Lisa Jane Ashes is a self-employed teacher and author of Manglish: Bringing Maths and English Together Across the Curriculum. She is now a trustee of the charity Reach Out 2 Schools (www.reachout2schools.com), founded by Isabella Wallace, who are continuing to fund education-centric work in countries such as Nepal, India and South Africa. The organisation is also working on education projects within the UK, with Lisa using her knowledge of creativity within the curriculum to build better education for the most in need.
Have you ever found yourself marking the same pupil responses over and over? You asked them to be creative; you asked them to use their imagination. Instead, they regurgitate countless clichés onto their pages, leaving you wishing you hadn’t bothered.
“The sky was blue.”
“Really?” I thought, as I read this for the thirty-second time. Now, I get that the sky is blue, but it can be so much more. Vocabulary can be a sticking point when it comes to creativity. You can only create using the knowledge that you have. Therefore, if you have a limited vocabulary to begin with, chances are that the sky will remain blue and your creative writing will remain dull. I had two problems that I wanted to tackle that week. My classroom was as dull as the pupils’ writing - could I kill two birds with one stone?
The solution came during a discussion with our specific educational needs expert, classroom assistant Lisa Heart. As a fan of Vincent Van Gogh, she was leafing through one of his books and explaining to me how she loved his descriptions of colour.
“Theo, what a great thing tone and colour are! And anyone who doesn’t acquire a feeling for it, how far removed from life he will remain!” - Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo
If only our pupils could describe colour like Vincent Van Gogh, we thought… and an idea sprang!
The set up
With Van Gogh as our inspiration, we wanted to create a classroom that inspired through colour. We wanted to create a room that felt like you were entering an art gallery. It should inspire conversation and ooze with rich vocabulary that would be easy to pick up and use. Lisa headed off to the local B&Q to gather every colour that the paint companies had to offer. She also worked on creating mini colour charts that included gradients of the main colour palletes linked to objects and feelings. We collaborated to create our classroom of colour, complete with images for stimulation, colourful materials as a talking point and examples of writing that went way beyond “The sky is blue.”
Standing at the classroom door, I held a box full of pebbles. On the board was the question: “What colour is your pebble?”
Each child was handed a pebble as they entered the room and asked to consider their starting question. When I took in their responses, they consisted of grey, black and brown. How inspiring!
On each desk was a colour chart card. I asked the children to take hold of these. They had 30 seconds to write down the colour on the card before passing it on and writing down the next colour again and again. Their pages began filling up with words like ruby, sapphire, dazzling, powder, opaque and so on. After a few minutes, I asked them to stop and compare the colours on their pages to the colours they had chosen for their pebbles. They could see the difference. They recognised the need to gather more vocabulary for their colours. Stage one was complete.
To see how real writers used colour, the children explored different stories, plays and, of course, the letters of Van Gogh. How did other writers use colour in their work? They experimented with images that we found online and tried out the new vocabulary gathered from the colour charts. It was important to allow the children freedom to explore, but equally as important to critique their creations.
Some children had produced wonderful descriptions: “The opaque water shimmered a silvery sheen against the coral moon.” Others needed work: “The so snazzy, antique gold was pinky purple in the blue light.” Some had thrown the whole paint pallet in without consideration of the effect upon readers. By listening to each other’s descriptions and exploring the effect that it had on us as listeners, we were able to develop some special and unique sentences.
Practice, practice, practice
At least once a week, we would have a go at describing different images as a starter to our lessons. Success came when they began asking me if they could get out of their seats to use the walls. They would get handfuls of colour charts to choose appropriate vocabulary for their descriptions. They would read the examples and use them to form their own sentences and I even found adaptations (not copies) of Van Gogh’s work in their own writing. If we had only one colour lesson and the colours had gone back into a box, never to be used again, we would not have had as much success as we did. We had to practice!
About one month after creating the colour room, I once again gave every child a pebble asking, what colour is your pebble? The responses this time were astounding. Those children could work for Dulux! They had stopped seeing the obvious first answer and were now drawing upon a much richer vocabulary to describe the everyday. The vocabulary was not limited to their writing either. The colour room inspired conversations about the colour of characters’ moods in novels, choices made by Shakespeare to characterise through colour and exploring how writers used colours differently.
The colour room was a platform for accelerating creativity through sparking conversation, practising new vocabulary regularly and creating a safe space to experiment and explore. Collaborating to create a space that allowed creativity to grow was a joy! The next time you read the words, the sky is blue… look up at your classroom walls and ask yourself, could you collaborate to create a colour room that inspires? We did and we loved it!
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“When am I ever going to use Pythagoras?”; “Why do I need to know what a noun is?”; “What’s the point in learning this?”... Sound familiar? You must be a teacher. If you’ve been teaching for some time, you probably know that questioning the purpose of education is nothing new. Do you ever wonder what your parents were like at school? Did they ask the same questions when it was their turn?
Independent Thinking associate Lisa Ashes is part of a group of passionate educators who have just gotten back from their latest pedagogic trip to Nepal. Here, the Manglish author (Teacher in the Cupboard is out soon) tells us why she’s proud to be a part of Reach Out 2 Schools’ mission...
Sitting in the department meeting, lists of issues are being fired at you from the usual agenda. Your colleagues’ eyes are rolling, arms crossed and lips pursed in distaste at the never-ending problems. You are sweating! Your cheeks burn and your hands tingle as you choke back the solution you think just-might-work. You can barely hear the rest of the points as you run over and over in your mind, how you might disrupt this meeting with the solution that is buzzing to be heard. If you could just bring yourself to lay the creative idea on the table… or is it a stupid idea? No matter, the meeting is over. It’s just another idea that you didn’t dare share.
Heading up a team of 20 people you’ve never met before and leading them into a world that you barely understand can teach you a lot about leadership. As we arrived in Kathmandu, ready to continue the training of teachers in Nepal, only a handful of our self-funded volunteers had any experience of teaching. Nobody knew who I was or why I was qualified to be running the show. The volunteers ranged from 17-year-old sixth formers to 60+ year old librarians. We also had well-established teachers, and one headteacher who I had viewed as a heroine and force of nature for quite some time. This was going to be a challenge.
My eyes were streaming as I walked through the streets of Kathmandu. Not because I was crying, but because it was so dusty! The lack of roads and volume of vehicles whip up air that is painful to breathe. Small children with no observable adult supervision are everywhere. I know children are small but this is a different kind of small. We’ve all done the child protection training that asks us to watch out for “failure to thrive”. It’s far more difficult to spot when the children are all in the same boat. They tug at you as you walk past. “Give money. Please. So hungry”. They cry at you in broken but well-rehearsed English that will rip your heart right out of your chest.
No matter what subject you teach, whether PE or quantum physics, communication will be part of your daily routine. As part of the English curriculum, the teaching of speaking and listening is mandatory. However, this does not always happen. Too often the group work, drama and presentation skills play second fiddle to reading and writing because, at the end of the day, reading and writing skills = exam passes and group work is a pain in the ass.
Chances are, you’ve read, listened to or seen a version of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here, teacher and author Lisa Jane Ashes applies themes and characters from Douglas Adams’ sci fi classic to look at how teachers can best create great questions.
Why 42? Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a great demonstration of how questioning can open up the imagination. Adams questioned everything we believe and a masterpiece of creativity was born. What if mice were more intelligent than men? What if the planet was created by technicians in a large factory? Underestimated dolphins, falling whales, improbability drives and the search for the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything; this story is creativity at its maddest and best.
This time last year, I had a class full of high achievers that gobbled up literature for fun; however, the reality is, most classes are not like that. The pupils I teach do not choose my subject, it is mandatory and pupils often question its purpose. My current Year 11 class are your typical challenging, huffy, childish and loud learners who generally take their free education for granted, having known nothing else. I could spend the year complaining about them and use their typicality as a mid-set group as an excuse for average results.
The way that I create a meta cognitive wrapper is by carefully creating three questions that will start and end my lesson; the questions link directly to my learning outcomes.
The first question is about the current knowledge and understanding of the student. The second should embody the type of SOLO thinking; research, analysis, evaluation and/or creation of new ideas.
My final question asks pupils to think about the processes they are about to undertake, to prove they have learnt something.
As part of her 'Manglish' workshop at a Pedagoo 'Love Libraries' TeachMeet, AST Leader Lisa Ashes demonstrated a fun collaborative learning method called 'Thought Bombing' which teachers can use when there are multiple concepts or ideas that need to be considered. Each 'bomb' is a minituare sized hollow where slips of paper are put in describing one aspect of the subject, and is stuck to the relevant part of a picture.
As I am still working on the book version of my new 'Manglish' workshop, I will avoid writing about the ins and outs of it and instead share with you one simple idea for encouraging effective communication. This idea seemed to go down very well both in Edinburgh and at the recent TeachMeet English in Leeds so I thought it might be well worth sharing.
Below is a generic example of an exercise that you could base your own ideas for thought bombing on. This example could be translated into introducing characters from novels or poems (English); exploring the lives and decisions of historical figures (History); looking at cause and consequence (PHSE); Exploring bodily functions (Biology). The list goes on.
The idea is that pupils are given a small amount of information to get them hooked and then the thought bombs are thrown in to 'blow their minds'.
This article originally appeared in Innovate My School's September 2012 digital magazine.
The Structure of Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) taxonomy aims to show pupils how to develop sophisticated responses to questions by getting them to examine their thought-process as their understanding of a topic improves. I began using SOLO in 2011, and it is now integral to my teaching.
SOLO defines five stages of understanding for any topic: prestructural, unistructural, multistructural, relational and extended abstract. The first three involve gathering relevant information. The other two are about using that information: linking facts and findings, questioning existing ideas about the topic, and forming new theories.
All well and good. But how does it work in practice? Here’s a simplified example of how SOLO can help a pupil with little knowledge of a topic develop a sophisticated understanding of it and see the thought-process that got him there. In our imaginary lesson, the goal is for pupils to write an essay exploring the choices Johnny Depp has made in his acting career.