Tooling Up: Digging Learning Holes

Okay. Tool up.

You need:

  1. 1.    A shovel
  2. 2.    Some branches
  3. 3.    A class
  4. 4.    A repertoire of instant classroom engagement
  5. 5.    To ignore 1.and 2. as they are metaphors

The image projected on the wall is of workman and surveyors dangling from the top of the Empire State building. The camera points down watching the men working as New York City sprawls out beneath them, dizzying and splendid. The men are talking ignoring the camera and focussed on the task in hand. Gripped in their work, casually holding on to their mortality without, it appears, a care in the world.

The context is a Y11 borderline English Language GCSE ‘group’, created especially for the session with me. The teacher welcoming me into school with a brew and biscuit whispers a ‘good luck’ as I go into the classroom. Ouch.

It’s empty. Just desks and chairs.

I get the projected image up. I’ve used it with teachers before as well as primary kids. It makes some adults and kids woozy with its perspective, and I’m hoping it’ll have a similar reaction today from these more streetwise teenagers about to experience a structured ‘intervention’. The expectation is that we get some writing done. These boys (as they all turn out to be), don’t want to write.

I wait.

I suppose the shovel is the preparation – my tool digging the hole to catch these lads off guard, a trap manifested in the photograph. The branches covering the hole are my behaviours: my demeanour – the way I’m just sitting at the side of the room waiting for the group to arrive, with butterflies running amok in my stomach as they often do. I feel like this a lot when working with a class for the first time. It’s the calm before the storm. Then the rapport-building tsunami that whips around my head kicks in as the first young man walks in.

The trap is set. And it works: hook, line and thinker.

He enters, eyeballs me, then looks at the men hanging from the top of the Empire State Building. The back to me, eyeball to eyeball.

“I could do that,” he says.

It’s not a conversation starter from him; it’s a statement of perceived fact. It’s him projecting his own view of the world onto a picture of a view of the world. It’s also a declaration of investment.

Now, I’ve got a choice. Here is a possible response to his casual statement:

“That’s splendid. Now please sit down and let’s wait for the others to arrive.”

Yes I could say that. But of course I won’t. I say this:

“Really? I couldn’t. No way!” (that’s me delving into my creative repertoire and pulling out teacher fallibility)

“Why?” he hisses in a grinning biddable way, “You scared?”

And that’s it. When his peers arrive he pulls them into the conversation around courage, heights, fears and spiders. When we settle and look back at the picture, we see the workmen and consider what circumstances have led them to the top of the tall building. We enquire into their motivations (‘earn a living?’) and make assumptions about the lives that they might lead. We consider the document they must have signed to get them so high up. And we talk of their attributes and qualifications.

And then we create it. An official document. An agreement between The Empire State Building and these blue collar contractors. It is created in draft form in their books to be transformed into an ‘authentic fake’ (and GCSE piece) later.

Now, put this through your edu-filter. I know this is an anecdote regarding GCSE children but I can offer similar responses from much younger people. For example, a Year 4 child when looking at the same picture recently asked, “What have they got in their bags all the way up there?” The class decided the men were carrying photographs of loved ones.

The investment in the work grew from the ‘settler’ activity at the start of the session – something to do straight away. Too often as teachers, we are bogged down with administration, registers, school lunches and other routines. Don’t get me wrong, routines are very necessary in any classroom and are there for a reason: to get what needs doing done.

Five great humanising routines (to go with all your admin routines):

  1. Meet and greet dripping in botheredness
  2. Habitulisation – helping the children know where they are and understand what is expected of them (quick rule reminders)
  3. Great questions from the word go (is questioning a routine? Yes it is when used to as part of the launch of your day)
  4. Positive and corrective language
  5. A fabulous ‘settler’ that that protects the children into the learning of the session.

Don’t forget, a settler doesn’t necessarily have to link to the whole session. It’s there to do what it says on the tin: to settle your learners into a mood for learning and enquiry; to get them happy to be with you, to support them in leaving their baggage (physical or otherwise) in the appropriate place. This is the stuff you’ve obscured with the metaphorical branches I mentioned at the beginning. This is the hook. The lure.

The best place to start hooking children into learning is to begin with your greatest resource and take a look in the mirror; who do the children see when they walk into your room? Teachers need to have some basics that they often forget to mention at teacher-training institutions. I call them specific teacher acts:

• smiling

• laughter

• enthusiasm

• energy

• patience

These are perhaps a little groan-inducing for the more weary reader, but to a child, these are vital; and, like our hearts, we need to wear them on our sleeves. What do these ‘acts’ look like in your classroom? Could you consider them? Should you consider them? You know what? They can be really hard to muster, but I hope you agree that they are important. I’d want my child to be taught by someone who was good at all these things. Wouldn’t we all?

It’s those first five minutes that show who you are as a teacher and what you expect from your children. Try not to waste them.


Stuck for ideas? Get on the internet for starters, or even Twitter if that’s your thing.


Five great image resources on Twitter to get your kids hooked in:








Ten Great Expectations

  1. We are always polite
  2. We listen when asked
  3. We endeavour to do the best we can
  4. When asked, we shift into learning
  5. We always try to get ourselves unstuck
  6. We respect our learning space
  7. We help each other be brilliant
  8. We use thinking time appropriately
  9. We have fun
  10. We celebrate success

Also what about…..

  • A fat (open) question on the whiteboard – a new one every day. Two minutes to think, two minutes with talk partners, then feedback responses. For example,

‘Why do we have bones?’; ‘How can we reduce poverty?’; ‘What are we going to do about the Big Bad Wolf?’.

•    A fascinating photograph as described above — type ‘rich poor contrast’ into an image search engine and you’ll see what I mean. This image

stimulus can invite the same process as the fat question.

•    On a pen drive, build up a collection of powerful images and questions that you can access quickly, no matter what room you are in — this is particularly good for colleagues who supply or who are on cover supervision.

• And never underestimate the power of using appropriate music





Coming Up…….


I get messages from colleagues asking when I am running sessions they can come along to. I thought I’d put some of the public courses on here as I haven’t got the technical-jedi-know-how to update my own website. Please don’t see this as shameless plugging, it’s a time-saver (and contributes to the mortgage!) 🙂 Follow the links for booking details.

21st October 2013  The Independent Thinking Big Day Out in Wales – this will be a brilliant day:

22nd Ocober 2013 – Creative Teaching Strategies in the Primary Classroom  at Dudley Regional Staff College, Dudley. Contact Louise Mason for booking and details

8th November 2013  Outstanding Teaching and Learning Day in Leeds  This day will be repeated in London on Friday 31st January and Friday 21st March in Oxford

A Six Day Programme beginning on December 3rd 2013 supported by The University of Wolverhampton and Prof. Mick Waters: Developing Classroom Practice at the Cutting Edge  Details here: Flyer

9th December 2013 I’m contributing to an NQT conference at Shelfield Community Academy in Walsall. Contact Phil Smith on for details

14th January 2014  Ensuring Outstanding SMSC  at Dudley Regional Staff College, Dudley. Contact Louise Mason for booking and details. I’m co-facilitating this day with the great @janeh271

4th February 2014 What does Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Engagement look like?  at Dudley Regional Staff College, Dudley. Contact Louise Mason for booking and details.


I am also looking forward to contributing to the following Teach Meets:

#TTManchester on October 23rd

@ExcelsiorTM on October 24th in Newcastle upon Tyne  Programme for 24 10 2013 PDF Excelsior


There’s more I reckon, but I think this is a start. I hope some of this will be of interest to you.








This is the thing (with a dash of courage)

heart on sleeve

“I’ll just say that I’ve been really busy.

I’ll just say that I haven’t got the time or the energy.

I’ll just say that I’m not sure it’s worth the time.

I’ll just say something and slap a smile on my face.”

This is the thing:

I lost my mojo for writing down my thoughts here.

Who wants to hear them? Who cares? Well, a few people apparently. I find the whole concept of blogging challenging but it is most definitely cathartic.However, I’m struggling.

When I was a middle leader (and later a senior leader) I was quite content to ‘shut up and sing’ – do the job I’m paid to do (by the tax payer) and do so with warmth, enthusiasm and, on occasion, courage. I was never really one for the extended debate – I just wanted the solution and then I’d go and act on it.

I realise now that this leadership misbehaviour, this lack of slowing down and analysing the detail, this unquestioning acceptance of the status quo actually brought much dissatisfaction towards the end of my sixteen years of full-time commitment to my (wonderful) school. The dissatisfaction was mine. And was with myself.

I also realise now that not everyone in education thinks like I do. I haven’t got the space, intelligence or aptitude to compose a blog about all of this, but I know I have read much online that I’ve agreed with, much that has stirred me and much that has made me want to jack it all in.  I’ve also found my own beliefs and values around education challenged, belittled and arrogantly dismissed. I’m no academic, but I am passionate and I’m looking forward to spending some time capturing my own view of ‘the way it is’ whilst nailing my colours to the mast in the writing of another book. That’s not a shameless plug, it’s my way of responding and contributing to the discussion.

(As I write this, a direct message drops into my Twitter account: a fantastic Headteacher I’ve known for years, stressed out and undermined by their deputy. The knives are out and they’re in his back. I thought we were all in it together! )

Anyway, a blogging quote:

Dr. Ian Sussman: [Disparagingly to Alan] Blogging is not writing. It’s just graffiti with punctuation.

(Elliot Gould to Jude Law in Steven Soderbergh’s CONTAIGION)

Blogs I do lurk around, enjoy and share:






1. Stray from my own plan whilst keeping the objectives in my head (and taking Y5 on a quest)

2. Liberate a science teacher by telling them they were allowed to use creative processes and that they didn’t have to stick word-for-word with the department powerpoint

3. Argued that the concept of ‘legacy’ is one that teachers should still be able to align themselves with – what’s your legacy?

4. Decided I need to grow a thicker skin

5. Wrote this


Thanks for reading.