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The warm-up: how reflective and timed tasks can help to focus students’ minds during English lessons

Back in November, things weren’t clicking with my current Y11 class. Whilst their bodies would enter the classroom on time for lessons, their minds were often elsewhere – stuck in the weekend, or on prom dress ideas. Or even – and this is a low for any English teacher – on their next maths lesson. It was clear to me that in order to remedy this lack of focus, I’d need to do more than confiscate simultaneous equation sheets or ban talk of fishtails and necklines.

So often during my previous 10 years of teaching I’ve failed because my planning has hinged on achieving perfection. My fragile mindset has meant I would discard ideas if they were anything less than instant and wondrous successes.

This (school) year, I’ve been working on my stickability. I’ve built in more time for reflecting and tweaking. Even with relatively successful ideas, I’ve thought longer and harder about how they could be improved. Trial and error, incremental change, call it what you like, it’s a very satisfying way of working because you get lots of little wins rather than loading all your expectations on an instant, all or nothing success.

So never mind version 2.0, the strategy I’m about to describe for overcoming my Y11’s lack of focus is probably about version 14.0. But it’s all the better for it… oh and the pupils don’t mind – in fact, I don’t think it would be stretching a point to say they’re appreciative of the tweaks.

Every lesson (and I mean EVERY lesson) pupils enter the classroom to be confronted by (or should I say greeted by) an A3 piece of paper with four activities on.

Activity number one is five spellings (from the list I gave them to stick on their fridges last parents evening) – this takes about 90 seconds to complete but brings about instant silence and focus.

Next comes a speed test. I love this. They get two minutes (stopwatch on big screen) to write on a given topic (sometimes it’s Mr Birling or Benvolio, sometimes it’s a random topic like apples or last night’s I’m A Celebrity, dependant on what mood I’m in). I tell them that, for two minutes only, nothing counts except speed and legibility. All have noticed they’re getting faster. Granted, this isn’t the most crucial factor of a successful exam, but it’s certainly of importance – more so than we cater for I think.

Activity three is taken straight from a GCSE workbook – it takes them a couple of minutes and typically might be a grammar exercise or a writer’s technique challenge.

The final activity is always related to the previous lesson. Sometimes it’s just a question or a little fill-in-the-blanks exercise. I find the order of the activities is crucial. Finishing this part of the lesson with a re-cap allows for a smooth transition to the new focus.

In total, the sheet takes 10 minutes max. Pupils help themselves to an answer sheet as soon as they’ve finished.

It’s really satisfying and I’d love to get to a position where I was doing something similar with every year group.

The latest tweak? Well I’ve started branding it ‘The warm-up’, which means I can segue nicely into ‘The workout’ of the main lesson.

What about ‘The cooldown’?, I hear you ponder. Well for now, that takes the form of five minutes reading time. Usually non-fiction or, this being English in 2017, something from the 19th Century of course.