Bottom’s Up!

After my post about my MoE journey with my Year 9s ( ) lots of people asked me to let them know what happened next. You see that’s what a good story is – a hook – and it’s much easier to get children to learn once they’re hooked. Of course there were also those with questions – What did they learn? – was one. So here’s the next instalment of the Snoop family holiday.

You may remember that Mrs Snoop wanted adventure, that money was no object and that she didn’t want to fly. At the end of the first session, the children had settled on India, Nepal and the Maldives but they had forgotten an important detail. The daughter was in Year 11 – the holiday would have to take place in the Summer.

In terms of ‘English’ we were learning to write in order ‘to inform’ – the kids were writing an itinerary and designing a brochure, but I have a lot of sympathy with the Hirsch/Christodoulou position that knowledge is vital in equipping children with the skills of the future. It doesn’t seem enough to me to say ‘here are the features of informative writing – off you go…’ Instead I think, how can this be an opportunity to learn more about the world? Hence the two constraints. Not flying means they have to look carefully at a map. In doing so, they discovered that travelling overland to India meant going through either Afghanistan or the northern parts of Pakistan. A quick look at advice for travellers on the Foreign Office web site showed that this was a dangerous area. The children, before we did this, had no idea where Afghanistan was on a map. Now they do. They also know what the Foreign Office is and how to check for information about travel.

РNever mind, they said, we can take them to Oman and sail them across. So I got out some weather charts. 

“She’s coming in soon – do you think we should check the weather in India in July – she might ask.”

They found it quite tricky to read the information on the chart – in PISA tests, the OECD reports that UK children find interpreting visual data more difficult than those in other countries so the practice can’t hurt, right? Eventually they realised that it was going to be very wet. Very wet indeed. They didn’t know what a monsoon was before the lesson. They do now.

So when she came in, they quickly needed an alternative. We had a quick recap. What did she want?

– sky diving

– animals

– adventure

– rainforest walks

– water sports/beach

– Maybe we could try Africa?

It turned out that most of them thought that Africa was a country so it was a revelation for them to discover not only that it was a continent made up of many countries, but that there was such a variety of experience to be had. Among other things, in planning their route, they found out that there were more ancient pyramids in the Sudan than there were in Egypt and got really interested in the history of a country that none of them had ever heard of before.

So a holiday was planned and the Snoops set off and they wrote many postcards on their journey. They were having a fantastic time – seeing Europe first of all and the famous landmarks of Paris, Rome and Athens; sailing across to Alexandria and crossing overland to Cairo then down the Nile right through to The Sudan. Camping in the desert by ancient sites before passing into Uganda for forest treks and gorilla spotting. And finally into Kenya with a spectacular safari trip ending with a parachute jump over the Masai Mara. But then we got an email. There had been an accident and Mrs Snoop was dead.

The boy who gathered the team together to deliver the news was brilliant in his serious and low key delivery of the news.

– We need to fly them home

– We should pay for the funeral

– Was it our fault?

There was a silence. Was it our fault? Who had checked out the safety record of the parachute company? Hands went up.

– They had a safety certificate

-The parachutes were new

– We’ve used them before

But who is liable? None of them have ever heard the word liable before. We need to unpick it. If we offer to pay for the funeral, are we admitting liability?

– It’s the right thing to do.

– Maybe we should just pay to get them home?

– Don’t they have insurance?

– We should write and offer help, but not say sorry.

They rush off to write carefully worded letters of condolence (another new word).

When the Health and Safety people come round for a visit, the children are quite confident that they’ve followed procedure and are in the clear. But they’ve forgotten one thing – that we had photographs of previous accidents stored away in our filing cabinet. Do they shred or hand them over…..

Mantle of the Expert is loaded with knowledge. But it is also loaded with ethical dilemma, rich language and notions of responsibility. It is more than a gimmick; more than a fad. But it is also difficult, time consuming and complex. It is not for everyone, but for this group, and this teacher, it worked a treat.

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.

Romeo and Juliet through Mantle of the Expert…


Due to the popular demand (of one person), I’m writing up my ideas (so far) for using Mantle of the Expert to teach Romeo and Juliet. It’s going swimmingly with my Year 9s so here’s a little bit of information about what we’re up to.

Firstly, if you don’t know what Mantle of the Expert is, get yourself to the website run by the brilliant Luke Abbott and Tim Taylor. You’ll find articles, details of training, planning documents and resources and all sorts of inspiring stuff to get you going. I first encountered Mantle through the late and wonderful Dorothy Heathcote, who understood children and learning like no other human being I’ve ever met. She knew that the gate to knowledge was called ‘play’ and that play consisted of hard work, determination, grit, imagination, and a need to know that was rooted in ‘the urgency of now’ : that exploration and explanation were two sides of the same coin.’ What is the significance?’ she would say, ‘What are the implications?’ ‘What do we need to know in order to do?’ ‘What do we need to do, in order to know?’

In short, putting on a Mantle, is to put on a context in which learning takes place in an ‘imagined reality’. As a teacher, the starting question might be ‘Who in the world needs to know this stuff I’m having to teach?’ And then, having answered that one, you build an organisation or enterprise, in which this knowledge is expertly known and can therefore be imparted to others – a client. As experts, the children have to equip themselves with the language, information and solution focused thinking that this organisation would need in order to meet the demands of their client. If I’m not making this clear, do visit the website, where people far more articulate than I explain it well! As far as Shakespeare goes…

We’re studying Romeo and Juliet. They don’t quite know it yet – some suspect that’s where we are going, but others don’t. We ‘Mantlers’ don’t really go for the objectives on the board approach – the learning is negotiated and acquired together as tension and urgency build. So the children have been set up in role as a crime investigation unit. They are made up of a variety of experts, but are not, at present, part of the Verona police force. They specialise in crimes which are media sensitive. They have begun by signing confidentiality contracts and submitting their CVs for security checks. They have to submit their bags, phones and coats to security on arrival and are given only paper and pens in the room, which they have to file and hand in at the end of the lesson. They are told that there is a media embargo on the case. And once they have established their identity as a group and their skill set, they get to meet the client.

They have been called in by the Royal Family of Verona to investigate the death of one of their family. His body was found in the tomb of the Capulet family with those of two other teenagers. The family, alerted by a page, were first on the scene and called in their own forensic experts and investigators. They are concerned that the city’s police force is riddled with corruption – most officers are in the pockets of one of two rival families in the city – the Montagues or the Capulets and they want to ensure a fair and unbiased investigation. The representative from the family submits a dossier of information.

In groups of 4, the students open their files. Inside are differentiated pathology reports or witness statements. They have 30 minutes to read and note key findings of their own, share with shoulder partners (pair) and then as a four (square) and draw up an action plan. One is a report for Juliet Capulet, age 13. Cause of death: single stab wound to the heart. She is found in the tomb with her arm flung over the body of a third, as yet unidentified, male. Toxology reports suggest she had high levels of a natural plant sedative in her blood stream. The sedative is rare and not available over the counter. She would have had to see a registered apothecary to have it and there is no record of her seeing one. A dagger was found in her hand – it has the royal crest engraved on its blade. Blood samples show that both hers and the prince’s blood was on the blade. All three victim’s finger prints were on the handle.

The second victim is a royal prince, Paris. Large deposits of blood were found on the ground outside the tomb. Drag marks suggest the body was taken into the tomb. It is not clear whether he died inside or outside the tomb, but he died from a fatal stab wound to the stomach. His body was formally laid out, arms crossed, next to Juliet – as if someone took care to arrange him.

The third victim, a young male, is yet to be identified. Cause of death – a fast acting poison which distorts and disfigures the face. This has made identification within such secrecy difficult. The body was found on its side, facing Juliet. Her arm was placed over the body. His fingerprints were found on the dagger.

A witness statement reports seeing a scuffle outside the tomb between two young men. The witness reports seeing two other boys, – one hiding behind bushes, another fleeing the scene wearing the royal uniform. The witness also thinks she saw, some time later, a man and the boy who was in the bushes, hurrying away from the scene. She is convinced that the man was wearing a monk’s habit.

I’ve cut the details short on this, but you get the idea – they are starting off by weighing up the evidence. We’re starting at the end which is allowed, I think, since Shakespeare pretty much gives the plot away in the prologue. By working our way through the text episodically and not chronologically, we are beginning to open up the possibility of engaging in the why and not just the what.

In our next lesson, we ‘switch on’ the news to find that the media have hold of the story – we play the opening of Baz Luhrmann’s brilliant adaptation of the play, and, having cursed the leak, we explore what the prologue adds to our knowledge of the case. At this point, a letter arrives from the pathologist confirming the identity of the third victim as Romeo Montague.

Here are some of the questions they ask:-

1. The media only know there are two victims. Which ones are they referring to as star crossed lovers – Juliet and Paris or Juliet and Romeo?
2. The media think the deaths are suicides – does our evidence support this claim?
3. The media speak of an ancient grudge between two families – is this a grudge between the Capulet and the Montague family or the Capulet and the Royal family?
4. Why do they talk like that?

In answer to Question 4, one of the devices for setting up the unit as outsiders to Verona, is that the language can be explored as if it is simply another ‘dialect’ for now. We can return to it later, but for now we can say that it’s going to be pretty hard to get used to understanding the way that people speak ‘around here’ but that it gets easier if you try to break it down…

Their questions now are beginning to drive the work forward. They draw up a list of witnesses they think they need to speak to. I have to be ready as teacher to leap into a variety of roles at a moment’s notice so I need to know the play well. As confidence grows, I can start to set some of them up in role with briefing notes. There are a couple of children now starting to say they have some prior knowledge of the play and so I can give them extracts to help them prepare for police interviews. In addition, we can feed in ‘discovered’ evidence. Juliet’s speech ‘Gallop apace…’ in Act 3, Scene 2 becomes a page from her diary, torn out and found in a secret compartment in her dressing table. Similarly, other sections of the text are found in letters and diaries, seeding in evidence.

This is as far as we’ve got so far. I’m not suggesting that we don’t read the play – we will – but by the time we do, they’ll be hungry for it because they were IN it – they will view themselves as part of the narrative – a secret, shadowy force that is never seen or written of – but a part nonetheless. And seeing an investment – a relevance – in the text is half of the battle when studying Shakespeare. That’s the idea anyway.

I’m not suggesting that this is a perfect mantle – I know Dorothy would probably say it’s more of a ‘rolling role’ as getting the flow of mantle is difficult in a secondary setting, but if you want to see it in full glory, embraced across the curriculum, then visit Woodrow Primary School in the Midlands, or Bealings in Sufflolk – their entire curriculum is built around children solving MoE problems from reception class through to KS2. I think it’s well worth taking through to secondary settings though. Why is it, I wonder, that as young people get closer to the reality of leaving school and entering the adult world, we alienate the curriculum from those possibilities and assume they will just happen upon, or discover a professional life? Mantle of the Expert allows children to try on different jobs for size. It raises aspiration, confidence and language. My Year 9s, welcoming Friar Lawrence into the classroom, without any prior warning, suddenly said:-

‘Mr. Lawrence, thank you for agreeing to come in and see us. We should warn you, before we start, that you are under suspicion at this time of involvement in a murder case. You may not wish to speak, but if you do, anything you say, may be taken down as evidence against you’.

It might not be quite word perfect, but it demonstrated a formal use of language that would not normally be present in the classroom. If for no other reason than this, I’ll continue to weave MoE into my work whenever I can.