Teaching the Alphabet. As easy as…

It’s hard to teach something which is instinctive.

Does anyone actually remember the moment they learnt that the ‘h’ is silent in French? ‘L’histoire’ and ‘les maths,’ they seem such simple words. All rather de base. Someone must have taught us though? Or did we work out on our own that ‘i’ in French is pronounced ‘eee’ but sounds completely different when combined with an ‘n’? And that the ‘i’ + ‘n’ combination in ‘intéressant’ is different to that in ‘inutile’?? Did we just pick these things up over time?

Time. It’s something we’re quite short of in teaching. So if you want your pupils reading their second language a) accurately, and b) quickly, then I suggest you start with the alphabet. It’s one of the most used resources in my classroom!

You want the alphabet to stick – really stick – with pupils. It should be part of the general discourse in the classroom, it’s a great way to get pupils using target language, and to reinforce spelling. To teach it, I use a visualiser and a song (is there a better combination?). Here’s what goes under the visualiser when teaching the alphabet:

First, draw their attention to the patterns. Here’s how I do this:

Underline: b, c, d, g, p, t, v, w (I double underline ‘w’ because it’s double what ‘v’ is!)

These all rhyme, so if you can remember ‘b’ as [beh], then you know all 8 of them.

Circle: f, l, m, n, s, z

These are the same as the English alphabet, so you don’t need to learn these. Victoire automatique.

Put smiles under: i, j, x, y

These are the smiliest letters in the French alphabet and you have to smile to say them properly: ‘eeeeee!’

Put a shoe box around: q, u

These are the SMELLiest letters in the French alphabet, they rhyme with ‘ewwwww!’ I get the kids to pretend they can smell something and show a face of disgust, giving themselves double chins; this helps them produce what I call a ‘shallow’ sound (later this is compared to the ‘monkey’ ‘ou’ grapheme in many French words – we have fun showing off how Parisien we sound with words like ‘voulu’ and ‘Youtube’).

Go to town drilling the rest!

a and k: they ryhme with the first letter they ever learnt, [ah], in primary school.

e: I tell them this letter packs the biggest PUNCH and practically punch the sound out from my belly (quite difficult to put in writing)! I also tell them it’s the most important letter if they want to sound like a real Froshy Fronsh. I list a few ‘sexy’ words starting with the French ‘e’ sound: dEvoirs, grEnier, rEnouvElable. They burst into hysteria when you read out the boring translations in the same sultry tone! I tell them it’s because the ‘e’ is so powerful in French – it bewitches you if pronounced correctly!!

h: the freakiest letter in the alphabet because it doesn’t actually exist; hôpital, hôtel, Thierry Henri! La lettre ache? C’est muet! (Sauf pour ‘ch’ et ‘ph’ – but I tell them that later…)

For o: I make a shocked sound, and put my hand up to my mouth. No surprises there (quelle ironie).

Finally r: I tell them that I leave this until last because it’s the trickiest to master. It even takes practice at home. I warn them that some pupils in other schools can never make this sound because they don’t practice enough in year 7 and then they get too shy (unless they get ‘Spanish fever’, which catches lazy children and makes them roll their ‘r’s!!). I put a wiggly line under it on the visualiser because it helps them think of ‘air,’ the sound the letter makes. We pretend to gargle water, I draw their attention to where their tongue should be in contact with the top, back of their mouth. You can’t rush through this one! If they can get their ‘r’ sorted, the confidence just grows and grows…

So then, the song: 

And like anything you want to embed, you need to give pupils plein d’examples of these letters in action. A nice activity to revise the alphabet is spelling out important or funny words, even names of pupils in the class, and they have to guess what you’re spelling. They can do it in their heads or in the back of books. Peu de préparation.

Next step. Teach them to understand a couple of key questions which you ask over and over again, and to which they need to use the alphabet to respond, such as:

“Comment ça s’écrit en français?”

“Qui voudrait épeler ce mot?”

“Quelle lettre est à la fin du mot?”

“Quelles lettres sont muettes?”

These are great moments to praise pupils and embed correct spelling and also pronunciation. Bonne chance alors!

I would love to hear your thoughts or questions if you try any of this out…

The Silent Treatment

Yesterday, I read about a mother who has removed her son from a school in Birmingham following an announcement that the school will adopt silence in corridors during lesson transitions. I try to stay open-minded on matters about schools, so did some digging into why this well-intentioned mother might be so unsettled by the idea of silence in her son’s school.

I came across an article which refers to Ninestiles and its decision to have silent corridors as “the stuff of Matilda.” The comparison between one headteacher’s adoption of silent corridors and another’s throwing of children out of windows seems, to me, a little far-fetched? So I’ve taken to this post to shed some light on why our pupils keep the corridors silent at Michaela and why it’s really, kind of great…

Logistics

The word ‘corridor’ actually comes from the latin currere meaning ‘to run’. Similarly, in French couloir deviates from the verb couler ‘to flow’. Both suggest a smooth or swift motion from A to B. Certainly, the movement of pupils around a building like Michaela’s is something that requires a certain amount of logistical expertise. We have six hundred pupils needing to shift between forty classrooms, along twelve corridors, up and down six floors, across two staircases all in approximately one minute (it can be done!).

The crucial ingredient to any transition triomphante is, of course, absolute focus – and therefore silence – from all the pupils. It’s a sight to behold from the top of the stairs as form groups enthusiastically jettison off to their respective floors in single file like some kind of scene from Fantasia. In any case, our corridors are only three-pupils-wide so we couldn’t just have them arriving en masse…

Shhh! They’re not really silent!

Sorry, not technically, no. For in the same way pupils move with purpose during lesson transitions, so too do our teachers. Each stairwell and corridor is also present to at least one teacher using the transition as an opportunity so say “Good morning!” to pupils, especially those they don’t get to teach or see very often. This is a great time to help pupils practise their greetings and model how to sound polite and look professional!

On the other hand, it’s also a good time to bring a bit of fun and silliness into the school day (another essential part of life at Michaela). Mlle Lund, for example, uses the focused audience of pupils to polish up on her hilarious regional accents (ask for her Scottish!) and on the fifth floor, you’ll often hear pupils projecting, “Edward the Confessor!” “The Battle of Agincourt!” as they pace down the corridor; Mr Taylor’s firing questions at ’em again.

N.B. These transitions are only a teeny tiny part of the children’s school day (and an even smaller part of their journée complète). They also get an hour at lunch to chat to their friends and teachers and, of course, plenty of time in lessons and extra-curricular activities to take part in discussions where they develop the social skills, which our pupils are so renowned for.

They actually prefer it.

Critics of Michaela worry that we’re squashing our pupils’ rights to express themselves and develop relationships by expecting them to walk in silence to lessons where pupils in most other schools are free to talk and act as they like. I’ll reply to this with a few questions. 1) Who’s worrying about the good, hard-working (usually small and/or shy) children who become victims of the inevitable bullies when they decide to ‘express themselves’? 2) How empowered do teachers feel to intervene in misbehaviour in corridors when pupils have few or no rules to follow? And 3) how much must go on unseen and unheard during lesson transitions??

Would all six hundred of Michaela’s pupils really stay silent in corridors if they didn’t see the benefit in being so? No, an important part to all this is that the pupils, like us, know the alternative. They know about the bullying and other nastiness that went on in primary school and goes on in various secondary school corridors. A secondary school in Gloucestershire recently promised to start tackling the problem after an autistic boy had been allegedly targeted by bullies in corridors since his first week in September this year, something which tragically escalated into an incident of serious physical abuse.

Instead, along the corridors here at Michaela, there is an overwhelming feeling of everyone rowing together (an expression we frequently use), not against each other. Pupils feel purposeful and safe under the constant eye of approachable teachers. We’re here for them, not for some kind of power trip. I say this because I think the idea of there being silence in school, often gives critics the impression that children are being silenced in some way but that isn’t the case here; it’s more of a general understanding that this is how things have to be for us to all stay happy and safe.

If you want to see our corridors for yourselves please come and visit us. Or check out the video below for a preview.

Cue the smiling children:

The CUDDLÉ Song

This morning I sat down at my desk to plan the day’s lessons (I say plan, but the lessons and resources are already so beautifully planned during Michaela’s summer project, it’s more like finessing that we do at this stage).

On the agenda today for Year 7s: introduce the crucial CUDDLÉS – developed by the brilliant Barry Smith – to help pupils read and write French in a way that helps their pronunciation. It’s part of the reason why our accents are so incredible at Michaela!

(If you’re new to CUDDLÉS check out this blog by Jess which provides all the information you need to implement it in your French department.)

My challenge: MAKE CUDDLÉS MEMORABLE

Well we’re all about the chants here, what’s more catchy than a sing-a-long?

Give it a rhythm and project:

C for – COUNT

U – UNDERLINE

D for – DOT and

DOUBLE UNDERLINE

L for – LIAISON

É – LONGATE

And THAT IS HOW WE ANNOTATE!

I’ve found that weaving in some actions helps pupils (especially in lower sets) to remember all the aspects. These are my actions:

C – make a C shape with your right hand

U – point with index finger as if to say ‘YOU!’

D – imagine you’re marking a full stop with your finger

D – then mark a double underline (in time with words)

L – draw a U-shape

É – with a flat palm elongate your arm towards audience

Pump fists in the air on the 3 syllables of AN-NO-TATE

Do give it a go and let us know how you get on I’d love to hear your success stories or any suggestions for improvements. Happy cuddling!

I don’t know but I’ve been told

Michaela Boot Camp: refléxions d’une nouvelle prof.

I’d read about Michaela’s notorious boot camp in the school’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way, but nothing could have prepared me for the transformation both pupils and new teachers underwent over those 7 days.

A mixture of startled and doe-eyed year 7 pupils arrive at the school gates on day 1 soon to be greeted by their enthusiastic classroom teachers. From the first moment, pupils are expected to project their voices, to be polite and look their teachers in the eye (concepts more daunting for some). Their first lesson: WOW, TEACHERS REALLY CARE HERE. As the day progresses, pupils sit their first assembly with Katharine. Her passion for their future and the school quickly provides them with their next lesson: BLIMEY, I’M LUCKY.

Pupils spend the next few days in forms, learning about how to be Michaela. They learn about politeness, trust and perseverance. They are given opportunities to be grateful and to talk about life outside Michaela.

I oversaw a lesson about Family Lunch. The fabulous Jess Lund brings to life what can be canteen chaos, none of which is news to pupils, of course, and they share their own stories of food fights and loneliness during lunchtimes at primary school. What a joy, therefore, to see them moments later serving one another a hot meal, partaking in polite conversation and using a knife and fork like professional little people. Each day, our dining hall was ablaze with both enlightenment and sheer delight as year 7 pupils from over 50 feeder schools joined to eat as one happy family.

“In my previous school, lunch was a time away from the pupils. There’s no such thing at Michaela.”

Boot camp lunches were also a key time for new staff to learn. In my previous school, lunch was a time away from the pupils. There’s no such thing at Michaela. It’s a key moment in the school day to build relationships and remind pupils of your high hopes for them. My interactions at lunch were observed by more established members of staff to ensure I was expecting enough of the pupils in conversation. Were they being kind and listening to everyone at the table? Were they being upheld to proper table manners? Were they projecting their voices so that everyone could hear them clearly? These are all things I forgave pupils for at my old school. I used to have thoughts like, “they might never sit down at a table at home so how could I expect them to show any etiquette?” or “their parents may not talk to them very much so maybe they’re uncomfortable talking to adults during their lunch break.” My first lesson: DON’T GIVE THEM EXCUSES.

Letting your standards slip because you think pupils are less fortunate than you is only going to make their life chances worse. Take pride in sweating the small stuff and teach them the behaviour you would expect from your own children. And they love it. Pupils at Michaela are so happy. Because it’s just easy to be happy here. We’re taught in boot camp how to be mega strict and really warm all within the same teacher persona (a notion I imagine I’ll be perfecting for years to come). Observing established teachers flash between the odd stern word to huge demonstrations of warmth is a sight to behold and is truly worth a visit to witness!

Our formation intensive soon came to an end and in front of us stood a completely different set of pupils; ones who didn’t need reminders about how to react when being praised or told off, who could recite William Earnest Henley’s Invictus convinced of every word, who were confident to stand up in front of 120 of their peers and say what they’re grateful for, and who could also look every member of staff in the eye and greet them with a smile. I really don’t know why all schools don’t do this.

And for me. The experience was exhilarating and exhausting but only the beginning. Sitting in on established teachers’ lessons and seeing the mighty Katie, Brett and Jonny at work around the school only fuelled us up to keep getting better for each other and for the kids. We’ve got the notion of rowing together. We hate the idea of some teachers carrying others. Not at Michaela. Boot camp gave me the room to practice, to question the ethos and to get candid feedback from the pros on teaching the Michaela way. I came out the other side more persuaded than ever that I was working at the best school in the world and already making more of an impact here than I could anywhere else.

Now, let’s see what happens when the other 480 arrive on Monday…