Exam panic – have we taught them everything?

The time has come the walrus said to talk of many things, of shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings and that you really hope that you have taught them all the things that they need to know. It has come to that stage in the year where all the internal assignments are done and we are now on the countdown to the exams.There is always that mad panic that even though you have covered all the topics that you haven’t taught them everything. What if something comes up on the exam paper that you haven’t done.


I think this is a particular panic for new teachers like myself when although everyone is teaching new courses we have no frame of reference about whether we had covered it all correctly. In the prelim we at least know what is coming up but in the final exam who knows what the SQA will come up with.

As a languages teacher my major panic anxiety centres around the listening paper – a source of fear for pupils and teachers. The vocabulary itself isn’t an issue, nor the the style of the questions but the accent and speed of the person speaking. It is hard to expose learners to a wide variety of accents and types of voice to prepare them for this but that is what the next 5 weeks of revision sessions will be focused on using the voices of my lovely friends and colleagues from nearly every inhabited island in the Gaelic world and to whom I am very very grateful.

If you are lucky enough to be able to run exam revision sessions in the run up to your exam here are my top tips.

1. Content focused – ask the pupils what they want to practice. You may have your own thoughts but what they want to concentrate on is the main thing.

2. Time focused – there is no point at going at the topics all day, being too tired does no one any good. Keep the sessions manageable and focus.

3. Pupil focused – make sure that these sessions are completely for these pupils, no please takes, no phone calls or emails, no interrupting from other teachers. I usually lock the door, turn off outlook and take the phone off the hook. This is their time.

4. Skill focused – as well as the content there is a skill to answering exam questions. Don’t ignore this part in revision sessions.

5. Fun focused – all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Make the revision sessions as fun as you can.

Nevertheless, on the day of the exams themselves teachers are almost as nervous as pupils but as we say to them there is nothing you can do by that stage but breath deeply and plunge straight in!


Displays – if you’ve got it flaunt it!

Those who know me will know that I like a good display. This is much more usual in primary teachers and perhaps this is something that I have picked up from my mum. However, I like to showcase my pupils’ work outside of the classroom in the corridor display boards. I feel that it projects a good impression of my classes and also shows other teachers what sort of things I am doing.

if you've

Here are my top 10 tips for displays:

1. Keep it current – make sure that your display is up to date and relevant.
2. Use colour – make it eyecatching and interesting.
3. Have a black space filler – if you take something down make sure you have something to put in its place, if not another display then a good poster. Trust me people will notice the blank space.
4. Describe it – put a little description of what it is that you are displaying, it may be obvious to you but not to everyone else!
5. Be diplomatic – obviously not every child can have their work displayed all the time especially if you have large classes but try and make sure that everyone gets their work up at some point.
6. Keep a record – I take a photo of what I’ve put up, if you’ve put work into it then it why not record what you’ve done
7. Get help – get help to put up and take down your displays, I find that this is a good job for pupils who have finished their work.
8. Use written work – printing reports or reviews on coloured paper keeps your display bright and eyecatching
9. Don’t overcrowd it – simple and effective will always look better than crowding it with things
10.Take everything down before the summer holidays – start the new year fresh

And finally

Don’t be afraid to show off what you are doing in your classroom

The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion L. Starkey


I picked this book up in a second hand bookshop in Strathpeffer almost 5 years ago and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since. The undertaking of a psychology qualification prompted me to read it and what I found was an intriguing, though provoking and informative account of the most famous witch hunt in the world.

Starkey presents the period without bias in the form of a novel with the recorded testimonies and evidence from the trials inserted throughout. Analysis is blended seamlessly with anecdote and makes for a captivating read.

I found it amazing how a group of high spirited girls who lacked an outlet for their energy in the ridged confined of Puritan New England were able influence an entire community into condemning innocent men and women to death. If anyone didn’t take them seriously they just accused them as well. It is clear that they did it for attention but the fact that they didn’t see the severity of the consequences of their actions.

The admission in the court room of spectral evidence (saying that someone’s shape had abused them) meant that the accused had no chance and that the girls could say whatever they wanted.The whole legal system of the witch trials centered on that the accusers couldn’t prove that the the person was a witch but neither could the victim prove that they weren’t.

The most surprising part is the ease at which ministers and lawyers were taken in by them. In this I found interesting parallels with the Spanish Inquisition and it seems like the more people said something then the more it was seen as fact. Like the Inquisition the severity of the movement died away as quickly as it had started but only after it had set the whole community against each other with accusations and counter-allegations. The conclusion centers around the reconciliation of the community in the following 20 years and the revelation by one of the chief accusers that she had indeed made it all up.

I have to admit that I read this book with a rather incredulous attitude but I was completely fascinated by it. The style of the commentary is pacey and engaging and completely absorbs the reader from beginning to end.

Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Freemantle

You would think after the amount of books I have read and reviewed about the Tudor period that I would find it difficult to find something new and interesting. This is true for the most part as since the advent and success of Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl the historical novel about this period in particular has been somewhat overworked. It was therefore refreshing to come across Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Freemantle which covers the story of Katherine and Mary Grey, younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey – the nine days queen. I have to admit that although I knew the basic facts about them their lives are generally lost to history. This book brings them to life for the first time and shows their lives both through their eyes and through the eyes of others. During the reign of Elizabeth I there was much speculation about the succession and about her relationship with Lord Robert Dudley.sisters

According to the will of Henry VIII the Grey sisters were next in line after his children but the law of primogeniture promoted the claim of Mary Queen of Scots. It was a very dangerous thing to be so close the the throne and the novel creates the tense atmosphere at the courts of Mary I and Elizabeth I brilliantly.

I have generally thought of Katherine Grey as an insipid, frivolous person who followed her heart and her emotions regardless of the political and social dangers. The novel confirms those stereotypes and it is clear that Katherine would have made a useless queen. Her end is unbelievably sad and it does conform to the accepted notions that after so many years in captivity she lost her whits and starved herself to death.

Mary, on the other hand, is someone who I knew very little about historically. She is a strong willed almost Machiavellian character who sees her situation for exactly what it is. Her physical deformities meant that she always had to stand up for herself and her position as the cousin of the Tudors meant she was always on edge calculating how each action of her own and her sister’s would affect their standing at court. Personally Mary’s character is the most well rounded in the novel and she is the real hero. Whilst you have sympathy with Katherine you are more intrigued by Mary.

It is generally accepted today that James VI was always take the throne after Elizabeth but at the time her refusal to name an heir there was a real chance that one of the Grey sisters or their decedents would be the next ruler of England.  Elizabeth Freemantle succeeds in bringing these shadowy figures to life through this novel and I would recommend it to enthusiasts of the Tudor court genre as a different perspective on the period.

Fatal Majesty by Reay Tannahill

fatalThis is a novel that has sat on my shelf for a long time that I have not go round to reading before now. It primarily cover the period from Mary Queen of Scots return to Scotland in 1561 to her flight and imprisonment in England in 1568.The novel is clearly well researched and much thought has been put into the characterisation of the hitherto minor players particularly Lethington and Lord James Stuart.

Mary Queen of Scots has always been a character of fascination for me and this novel portrays her in the manner which I have imagined her – an impetuous and fun loving woman who didn’t take the serious political state of Scotland serious and wasn’t able to own and admit to her own mistakes. Most people see Mary as a victim  but Tannahill goes further an shows her as what she really was a victim of her upbringing (in the French court), a victim of the Reformation and ultimately a victim of her own actions.

The seven years which are the main focus of the book are detailed and pacey with the various crises of Mary’s short and tumultuous reign seen from different viewpoints with clarity and insight. However, I have to say that the end of the book annoyed me. We all know that Mary was eventually executed on the orders of Elizabeth I after 19 years of captivity and I feel that there was no need to jump to the execution in the last 40 pages. I would have been much better to stop the novel after her initial imprisonment in England and detail the remainder of her life as a post script.

That being said I enjoyed the novel greatly and any student of Mary Queen of Scots should read it as it does add a different dimension to a woman about whom so has been much written.

The Dowager Emperess Cixi by Jung Chang


My knowledge of Chinese history is very limited. I’ve previously read Mao’s Great Famine about the so called great leap forward and am aware of the Boxer Rebellion and the Opium Wars but this book shed an entirely new light on a period of modern Chinese history and a remarkable woman that I was unaware of.

Jung Chang  explores this meteoric rise and reign of Cixi in great detail and explains the political and social history of China from the mid to late 19th century to the uninitiated in a straightforward and direct manner. She doesn’t assume prior knowledge and helpfully repeats important details so that the reader can follow the developments in the constantly changing political scene with ease.

The still secret nature of a large amount of the Chinese Imperial Era and the general vilification of Cixi since the advance of Communism means that this book and the level of research involved in all the more remarkable. Cixi saw the transformation of China from an insular and weak Imperial power to an international trading country with a world outlook and western style communications and political system. Her achievements are all the more remarkable given the male dominated society at the time and that she started her association with the throne as a low ranking courtesan.

Cixi’s life and her achievements are deserving of widespread dissemination and her accomplishments in changing society are as worthy of our praise as Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie. Jung Chang has produced a seminal work on the political history of China and I heartily recommend it to all history fans especially those with little knowledge of China.

Selling your subject – option choices

optionsPick me, pick me – what every secondary teacher is currently screaming at the top of their lungs. With subject choices at the end of S2, S3, S4 and S5 teachers in every subject (except Maths and English) are campaigning to try and make sure pupils choose their subject.

The reduction in the number of subjects that pupils study has made the selling of your subject more and more important. But how to do that? Here are some important things to keep in mind and to promote when marketing your subject at options time.

1. Can pupils come back to your subject later? – in all subjects this is doable. Even in languages it is possible to take it up again further down the line. Never say never.

2. Can pupils take up your subject even if they haven’t done it before? – this should always be an option if a pupil is willing to work hard.

3. What advantages does your subject give pupils? – let them know the skills that they will gain by doing your subject

4. What jobs can your subject lead to? – give real life examples that they can aspire to. If possible see if there is a careers fair to attend.

5. What does the course look like? – letting pupils know what the outline of the course is vital to helping them decide. If it connects to the work they have done already it may help them feel more comfortable about it.

6. What progression is there? – if they choose it at different stages make sure they know what learning paths are open to them.

7. Which teacher will they have? – knowing what teacher they will have can make a huge difference both before and after the options process. In a single teacher subject like mine then it is quite easy.

8. Have you made an effort grab them early? – sometimes we only start thinking about the options process when it is actually happening but mentioning it as early as possible including in first year will set the seed in pupils’ minds from the outset. Learning conversations about their progress and how they are feeling about your subject every term from S1 onwards will help you gauge which pupils are going to stay.

9. Celebrate success – show pupils that they are being successful in your subject.. Every pupil has their strengths make sure they know it. It will make them more likely to take your subject.

And finally

10. Keep your lessons fun and engaging right to the end of the year. Even after the options process is pupils can still change their minds and switch into or out of your class.