year-long hibernation. However, mention that it is a race, and that there are points at stake which will lead to a tangible reward and that same (seemingly) mundane task is catapulted to a whole new level of seriousness.

With classes in Years 8 to 11, I have recently started to use the Triptico software (the free version of Triptico Plus) which is installed (very easily) on my classroom desktop in two new ways:

1) I use the group selector option to split the class into (up to) 8 groups. This is totally at random. Sometimes it can take a few attempts before the software distributes the more  disruptive elements of the class evenly around the room 🙂 I try to ensure that the groups are of equal ability levels too, where possible. The first thing students now do on entering the room is check the whiteboard to see which group they are in before going to the appropriate table. It’s part of their routine. Feedback tells me that most of them enjoy the ‘surprise’ element of this and like not knowing who they are going to be working with from one lesson to the next.

2) I use the score board element in Triptico to award points for answers. I mostly award these in three different ways:

a) Quick-fire first-hand-up questions. Clearly, the brighter students could tend to dominate, so I use the individual student selector within the group selector to choose a student at random from each group. This student is then (temporarily) captain and has to answer for the team. Discussion amongst the team can be allowed but this can cost vital seconds!

b) Teams work together to produce a sketch / conversation / role play / creative paragraph, which I award points to depending on set criteria (accuracy / pronunciation / does it make me laugh etc etc)

c) Teams work individually on a listening / reading exercise for example. Then they discuss together what they think the answers are. Afterwards (using the individual student selector in Triptico) I choose one student from each group whose book is then passed to another group for marking. Points are awarded. In this case, all students must make sure their answers / sentences are ‘up-to-scratch’ as they never know whose book will be chosen to represent their team.

Points accrued currently lead to merits for the winning teams. I tend to err on the generous side, so award merits for the top 2 or 3 teams, particularly if the scores are tight.

I felt initially that I would try this out for a couple of lessons. However, I have been running this system on and off since October and there is no opposition to it continuing from any of my classes (as yet). In fact, staff who have supported have remarked on how engaged (particularly the usually less-focused) students are.

I certainly do not advocate this as a ‘magic wand’ solution to solve all student engagement issues in MFL, but I believe that the impact has been positive in a whole range of classes for a sustained period, so I’ll take that for now, thank you very much!