Wednesday, 27 June 2012

All Secondary - End of Term: Ideas for the last lesson

As the summer break finally approaches, many teachers will be thinking about what to do with their classes for the last lesson. Often both my students and I can summon up little more than the required energy for sweets and a video, but it is nice to end the year on a more upbeat and positive note.  One of my groups of eighteen year olds wanted a primary school style party for which they all brought in food. I normally say no to these requests out of concerns about getting through the work; the mess I would have to clean up, and being a general party pooper, but I’m glad that I went along with their plans this time; for one thing they made nice cakes. So while eating cake, you might want to try some of the following ideas: 
  • Advice for next year’s students – Ask students to create 'Do's and 'Don’t's posters for future students. They could instead make a video or podcast of their highlights of the year to be uploaded onto the school/college’s intranet. It is nice to have the opportunity for reflection on how the year went and of course this ticks some boxes for Student Voice and marketing your subject.
  • Treasure hunt – You could make this subject specific. Save time by asking a couple of students to help organise it and write the clues. Older students seem to particularly enjoy this (the primary school connection again) as my colleague found when his A Level students requested an Easter egg hunt!
  • Big fat quiz of the year – Get the students into groups and ask them to give themselves an imaginative name, in the style of a pub quiz. Include core content that the students will also need for the following year. This works best with different rounds including a picture round, word association, and one round about the students including funny incidents that have happened in class throughout the year.
  • Pictionary – This requires no preparation by the teacher and all you need is the board. Drawing something to represent a theory or concept is quite a challenge and really gets them thinking.
  • Who am I? – The classic post-it-notes-stuck-to-heads game. Include scientists, historians, sociologists, writers (or whoever is relevant to your subject).

And for students leaving…

  • Pay each other a compliment – This is a lovely idea of one of my colleagues. Students each have a sheet of coloured paper stuck on their backs. They walk around the classroom and write something they will miss about that student on their paper. The students then have the piece of paper as a nice keep sake (this might not work out too well of course with a group of students who really don’t like each other!)
  • Graffiti wall for the class of 2012 – Let the students leave their mark on the classroom by having a wall of poster paper on which they write their names. This can then be added to every year.  

Emily PainterSociology Teacher, Cadbury Sixth Form College

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Not so Noble – 50 years of reactions of the inert gases

It was the evening of 23rd March 1962.  Neil Bartlett was in his lab at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver.  Everyone else had gone home, including his student.  It had taken longer than expected to set up the apparatus for his experiment but now he was ready.  A glass flask was filled with a red gas.  It was platinum hexafluoride (PtF6), a dangerous, reactive substance. A sealed tube connected it to another container of the colourless inert gas, xenon.  Bartlett broke the seal between the two gases.  The gases mixed and immediately a yellow solid formed.  It was late when Bartlett got home to his irate wife but he was elated.  He had shown that the inert noble gas, xenon, was not so inert or noble after all. 

Neil Bartlett’s experiment was the first to show that some of the inert gases, variously labeled Group 0, 8 or 18 depending on the Periodic Table you look at, could react with other elements.  In 1962 most chemists were of the opinion that the inert gases could not combine with other elements because of their electron arrangements. 

The story goes back to the 1890s when William Ramsay and Morris Travers isolated helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon from air.  The elements were all gases that apparently did not react with anything and so they were given a column in the Periodic Table all to themselves.   In 1913 Nils Bohr proposed his theory of the structure of the atom with electrons arranged in shells around the nucleus.  He worked out that only a particular number of electrons could fit in each shell – 2 in the first, 8 in the second, 18 in the third and so on.  The theory explained the arrangement of elements in the Periodic table.  Except for helium all the inert gases have 8 electrons in their outer shells. 

Three years later Gilbert Lewis in the USA and Walter Kossel in Germany made similar suggestions.  They thought that when atoms combine they either transfer electrons to form ions or share electrons to form covalent bonds so that they can get the same electron arrangement as the inert gases.  The “octet rule” as suggested by Kossel stated that elements and compounds are stable when their atoms have 8 electrons in the outer shells. 

This idea worked very well and explained the structure and properties of compounds such as sodium chloride (NaCl) and carbon dioxide (CO2).  It worked so well that chemists came to believe that the inert gases could not form compounds because by losing, gaining or sharing electrons they would break the octet rule.

Neil Bartlett was one of those scientists not bound by rules.  He had become absorbed by chemistry as a schoolboy in Newcastle (England) when he made crystals of copper compounds. After graduating with a PhD from Durham in 1958 he took up his position in Vancouver.  He had worked with fluorine compounds and found that platinum hexafluoride was a very powerful oxidising agent.  It was so good at taking electrons from other atoms that it even made oxygen molecules form a positive ion in a compound.  Bartlett noticed that although xenon was supposed to be chemically inert it took about the same amount of energy to knock electrons off xenon atoms as oxygen molecules.  That was why he was messing around with xenon and PtF6 on the March evening in 1962.

Bartlett published his work and immediately other chemists repeated his experiment and tried other reactions.  Soon there were many compounds of xenon, krypton and radon (the bottom member of the group).  Recently even argon has been forced to make a compound although only at very low temperatures.  Only helium and neon are remaining noble and aloof from joining with other elements.

Neil Bartlett died in 2008 by which time his lone experiment had become an active field of chemistry. The inert gas compounds are not just the curiosities of chemists – they have uses.  As the compounds are unstable and reactive they make some difficult reactions take place.  For instance xenon difluoride (XeF2) is used to make the cancer drug 5-fluorouracil.  Compounds of krypton and xenon are used in high power lasers.  The compounds could replace toxic heavy metal compounds used as catalysts in many manufacturing processes.


1    Find out what happened to Neil Bartlett between 1962 and his death in 2008.
2    Find out the electron arrangement of the ions in sodium chloride and say why they obey the octet rule.
3    Find out about the properties and uses of some inert gas compounds such as xenon hexafluoride (XeF6) and xenon trioxide (XeO3).
4 (A level)  Like many compounds platinum hexfluoride (PtF6) does not obey the octet rule as the platinum atom has six covalent bonds.   Bartlett found that his compound,  XePtF6  was actually made up of ions  (XeF)+  and (PtF6)-. 
    Draw dot and cross diagrams for the ions in xenon hexafluoroplatinate (XePtF6) and state whether they obey the octet rule.

5    In 1962 most chemists accepted the octet rule ruled out compounds of the inert gases.  Explain why Bartlett’s conclusion that xenon could form compounds was quickly accepted.

6    In what ways is chemical research probably different today compared to Bartlett’s lonely evening in 1962.


Neil Bartlett, "Forty Years of Fluorine Chemistry" in Fluorine Chemistry at the Millennium, ed. R.E. Banks; (Amsterdam: Elsevier Science, 2000), p. 28.

Through a glass...darkly

The draft programmes of study for English, maths and science for Key Stages 1 & 2 have now been published (  Although the secondary programmes are promised later in the year there are some important features in the primary materials that are worthy of note to teachers in Key Stages 3 & 4.  In fact what is as important is the letter from Michael Gove to Tim Oates, highlighting key aspects and responding to the report of the Expert Panel.

Now, there are a couple of health warnings that need to kick in at this point.  One is that these are draft materials and the other is that the secondary programme may not be structured the same way.  Extrapolation isn’t an exact science.  However, let’s run with this for the moment, and see where it takes us.

Firstly, the content is stipulated year by year.  It’s grouped within key stages but nevertheless clearly indicates what pupils should learn about in each year.  We should remember that a key audience for this, explicitly referred to in both the Expert Panel report and Gove’s response, are parents.  The Secretary of State sees it as being important that parents know what their children should be covering each year (schools will be required to publish their curricula for each year).  On the one hand this reduces flexibility (it will also cause problems for small primary schools with mixed age classes who currently run a rolling programme).  However, it enables progression to be built in.  Going from year to year, the big ideas are seen to develop and grow.  It also makes it easier for publishers and external agencies to produce supporting materials.

Secondly, it’s big on spoken English; both the maths and science programmes have explicit reference to it.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the Ofsted inspection criteria and the way that they’re applied to all lessons.  Literacy is a deal breaker.  Illiterate pupils tend to have poorer, shorter and less fulfilled lives.  If we’re serious about it, it has to work across the curriculum.

Thirdly, levels and level descriptors are a thing of the past.  There has been a concern that levels have become an unhelpful label which has caused a diminution of expectation, not least on the part of the pupils.  They’ve been led out and tethered; the rifle has been cocked and aimed.  Actually, I think the problem is not with levels per se but with the use (and abuse) to which they’ve sometimes been put.  Some teachers use levels extremely well and have a consummate grasp of how they can be used as a taxonomy of challenge, planning learning extremely skilfully using this algorithm.  In other quarters however there’s some pretty weird folklore about what concepts and processes exist at which levels. 

Fundamentally though we have to have a firmer grip on progress than simply “she’s learned more science than he has”.  We’re in the explanations business and we need a way of calibrating our judgment as to what a good one looks like.  Actually, although levels may not be much longer for this world (see this blog earlier in the year) take note of Michael’s billet-doux.  “…. I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress.  Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required…..”  Details are to follow.

What the programme doesn’t do, and wasn’t designed to do, is to propose how the material should be taught.  To be fair, neither did previous iterations; however, they were soon followed by other constructs such as QCA’s schemes of work.  Now increasingly discarded they were nevertheless widely used to scaffold earlier attempts at developing schemes of learning.  This time it’s down to schools, what they can develop and what they decide to adopt.  Eyes down.

Ed Walsh
June 2012

Simply take...some chunky chalk

Locate the points

The sun is shining (or it is as I write this) and when using this activity I can give a positive response to the regular question from students – ‘Can we go outside for this lesson?’

This is an activity that could be used to develop the idea of loci before working on constructing them.  This is a strategy that students could find useful later when working on paper, especially as I have found that many of them get engrossed in problems of doing accurate constructions before they have a clear idea what it is that they are about to construct. 

As a whole class outside:
Each students is given some chunky chalk (The thinner sticks lead to some painful breaks on the nails!!) 
You could ask students to go and stand so that they are 
•    5 metres from a wall

Mark their position with a cross – Move to another position and mark it …
•    10 metres from you

Mark their position with a cross – Move to another position and mark it …
Before moving onto the group work I introduce the language of ‘Locus of a point’ and ask them to label the loci that have already been drawn (Useful revision for others that might see these at break or lunchtime)

Working in groups of four or five outside:
Each group is given a card on which the conditions for the locus of a point are written.
You can differentiate the tasks set for the groups where necessary. Two examples are shown in the table below, and these include ways in which the students could extend the task set.

They are asked to move to their own areas and to use the same strategy of marking and moving in order to sketch the locus of the point.  They need to make their own notes in order to describe this to others on return to the classroom.  As you move round the groups discuss with them how they would construct these accurately.  They are often quite inventive and these can be drawn on when showing them other ways to produce accurate drawings of these.

And back in class:
Students should then produce a poster to explain the shape of the locus of the point for their conditions.
These can then be used with them on future work on making accurate constructions

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Secondary English - Extended writing with reluctant writers

At a school I visited recently, the teacher was faced with the challenge of getting some rather reluctant, low level 4 Year 9 boys, to complete a piece of extended writing. The primary focus was WAF 4 – structure and organisation.

The first thing that the teacher did, which would break all of the Ofsted ‘rules’, was to NOT tell the students the purpose of the lesson. Brilliant. Or madness, you might be thinking? Well, he had a reason. What he did instead was to give the students this photograph, of a little boy sitting on a bench in the park. And a piece of paper. The instruction was to just write down whatever came into their heads.

He then gave them this sentence starter:

A little boy sits on a bench.

Students wrote this down, and were then asked to think about what the little boy is wearing, what is on his feet, whether he is carrying anything, what might be in his pocket, what he might be looking at, the expression on his face, and so on. After a while the teacher stopped talking and the students wrote a few ideas down. He then stopped them: just before they wanted to stop.

The second sentence was displayed:

The bench is in the park. 

The students were told to start a new paragraph with this line. Again, the teacher gave them some ideas: the weather, the time of day, what is around the little boy, what kind of bench it is, and so on again.

And again, they were stopped with:

From time to time, he sees / hears / smells…

This was followed by:

The little boy thinks about / remembers… 



And finally:

It begins to get dark. The little boy… 

This group of extremely reluctant, quite challenging boys wrote, solidly, for an hour. Towards the end of the lesson, one suddenly looked up, looked around the room, looked at the teacher and announced very loudly: ‘Do you realise we’ve just written two pages in paragraphs?’ He then turned to the teacher and said ‘You know what you’re doing, you, don’t you?’ This was a really lovely moment to watch.

Sarah Darragh
English Teacher and author of A Bridge to GCSE English 

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Primary - Text Level Reading Activities

Activity One – Reading Buddies

We often ask parents to help with reading at home but with the pressures of family and work life that’s not always possible.

To counter it we’ve set up a Reading Buddies scheme in school asking for volunteers from our stronger readers to work with weaker readers at break times or lunchtimes.

The system is easy to set up but relies on the volunteers who can be encouraged with badges on their uniform announcing them as reading buddies. They’ll need a little training but all you need them to do is to read a book to a weaker reader then listen to them read it, helping with any difficulties and discuss the book afterwards in simple terms such as: Did you like the book? What was your favourite part etc. We found that the strugglers liked to have a, usually older, pupil to work with and we eventually extended this into a ‘learning partners’ scheme where the pairs would work together in other lessons where there are benefits to both parties.

Activity Two – Reading Workshops

These are a fun way to devote a whole afternoon to reading. We carefully selected a small range of books that we felt would be ideal for the session and asked parents and some local celebrities to come into school to help. The workshops were set up as follows:

-    Quiet rooms where a child could go and listen to a story being read to them.

-    ‘Explore a story’ rooms where older children had helped us prepare by reading books and providing displays on the characters, objects that were relevant to the book and costumes of the characters as well as audio versions of parts of the book recorded onto press and play devices.  We had rooms set up as Horrid Henry’s bedroom, The Worst Witch’s house and Hogwarts, amongst others. This idea brought the stories to life for the children almost as much as a film of them would have.

-    We set up a ‘Read to Me’ room where teachers and adults dressed up in fancy dress, often as book characters, and children could volunteer to read to them. They all said it was so much more fun than just reading to an adult although we did have concerns from parents that they might have to continue the idea at home!

Activity Three – Invite a Famous Author in for the Day

I know we’ve all done it, usually for World Book Day, but if you have the funds or a friendly local children’s author, the children get so much more motivated to read by listening to and asking questions of the author of the book they’ve read or are going to read. Most authors do a session of reading to the children and then talk about their characters and how they came about. The children can then ask questions of them before the author usually entices them with an excerpt of their forthcoming book.

If you are worried about budgets, many authors will quote you a fee but which can be reduced if they make sales of books to children and parents afterwards. The authors we have invited in have cost us almost nothing with careful planning and marketing to parents.

Dave Lewis
Primary teacher

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Primary - phonemes

The national reading tests will soon be upon us and whilst the DFE has given schools a lot of material for them to implement and manage the scheme, it doesn’t hurt to have a few extra fun activities up your sleeve for when the children get weary of the practice.

Activity One – Phoneme Treasure Hunt

A very simple activity is to hide phonemes in different places around the school and set out on a treasure hunt to find them. You can vary the ones you want to hide, from just a handful to the whole set when it gets nearer to the test. For younger , attach them to objects they’ll recognise such as cut out bears or shapes and get them to copy them down alongside a number on a worksheet to show the location. The activity can be extended by ‘hiding’ the phoneme in a word or by asking the children to find groups of phonemes such as the ‘A’ sound or consonants.

Activity Two – Phoneme Countdown

Whilst most children won’t be aware of the TV programme and will be too young to understand it fully, you can play a whittled down version of the game to practise phonemes.

Instead of vowels and consonants, prepare vowel phonemes and consonant phonemes and divide the children up into groups. Ask them to choose two vowel phonemes from a hidden ‘pack’ and four consonant phonemes from another pack. Give the groups a minute to make up as many words as they can by joining the phonemes together to make words. They will have to say them out loud to you when the minute is up.

Activity Three – Phoneme Scrabble

Most schools have a Scrabble board tucked away somewhere or if not, it’s not hard to make one – preferably with larger squares. This time, instead of using letter tiles, make up tiles from phonemes and play the game in the usual way. Even though the tiles will often have two or more letters on them to make the phoneme and so you’re likely to have two or more letters on a square, the game works with the words readable across or down. Unlike the real game, ensure that the children correctly say the word they have placed on the board. If it is incorrectly placed or incorrectly read, pass it over to the opposing team to try for bonus points.

Activity Four – Community Phonics

This is an idea we tried in a small community and which was a lot of fun. It does involve a reasonable amount of effort but for us it was worthwhile. We involved our local supermarket, sweet shop, food outlet, petrol station, and post office together with any other places that children are likely to go with their parents. Each week the venue would be asked to display one or two pictures together with an accompanying word that related to the phonemes we were practising.

Out of school, whilst the children were shopping, getting petrol, posting letters etc. with their parents they would be looking out for the picture and word and completed a chart with a sticker from each outlet, a miniature version of the poster. So, for example, the word ‘chain’ would involve a picture of a chain with the word underneath it and the phoneme highlighted in bold. The outlets didn’t mind helping with the activity as they then got regular visits from the parents and so more business, whilst the children had a fun activity out of school that acted as their homework.

Dave Lewis
Primary teacher

Monday, 11 June 2012

Primary - helping capable readers

Activity One – Give Them Responsibility

One of the key complaints from strong readers is that they know how to read and find reading to themselves or to the teacher or parent quite boring. To overcome this you need to give them different challenges and you can do this by identifying opportunities for reading to different audiences. We identified several ways they could do this.


We often have music recitals for parents called ‘Tea Time Concerts’ where the members of the school choir or those taking music lessons can play to their parents. We decided to set up a reading recital for our stronger readers. They were asked to choose a chapter of a favourite book and practice reading it aloud for expression, pace and accuracy. They then had to prepare a synopsis of the book and an account of the events that led up to the chapter they were going to read. In the first one hour recital we organised, we had twelve pupils take part and the feedback from the parents was excellent. The pupils found it a little unnerving but loved the experience and we now hold recitals every half term.


Drama organisations such as LAMDA operate exams in reciting poetry and prose from nursery and reception right up to age sixteen. There is often a set syllabus the children can choose from and they have to practise, ready to perform in front of an external examiner. Successful children earn certificates they can be proud of.

Reading in Church or at Assemblies

Our school has links with the local church and we have services for the pupils and parents there three times a year, once at the start of the school year, once at Christmas and once for leavers. At each of these there’s an opportunity for children to read a prayer or to read a lesson from the bible. Strong readers who need challenge can be asked to do this. Less confident ones could be asked to read a passage or prayer in assemblies.

Activity Two – Newsround

Readers need practice at different styles for different audiences and situations and this activity helps.
Ask the children to watch an episode of Newsround or another TV news program and to listen to the tone of voice and expression of the newsreader. They should notice a difference when the newsreader is telling about news where deaths or injuries have occurred, where the news is serious but no harm has taken place, sports reports where a team or sportsman has won or lost or a fun item of news.

For a little bit of practice with sports news we listened to the reading of the football scores recorded from a Saturday ‘Final Score’ program and found that we could predict the result from the sound of the reader’s voice.

Now ask the children to research and prepare a news report on a serious issue, either in school, in their town, nationally or internationally and read it to the class sat at a ‘news desk’. You should record their efforts and can even put together a ‘newsreel’ by linking a news program introduction from YouTube with their video using Windows Live Movie Maker. If you need to convert files, they’re easy using the free service whilst to make it more life-like you can also use a free, easy to use teleprompter at

Now you can play the news clips back to the class and evaluate them.

Activity Three – Reading With a Difference

There are lots of other forms of reading to help add variety to children’s reading, try some of these:

Reading classics

Many classic authors wrote books or stories that are accessible to better readers. Not only will they get the chance to read stories written in a different era with subtle and not so subtle differences in style, language and content but they’ll also have the knowledge that they have enjoyed books read by countless children over the years. Good examples are Moonfleet by J Meade Faulkner, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

Other forms of reading

Try getting some magazines and newspapers into school such as the National Geographic Kids, First News, football or music magazines so the children can see that reading isn’t confined to the book and that some forms can be throwaway or in instalments. You can also try instructions reading, asking the child to explain how something is done in their own words having got to grips with a set of instructions. You can use this is cookery lessons asking them to follow a recipe, in science carrying out a procedure for an experiment, or in sport to explain the rules of a new game.

Dave Lewis
Primary teacher