Classroom Matters


A little shameless self-promotion! I have a short e-book available on Amazon for £1.53 which explores ways of making the most of your Secondary classroom space. Setting up the classroom at the start of a new academic year is for me, one of the most exciting and encouraging ways to get ready for the term ahead. Nothing makes a bigger and more immediate visual impact and says more about the type of teacher you are and what the students who enter your domain can expect.

In this short book I explore the importance of the classroom as a learning and motivational tool, and offer a plethora of funky ideas that you can use and adapt to create your own impressive personalised space!

Some reviews on the book:

“I liked how the author was able to draw on her own practical experience and also build on all the best of what she has seen over the years in her teaching career. I can see teachers everywhere being pleasantly surprised at the reaction of their students as they enter the classroom eagerly to see how it is going to look today. The students will feel valued – “she actually went to all this trouble for us?” The teacher will hopefully gain brownie points too in that student interest and enthusiasm for subjects and topics will grow. Without being over the top the author encourages readers to take a fresh new look at classroom environments for secondary schools and her enthusiasm is catching!”

“An insightful booklet on the art of teaching. There are plenty of good ideas here, practical stuff that plays well in the classroom. I particularly liked the class museum section. There is a method to the madness.”


Games and Quick Activities for the Classroom

I like to have a little toolbox of ideas for games and little activities that can be incorporated into lessons to wake the sleepyheads up. Here are some of my favourites that have been tried and tested.

1. Snowball: students write 3 key words from a topic onto a piece of paper, then scrunch it up, and (on the teacher’s say-so) chuck across the classroom! They then pick up a snowball, un-scrunch, and the game continues until they’ve run out of ideas. One student is then selected to read out their snowball.

2. Who Am I? Ask one brave student to come up to the front. Write the name of a key person or concept on a sticky note and stick it to the student’s forehead. The volunteer then asks the class questions about who or what they are, and the class can only answer with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The student who guesses using the least amount of questions wins!

3. The Rule in the Room. One student is asked to leave the classroom, while the rest of the class comes up with a rule that they all will adhere to when they return. The student must guess what that rule is, e.g. ‘touch something blue at all times’. This one’s just for a bit of fun!

4. Smurf! Again, a bit of fun, I play it at the start of lessons on verbs. One student leaves the room while the class decides on a verb or verbal phrase which will be kept a secret and only referred to as ‘smurfing’. Whne the student returns, he or she asked questions to find out what smurfing is. E.g. smurfing might be ‘changing a lightbulb’. They may ask questions such as ‘Do I smurf on a daily basis? Do both men and women smurf? Etc. Hilarity ensues!

Tips on encouraging meaningful dialogue in the classroom


Use the classroom environment:

  • Use the interactive whiteboard. Pictures, videos and music are great for encouraging discussion and creating a memorable atmosphere or theme to a discussion. For example, playing wartime music during discussions on WW2, or display a starry sky on the board in Science.
  • Mystery box – fill a box with interesting items and use as a starter activity to encourage discussion or creative writing. The mystery object may be linked to the lesson, or could simply be an intriguing curiosity.
  • Have a ‘no pens’ lesson where all contributions must be spoken, acted or drawn.

Adapt your questioning:

  • Use all your might! Replace questions that suggest to the students that there is only one right answer, and avoid the ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’ pitfall. E.g. “What is the answer” = “what might the answer be?” The meaning of the sentence is significantly altered by the word ‘might’.
  • As ‘What if?’ questions. The teacher writes a series of ‘What if?’ questions that create a series of hypothetical scenarios around a topic you want them to think carefully about. An interesting homework task could be to come up with these types of questions which can then be used as a basis for discussion at the beginning of the next lesson.
  • Involve as many students as possible. Use a random-o-meter, pick lollypop sticks out of a tub, use any strategy you can think of to keep students engaged!

Structure and scaffold discussion:

  • Appoint roles in group discussion. See next page for ideas for role cards that can be adapted to any discussion. In whole-class discussion, the teacher may choose to take on a role from the role cards, making this intention clear to the students. Alternatively, the teacher might choose to circulate around groups and challenge them by taking on one of these roles.
Time-keeper: It is your job to keep track of the time. You must ensure that the group completes their task in the allotted time. You will need to encourage the group of when it is necessary to move on.  Scribe: You should note down key points from the discussion. You don’t need to write down everything that is said, just listen carefully and choose which you think are the most important points.

Leader: The leader keeps everyone focused on the task and politely makes sure that everyone takes part. 
Devil’s Advocate: It is this your job to challenge the ideas of others. You should do this by suggesting the opposite of what has been said, looking at things from a different viewpoint.

Stingray: It is your job to challenge the rest of the group by stinging them with unusual and original contributions.

Helper: The Helper helps others to explain their ideas by asking questions such as ‘What do you mean by this?’ or ‘Could you give me an example?’ You may also help to explain what others say by saying ‘I think what ___ is suggesting is… is that right?’

Gadfly: This irritating person picks away at the discussion by asking questions to make sure people are making precise points rather than generalisations, wild comments or things that are vague and unclear.  Observer: As the observer, you do not contribute to the discussion. You observe and give a summary to the group at the end, or feedback to the whole class.

Motivator: You must be super-positive and keep the group motivated and on track.

Other ways of scaffolding discussion:

  • Snowballing (think, pair, share): Students are allowed time to think on their own about a broad discussion point. They begin a discussion in pairs for a given amount of time. The pairs then join with another pair to make a group of four, and share then add to each other’s points. This can be a purely verbal task or contributions can be noted down.
  • Value Continuum: The continuum line can be made from string and pegs, pieces of paper blue tacked on the wall or it can be a double-ended arrow shown on the whiteboard. Show a statement on the board. One side of the continuum should read ‘Strongly Agree’, the other ‘Strongly Disagree’. Students should discuss where their views lie on the continuum line. The teacher now has the following options: they can ask all the students to leave their seats and stand at the front in a position that represents their views. The other option is that paper, post-it notes or initials drawn on the board can be used to represent the views of each student. The teacher can now deepen the discussion by choosing students with a range of views to explain their reasoning and defend their positions on the line.
  • The Goldfish Bowl: Students are seated in two circles, one inside the other. The inner circle should begin to discuss a topic or question with the person sitting next to them. The outer circle observes silently, taking notes on what is being said or the way the discussion is taking place. You might choose to give the students on the outer circle a peer assessment sheet so that they can assess the quality of the discussion, and so that you have evidence of the learning to stick into students’ books. When the teacher gives the signal, the students on the outer circle present their feedback to the inner circle, summarise the points already made, then pick up the discussion from there and the roles are reversed.
  • Silent Debate: In a silent debate, students are asked to take part in a written dialogue that is a little like comments on an online discussion board. The debate can be used to introduce a new area of learning to the class and to initiate independent thinking that can then lead to group or class discussion in the next lesson. To prepare for the silent debate, stick up 1-4 large sheets of paper with starting points for discussion on the classroom walls. During the course of the lesson, students take turns getting up and silently adding a comment to the discussion sheets. This works best when the class is engaged in work that they can be getting on with with minimum teacher-input, such as an extended writing piece or group work. The sheets can be collected at the end of the lesson and kept as evidence of the learning that has taken place.
  • Viva:  A viva is an oral exam that is usually undertaken by PHD students. It involves one or more examiners asking a candidate questions so as to assess their knowledge on a subject. The viva is best used at the end of a topic or as a revision strategy. Students are paired up and given 3 different areas of the topic each. The students then work independently to develop a range of questions for each of their areas. The questions should be open-ended, allowing the candidate to respond at length. The pairs then sit opposite each other and take a turn each to be the examiner and the candidate. The examiner should be encouraged to add to the responses the candidate makes, and to ask additional questions that prompt their candidate to give the fullest answer possible. As an additional element, the examiners could be given a peer-assessment sheet to fill in and give to the candidate after the activity is complete.
  • Showcase: This activity recreates a museum or art gallery set-up in the classroom. After a large project that involves a series of different tasks, everything is cleared from the desks and the work is displayed on the tables. Students walk around the displays in pairs, discussing the different approaches to the task while filling in a joint questionnaire answering questions such as: What do you like about the work? What are three key strengths you feel the work possesses? What one way do you think the work can be improved? Students return to their seats and a whole-class discussion ensues. This might work well with art projects or design tasks, but could be adapted to any project work that contains different visual elements such as posters, designs, pictures, newspaper articles, collages etc.


Encouraging competition:

  • Create your own interactive Blockbusters-style quiz online at Teachers Direct. On this free website teachers can search for quizzes on different academic subjects as well as create their own. Just don’t forget to click right through to the quiz then save the webpage link.
  •  Play Pictionary with a twist by splitting the class into teams and asking them to takes turns drawing a symbol or image that relates to your topic. The team that guesses the picture being drawn first receives one point, then they can earn an extra bonus point by answering a question on that area of the topic.
  • Play Speed-debating by asking students pair up and time each other talking non-stop about a topic without repeating themselves or taking a breath. The winners go through to round 2, then 3 when the winners are then complete one final round in front of the class.

Creative Secondary Classroom Displays

One of the most optimistic rituals of the school year, for me, is preparing my classroom for the coming September and creating classroom displays. Ever since I turned green with envy helping out a Primary School Teacher friend with her displays, I’ve dreamed of taking some of the elements from primary classrooms and creating The Perfect Secondary School Classroom.

Ambitious? Yes, but classrooms are dynamic environments that should adapt and change and are always a work in progress, so at least we can use this an as excuse. Here are some thoughts on organising secondary classrooms to get us both started…

Key Words

Information Boards

I like to have an information board with info about levels, timings of the school day, behavioural expectations, homework schedules etc. so I can point and gesticulate wildly towards the board when rules are broken. Where possible, I also like to have my own information ‘space’ around my desk where I put up laminated copies of documents that I use regularly. These include my timetable, staff lists, grade criteria  etc, but also handouts from CPD to remind me of the school’s current teaching and learning focus. Not only is this handy and looks good to Ofsted, but I believe it signals to the students that the classroom is the teacher’s arena and that he or she is the expert in the room.

Staple it to the Wall!

In the Guardian’s article ‘Look What I Can Do, Mum!’, Philip Beadle quiet rightly suggests: ‘Use artefacts. If it doesn’t move, staple it to the wall. If it does move, kill it, then staple it to the wall.’ Like me, he was inspired by a primary school that had turned its bare walls in to bright, quirky, arresting museums of interesting artefacts and ideas. He believes that ‘good classroom display is the quickest, and easiest, way of building a positive reputation among your colleagues.’ Bonus.

I’ve begun here by using postcards, an old key, book covers and wrapping paper. I would also like to have a drama shelf at the back of the room with a clapper board and some hats. Any other suggestions are most welcome – please write and let me know what you do with your classroom displays!

The Guardian article can be found here: