TOOLING UP : Digging Learning Holes


Okay. Tool up.

You need:

  1. A shovel
  2. Some branches
  3. A class
  4. A repertoire of instant classroom engagement
  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

Tooling Up: Digging Learning Holes originally appeared in Teach Primary Magazine in September 2013


One thought on “TOOLING UP : Digging Learning Holes

  1. Pingback: How could we use Hywell’s tools to dig some of our own learning holes? | …so you just play all day!

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