Mrs Humanities

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Guest Post from @Lisamoniquepool – Teaching History in a specialist school

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Teaching History in a specialist school: a peek at life as a non-specialist specialist.

Even with just two years experience in a specialist school, there are lots of thoughts to share about the experience as a History teacher.  The school is a specialist provider for dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and a range of other learning difficulties and it was, to be honest, a tentative leap for me to accept the job without the specialist SEND training I thought would be essential. Pupils at this school are well-behaved, polite, largely tidy, funny, caring, flexible, motivated and deserving the absolute best service possible.  They also usually have negative baggage from mainstream struggles, late identification of needs and anxiety.  The science behind children developing these difficulties is an area I don’t yet fully understand. I haven’t cracked the best way to help them learn yet – but  the door has just chinked open a little.

‘Back in the day’, in 1999, trainees learned to deliver and develop a subject and SEN understanding was limited largely to differentiation, an overview of some ‘common’ learning difficulties and the behaviour management that could result from pupils ‘kicking off’ due to inadequate meeting of needs;  I’m not aware it has changed much, and the chances of emerging as a qualified teacher with a parallel, comprehensive specialist knowledge of SEN, are still rare.  Therefore, schools with specific areas of expertise like mine, employing subject experts needed to meet national curriculum demands, means 3 things: a very steep learning curve, dependence on advice from experts  & quality CPD, & a sense of justice.  Achievement for our pupils is the high bar it is anywhere else, & it is up to me to make sure I don’t do them the mightiest disservice by not helping them learn their way.

So, the scene is this.  Small classes, no more than 8.  A full gamut of subjects and the expectation to sit GCSEs.  No TAs.  Pupils dropping in and out for therapy sessions.  The usual ‘no pen, Miss’ and ‘X is winding me up’ but no extraordinary behaviour (in fact, the opposite – the energy required, the latent frustrations and anxieties, previous learning experiences, developmental lags should imply some really difficult pupils but there are none, behaviourally).  Classrooms are typical – some over-busy and jolly (guilty), others more functional.  Chairs get left untucked, bags forgotten, pupils loiter when you secretly need a coffee.    Breaktimes are lively and way more important than the bits in between (obvs) but boundaries are clear, routines set (& quite often known!)  In short, nothing really different to any mainstream school, it might seem.

So what does it mean to teach History in such a school?  At a crass & simple level (& no disrespect to my pupils with the generalising), pupils struggle with writing, generally have reading ages considerably lower than chronological ages (at worst, by half), struggle with spelling (‘Lebensraum? Harsh, Miss!’).  So reading and writing are onerous?  Hmmokay.  They find sequencing illogical and taxing, find chronological sweeps of time impossible to fathom.  Right, so cause and consequence is an early obstacle, and don’t even start thinking about change and continuity.  They can struggle with empathy and inference, so sourcework & interpretation is really confusing.   Memorising 10 key words & meanings is a massive feat, so let’s not even contemplate how hard pure exam-based GCSEs will be (4 topics crammed with content – yikes).  Formulating ideas and communicating non-verbally is tough.  Getting started and knowing how to organise thoughts can be a spaghetti mess.  Time-pressure is a nightmare – where all pupils have 25% extra time as a minimum, how to manage a 1-hour lesson and accelerate all pupils’ learning simultaneously?  Letters on a page – even a well-crafted, colour-coded, diagram-based page – jump around and have a party.  Dates?  Well… Recording understanding and ideas, when nearly all pupils are entitled to a Scribe in exams, is either uncomfortable or impossible, or anything in between.

Ah ha, you say – all those skills that historical thinking and understanding are built on?  Well fundamentally, yes.   However, as the Historical Association freebie postcards told us a few years ago, History is ‘gossip well told’ so, provided I can crack the methods, everyone loves good gossip so what’s the problem?   The solution is to go west and differentiate, my friend!   In fact, differentiate like never before – pupils at my school are not weak learners, or unlikely to achieve – far from it on both fronts and the school motto of ‘the same road by different steps’ suggests that, at one level, History teaching is no different to any other school, as long as you target it appropriately and personally, which is what we’re all supposed to do anyway.  Pupils at my school have extraordinary intelligences, probably more unorthodox, sometimes disguised, more empowering and more unique than I ever understood so, hey, if I can tap into these intelligences, I’m flying, right?   Well yes.  But how does it work? What needs to be done that is different?    ‘Bespoke learning’ & ‘tailored lessons’ may be fashionable eduspeak but actually, it comes down to that basic bottom line – knowing pupils’ needs and ensuring they can access, enjoy and stretch.

In a typical day, I need to consider font size.  Paper colour.   Chunking instructions.  Colour.  Processing time.  Key words and meanings.  Access to sensory tasks.  Which pupils need a finger fidget.  Which pupils need an escape card.  Which pupils can read comprehensively and still understand very little of what they have read.   Who needs to fire up the laptops immediately (&who needs to process instructions before tippy-tapping).  Who needs scaffolding.  Who needs more, much more, teasing out of thoughts.  Who needs extension work that fits.  Who needs 3 chances to clarify instructions.  Quite a list, but is it THAT different to the thoughts of (history) teachers in any school?    I’m not sure whether my SLT team would agree, but I believe that the development in History learning & teaching is a 60-40 balance:  60% tapping into, planning for my student’s individual needs and 40% how much I love my subject.  How can I explain how very cool and clever David Low was?  How can I make it easy to understand the physical lapse of time between Alfred’s victory at Edington and the Battle of Hastings?  How can I best relay the consequences of the consequences of the Boston Tea Party?  How can I explain that a non-King – William Marshall – was as important as a King in 1216?  It’s about thinking more creatively than ever and making resources specifically for my pupils.

Visually fantastic clips that appear to tick all the content boxes have narration that is too quick.  There’s no chance to process before the next bit is up.  Powerpoints often have captions that also move too quickly – pausing and re-reading helps, but loses the impact and flow.  Textbooks are an enigma: all those letters on a page, partying away & dancing around.  The weight of reading material, and even the content expected to be processed, can cause alarm, disengage pupils and immediately elevate the subject into ‘wordy’ and therefore to be avoided/loathed.  But at the same time, should my pupils be deprived of that overview, reference point, glossary etc?  The chance to look through and get a holistic ‘feel’ for the topic?  I suspect, despite the convention that most textbooks don’t work for us,  that actually they would.  Trial to start in September!

Please be sure, I’m no guru.  I don’t have the background knowledge about what creates special educational needs and disabilities.  I don’t have a teaching legacy in SEND.   I don’t have a full armoury of every strategy ever developed, but I’ve made a start.  I do have no-singing, no-dancing lessons.  I do occasionally have lessons that would horrify Senior Leader or Ofstedians.   I do get it wrong, quite often.    But it’s a superb challenge, with infinite possibilities and I think I’m getting a bit more of a handle on it and, really exciting, it’s probably helped me celebrate my passion for History because it’s the one resource I have, for free, in spades.

Lisa (@Lisamoniquepool)

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Guest Post from @GeogOnOut – A Career in Teaching (inspired by you!)

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Wondering how to get into teaching? Not sure if teaching is a career for you? Here’s a great guest post of one currently unqualified teacher and his route into teaching. Filled with positivity and an experience somewhat different to the ‘norm’ of undertaking an undergraduate degree at uni followed by Initial Teacher Training; it truly goes to show there are other approaches to entering this career.

A Career in Teaching… (1)

Looking back, my route into teaching hasn’t been the most normal, although as I quickly discovered, there isn’t really a ‘normal’ in teaching. It all started when I turned 18, after failing all of my a-levels, I started a job as a Kitchen Assistant. As I wasn’t moving away, I decided to stay on at the local RAF Air Cadet Squadron where I became an instructor cadet. This is where my love for teaching really started.

Over the year, I embarked on a Mountain Leader Award and attended Duke of Edinburgh Leader and Expedition training courses provided through the cadets. This allowed me to develop and deliver courses which included navigation and expedition units for the CVQO BTECs and DofE Training framework. This was my lightbulb moment! Upon the realisation that I enjoyed, planning, developing and delivering courses and resources. I decided to take the plunge and take an Open University degree course to pursue a career in teaching. A love for Geography in school, a keen traveller and outdoor pursuits enthusiast Geography was the subject, and in my opinion it is one of the most important subjects of our times.

A year into studying my BA(H) International Relations with the Open University, I landed myself a job at my first secondary school as a Teaching Assistant; and oh boy were my eyes opened in the first week. With the support of my Line Manager and the SEN team my outlook of school life quickly changed and for the good. I had gone in with the impression that I could just support students and they would just “get it”.  That disruptive students would just behave when told. Oh how I was wrong. Over the period I was there, I was given the opportunity to also take a tutor group, extra mentoring duties, support the SENCO with alternative pathways, The Princes Trust, and BTEC Outdoor Adventure units. Upon leaving the school two academic years later my whole attitude had changed, I knew that I had to support, engage, encourage, nurture and build strong relationships with students to enable them to learn, believe in themselves and achieve. This role also enabled me to see lots of teachers teach, providing me with ideas which would power me into my next role. The ethos that I developed from the team will forever stay with me.

So moving on, I took the plunge to apply for a Cover Supervisor role and gladly and excitedly accepted a post at Royal Wootton Bassett Academy (RWBA). This role evolved even before day one, which included a 0.5 UQT job share to start a new KS4 alternative provision program (know as the Alternative Baccalaureate) with another new member of staff. For me, the first challenge meant completing a BTEC Award in 1 year. Over the course of the first year, myself and my colleague developed what we felt was needed to be the new Alternative Pathway which we have trailed this year. (This may be a future post when I start blogging so watch this space!) I was also able to volunteer and have quickly become heavily involved with the DofE Award at the school.

And….Onto this year, which has been the most exciting and biggest challenge for me, with the success of Alternative Baccalaureate program, support from the staff team at RWBA particularly the Deputy Head. I undertook a larger teaching timetable, with KS5 BTEC units and KS3 Geography which would massively support my development moving forward and applying to SCITT providers. The Alternative Baccalaureate program has also has taken leaps and bounds this year, with what was a difficult group to start with (again more in a future post) with successes in the newly designed curriculum, strong links with local colleges for vocational courses, extended work experience for students and fortnightly volunteering with the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust to name a few.

When free time permitted, I have remained fully involved with the DofE Award and have been lucky enough to attend Holocaust and Genocide education CPD with RWBA and University College London. (Follow @RWBAHolocaaust for more! Its well worth it.)

Last September, I also took to Twitter and discovered a whole community of teachers supporting, sharing and developing together. Finding @teachertoolkit, @mrshumanities, @davidErogers, @Oteaching to name a few. This has further developed my ethos of teaching, and it has helped me become somebody who is open, always wanting advice, new ideas, and willing to be critiqued within school when being observed in order to be the best I can. I am a true fan of #teacher5aday and @MrsHumanities #teacher5adaybuddybox with a somewhat limited commitment to the hashtag currently.

Looking back, over the past few years, all of these experiences, support and ideas have given me a real positive perspective on education, the difference I can make, and has sparked a whole new interest in the direction I want to take, this is something that would not have happened coming from a ‘brick’ university straight onto a PGCE course.

Alongside all of this I have continued studying with the Open University and have just completed my degree, I will be moving on in September to the North Wiltshire SCITT (@NorthWiltsSCITT) for my Geography Initial Teacher Training, I am excited for my training year, where I can really develop pedagogy, teaching and learning. I believe that amongst the negativity and rapid changes happening in education, that there are also real opportunities for teachers and students alike. I hope to start blogging my ITT experience to inspire others to the profession; to continue to be involved in Alternative Provision to engage and provide a purposeful education to those that struggle with mainstream school, I will continue with Outdoor Pursuits and of course lots of travelling, as that is surely Geography right?

David (@_dwilliams3193 & @GeogOnOut)

Good luck on the new adventure David.

Follow David and his adventure into teaching on his new Twitter account @GeogOnOut and check out his new blog as well.

Want to know more about how to get into teaching?

Check out the following sites for further information.


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Guest Post from @geographyhanna – Combining Approaches

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A word from MrsHumanities

I’m really excited to be sharing the very first guest post on the site. When I saw how Hanna (@geographyhanna) had combined approaches @ploguey and I to develop a feedback-feedforward approach in order to close the gap on an activity I felt it was something that should be shared more widely.

If you have something worth sharing and would like to write a guest post, get in touch.

I hope you enjoy the first guest blog on

combining approaches

Finding myself spending hours providing specific and personalised written feedback to students, I became increasingly frustrated at the value students place on this written feedback. I often found myself writing the same thing for the same student again and again, and whilst I would provide them with DIRT time, they didn’t all use this productively or show signs of using it to improve their work and make progress. I would often get asked by Year 12 ‘so what do I have to do to improve?’, having not even read what I had thoughtfully spent time writing. It was infuriating. Searching through twitter looking for inspiration I came across @mrshumanities SpACE feedback.

I trialled the SpACE feedback initially with my dreamy top Year 7 set.  They were engaged, it got them thinking, asking amazing questions and really reflecting on their work. From this they summarised their findings into a WWW and EBI, part of our departmental policy. Reading them, they were informative and useful. Not the old classic ” you need to write more” or “work on your handwriting”, they had really thought about it. I trialled it on my Year 12’s and was equally impressed by the learning conversation and outcomes.  It has completely challenged my feedback practice and the way I view peer assessment.

Being newly addicted to twitter I had previously come across @ploguey read-edit improve approach. I had used the idea successfully with exam classes. Students really liked the level of challenge it provided and spotting mistakes became good points of conversation and developed an element of competition. The structure had the added benefit of supporting reluctant writers and highlighting the use of AfL in their books. However, I found that students were not brilliant at articulating their feedback in the ‘edit’ section and needed quite a lot of guidance for the higher level skills.


This led to me combining the two ideas for my Year 11 revision session on explain the formation questions. Using the SpACE feedback provided them with some structure to their feedback and allowed them to edit and improve with a greater focus. In addition I also added an ‘apply’ section on the end, which lent itself well to the skills I was hoping to adapt. Whilst the students had not used used either approach previously and were a little saturated with revision, they engaged well and clearly showed development in their ability to structure this style of question. It is an approach I am excited about using more and will definitely be sharing and building in to schemes of learning.

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Thank you to @mrshumanities and @ploguey for the inspiration.

Hanna (@geographyhanna)

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