Bottom’s on Fire

I love Mantle of the Expert. I especially love it when I come back from working with the best teacher on the planet, Luke Abbott, and realise that there’s so much more to learn. I went into my classroom today, after working with Luke and Tim Taylor all weekend and it was the best double lesson I’ve had in ages. My Year 9 English class (we’re bottom, us) are on fire.

We’ve got rid of setting in Years 7 and 8 for our new English and Philosophy curriculum, but for the moment, Year 9s are still in sets. Having the set who, despite our best efforts to avoid the word, know and call themselves ‘The Bottoms’ throws up many challenges. For a start, all bar two are boys. Some are so disaffected by the idea of writing that they’d rather stick their pens in their eyes. And they do. They are hard to manage, have short attention spans, push boundaries and are deeply, deeply vulnerable. They think they are rubbish and they push those who teach them to confirm it. But they’re not rubbish. They’re actually really funny, imaginative and brilliant. And sadly bordering on illiterate. Almost all are dyslexic or have another language development problem. So I’ve been working on building on two areas to improve confidence and to get their pens off their eyeballs and onto the page: knowledge and vocabulary.

Another problem with this setting business is that sometimes, you wonder if the departmental scheme of work is quite right for the children you’re working with. But it’s what we have and so my job is to find the awe and wonder in our unit of work on travel writing. Last year when I had set 2, I tried to make ‘writing to persuade’ and ‘writing to inform’ more interesting by setting up an elaborate in-role enterprise which involved a failing travel company, a rebranding and marketing exercise and finally a complex liaison with various press and law enforcement agencies as our passengers sat as hostages on a cruise ship captured by Somali pirates. This year, I needed something simpler – the complexity of language required for those tasks was too difficult and the recent events in Kenya a little too raw. In addition, I was finding that this particular group didn’t really care if our company failed or not. The tension that had captured the attention of the children in the higher sets did not work for these children. So I needed something simpler and something more enticing. God sent me Luke.

Today when I went in for our double (two hour) period, I set the chairs out in a semi circle and placed a small scarf on my chair. When they came in I explained that they were about to meet a potential customer with an unusual request. The brochure pages we had been working on might not be suitable for her – “she needs something bespoke, that is, created especially for her”…(no need to stop and ask ‘who knows what bespoke means – just support with an explanation/synonym). Then I put on the scarf and sat down:-

“Thank you for agreeing to see me at such short notice – I know you’re all so busy rebranding your company, but I’ve heard that you’re the best in the business and I have some exciting news. My husband and I have come into some money, well quite a lot of money actually and we want to spend some of it on a holiday”

– How much money?

– How did you get it?

“Ooh, well we sold our business for half a million pounds and we’ve worked so hard for so long, we’ve never had a holiday – not once in twenty years, can you believe it? Anyway, now we really want to go travelling. Somewhere exciting – an adventure – and we don’t want to travel on a plane, we want to take our time and see everything we can. Do you think you would be willing to help us?”

– lots of nods.

I take off my scarf and ask them what they think we might need to know – to draw up a list of questions to ask her when she comes back. They suggest:-

– Does anyone in your family have any medical problems?

– How long can you travel for?

– What did she mean by ‘we’? Who is going on this holiday? Are there children?

– What is your budget?

At this point, as a teacher, I have a choice. I can go into role and answer all those questions, or I can build up their investment into the fiction and get them to do some of the groundwork. So I tell them that perhaps we should impress her by finding out a little about her family.

“You took her initial call didn’t you Adam, did she say how many children she had?”


We have a brief discussion and the class decide that there are three children aged 15, 14 and 12, a girl and two boys in Years 11, 9 and 8. When she comes back, they bombard her not only with more questions but with information:-

– We know that your eldest is in Year 11 so we assumed that you’d want to go after her exams?

– Are any of your children afraid of heights?

– Is there any particular weather that you’d want to avoid?

Already, an area of the curriculum is opening up to me. This is not a Geography lesson, but we are clearly going to have to learn quite a lot about Geography to fulfil this brief. We also need to build a notion of a ‘responsible’ team – a team which has moral purpose. And to do this, we need to tempt them with dilemma. They agree to meet with Mrs Snoop (don’t ask!) next week and present her with a suggested itinerary and she leaves.

I ask them in pairs and threes if they could possibly show me some examples of the types of ‘adventure’ activities they have in mind. They are to represent them as if they are photographs in a holiday brochure. This allows me to manage chaos – photos can’t move, leap off tables and punch each other. But it also allows the children to focus on detail. We see self conscious and slightly awkward representations of a scuba dive, skiing, a rainforest tree top canopy walk, skydiving and a tiger safari.

As we view each one, instead of asking ‘what is happening here’ I ask ‘is there something interesting that you notice about this image?’ It stops them making wild guesses and encourages more tentative answers.

– He’s holding his nose and leaning backwards

– She looks like she’s trying to balance because her arms are out to the side

By focusing on detail, two things happen. Firstly, the images begin to subtly become more clear – the children in the image respond to the comments. Secondly, the children are constructing fuller descriptions, not rushing straight to an answer. If I can develop this habit in speech, it will impact on their writing. In addition, by simply being asked to comment on what they notice, not on what is happening, they’re more prepared to have a go and not feel compelled to get straight to a ‘right or wrong’ answer. This subtle shift in language was one of the key things I’d learned over the weekend while Luke had taken us through similar processes and it works.

The children caption their images with the words that would appear in the brochure under their photograph.

– Discover an underwater wonderland

– Snow fun for all

– Monkey around in the treetops

– Discover what it feels like to fly

-Close encounters with the kings of the jungle

We decide that we’ll ‘show’ these pictures to Mrs Snoop next week when she comes in. But “hmmmm”, I say. “Where are we sending them? Where in the world could you scuba dive and ski? Walk in the treetops of a rainforest and meet a tiger? What do we need to know?”

-Where tigers live?

– India

– Are there mountains in India?

– Where’s Everest?

-Do we have a map?

After pouring over a map and some globes and a couple of travel brochures, they decide to send the family to Nepal, India and The Maldives.

-I’ll get some pictures and bring them in Miss.

“OK” I say, “I just wonder if all these adventures are safe. I wonder what might go wrong. Do you think you could show me some photographs of a time when your activity went wrong? Could we do that, do you think?”

They’re off. Two figures on a beach, one laying face down, the other leaning over him, hands pressing on the injured man’s back.

– You don’t give CPR to someone’s back

“Is he giving CPR then? What do you notice?”

– He has his hands on his back. Miss, miss, he might be bleeding and he might be trying to stop the blood coming out


“Do you think you’d be able to cover a shark bite with the palm of your hand though?” Silence.

– No – it’s more like he’s stabbed himself on something – maybe a bit of metal

– Maybe a sting ray got him

-No – they don’t stab you, they like shock you. It wouldn’t bleed

-Maybe they’re diving at a wreck and he’s fallen against something sharp


– yeah

“Why don’t you ask the man who is trying to save him?”

– Did he hurt himself on the wreck?

-Yeah, there was a sharp metal pin sticking out and he fell back against it.

-Why didn’t it just hit his tank?

-He was sort of twisted

– How did he fall back, did something push him

– Yeah, a big current of water.

“That’s interesting – you take people diving down to this wreck all the time, don’t you?”

– Yeah

“Don’t you know the currents well?”

– Err, yes, but err, they’ve changed

” I wonder what could make ocean currents change?’

– Climate change, Miss, Global Warming!!

A brief discussion starts about whether or not this would be possible and similar conversations crop up about the other images. The children are building general knowledge, vocabulary, belief and investment in the work.

“The thing is” I say once we’ve finished looking at them “do we tell Mrs. Snoop about these accidents?”

-No way! She’ll never buy our holiday if we tell her that

– We should say something, like put a warning on the brochure or something

– No we should keep quiet.

“Do you think we have a duty to warn people though? I don’t know, but I wonder if it might even be illegal not to tell her”

– I don’t think we should tell her, but maybe we should say that people should be aware of danger like

– or that it’s their choice, or fault if something goes wrong.

“Hmm, yes, I think that’s called a disclaimer. Where will we put it? How big should it be?”

– like on the front page in a big font in red

-no, it’ll put her off – on the back page, dead small.

– small print!

We vote. Ten in favour of small print. Four against. We’ll come back to that vote later.

“Right, then, we’d better crack on with getting this brochure page done for her then….”

They rush to pick up their pens.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll track the Snoops on their holidays. We’ll ask them to write postcards or contribute to our company travel blog and the children can write in role. We still need to do some homework on the climate of the places they’ve chosen and create a proper itinerary. We need to liaise with the organisations who plan and deliver the adventure activities and check their safety procedures. Of course, we’ll be going in and out of role as Snoops, adventure companies and so on, and sooner or later there will be an accident….

There will be writing to inform, writing to instruct. There will be travel writing. But crucially, there will be problem solving, there will be dilemmas, ethical choices to be made, stories to be created. And there is knowledge. Lots of it. Geographical, scientific, legal, linguistic knowledge. There will be new words to be learned, texts to be written, artifacts to be made. And hopefully, if they continue to enjoy working on this, there will be children whose writing, speaking and willingness to engage with texts have improved. There will be busy, confident, agentive children who are learning that they are not rubbish. They are responsible and they have important stuff to do. So thank you Luke, Tim and NATD. I feel my teaching got a great boost of vitamins this weekend.