May 172014
Real geography has real purpose, real audience and real outcomes

Chris Durbin (Early geography mentor)

Every year I try to add a twist to the Year 8 local enquiry; previously we’ve identified happy places, told geo-located stories and subverted town planning. This year I focussed on the former Fox Brothers Mill at Tonedale. It’s a very imposing listed mill building and one of the most important examples of its kind in the country.

Tonedale Mill Spinning Block 2014

Tonedale Mill has given me a lot of pleasure over the years in a semi-unauthorized sort of way while it awaits conversion into residential use. I’ve written and spoken quite extensively on various ways of incorporating dereliction into local fieldwork and this wasn’t the first time that I’ve based a study on the redevelopment of the site. Unfortunately, at some point, the enthusiasm of students usually tended to supplant economic reality and theme parks and shopping malls come to dominate their regeneration agenda.

“A Millers Tale” May 2010


This year I wanted the students to engage with a real audience in the hope that the outcomes would be a little more feasible. While mulling ideas over, I happened to find myself at the Quay Climbing centre in Exeter, and cheekily suggested to owner Paul Russell that he might like to listen to Year 8 trying to pitch an idea for a new climbing wall in our town. Paul enthusiastically agreed and the challenge was on for the students…

Never under-estimate the power of a good external speaker


Paul came into school to give a presentation about the criteria he used to select a location for his business and stressed the over-riding importance of the financial numbers. This really helped the class to maintain a sense of proportion when it came to considering their options for converting the Mill. The first task was to fire up Digimap and identify the main buildings on the site. Then with kind permission of the current owners, the class donned hard hats and walked around the outside of the derelict buildings while making notes and taking photos.

Tonedale Mill buildings March 2014


Back in the classroom the students annotated their digital maps of the site and designed surveys to test out the market for their ideas. Two hours of public research and data analysis followed, and the class began to put their ideas together as a PowerPoint in preparation for Paul’s return. At this point it was clear that they lacked crucial design skills and so we headed over to Simon Jones’s Slideshare account to pick up tips from the master. This had a transformative effect on the quality of everyone’s work.

Paul duly returned to the school and the students pitched their ideas. Here’s an example of the outcome…

The final presentations were a great success. Paul was so impressed with the class that he offered them a free taster climbing session at The Quay, (though some of them are already pretty good!)

I have an idea that next year we’ll look at a project that will map and record the collective local memories of the Tonedale site.

Edited 18/5/14
Reason: Quoting Chris Durbin accurately. Adding extra media.

Jan 292014

We’ve had a bit of a wall-based revolution in recent months as we’ve emerged from the spectre of Special Measures. Student work seems to have been deprecated in favour of attractive and colourful but rather uniform creations that focus on achievement and motivational photos of kids at work. This isn’t a criticism at all, but I thought it would be nice to take the initiative back in my own room at least and hand responsibility for display over to the students. Suspecting that too much independence wasn’t likely to achieve the new corporate standards, I got the students to commission the media resources officer to make the display to their specifications. This is the result…


The finished display incorporates a variety of contributions from every student in the class. The Wordle element aggregates a homework task, and other items include haiku poems, creative writing and Google Earth 3D modelling. Some volunteered additional work in the form of extended writing and poems that were  of exceptional standard. The display was completed with the addition of miniature photographs of the student’s heads which they placed on their favourite part of the work.


The overall result is a display of really high quality work to which the students feel a real sense of attachment. There is no mention of levels, or indeed any written feedback from me at all.
I used the slides below in a short teach meet type presentation about the display for staff.

Was Margaret Thatcher right to close down the coal mines?

 Student work  Comments Off on Was Margaret Thatcher right to close down the coal mines?
Apr 282013

Year 8 have begun a unit of work on economic geography. We began with the topic of coal mining and followed a SOLO approach to the development of the learning. Starting with simple audio visual resources we created a Wordle of adjectives to describe conditions for coal miners. We then used excellent resources from UK coal to understand exactly how a modern mine works, recreating the longwall mining process with tables and chairs. A subsequent lesson looked at the rise and fall of the industry with a living graph forming the outcome. In the final lesson I briefly outlined some of the social and environmental issues surrounding the industry and then invited students to do some extended abstract thinking on a related topic of their choosing. They came up with some really good ideas – from looking at how old mines are made safe, debating the merits of coal vs nuclear electricity and the economics of whether it is possible to re-open old mines. My favourite piece of work was from Sam, whose poem touches on the politics of the 8o’s in a thoughtful and considered way.

Was Margaret Thatcher right to close down the coal mines?

MinerIt was back in the 80’s when Maggie closed the mines,

But was she right, or was just right at the time?

Britain needed coal for  electricity,

Nowadays we use other sources to power our cities,

People use coal less and less now,

How did this slide happen, how?



We managed to use other ways to get our power,

So in a way, did the industry turn sour?

It cost too much much, Britain needed the money,

Or did Maggie find the miners strikes just a bit funny?

Closing down the mines made some of the public unemployed,

So in reality people got annoyed.

Closing the mines may have been clever,

But today, perhaps it was a stupid thing, however

Many may argue, many a different way

But all we know for certain is that coal is still important today.

Edible Geography

 Student work  Comments Off on Edible Geography
Mar 122013

There’s been some brilliant outcomes from the somewhat vague homework instruction to sum up recent learning about coastal landforms and processes as a plate of food.

Kai went down the traditional cake route, we ate Matt’s tasty  rotational slumping Victoria Sponge in the lesson and Laura demonstrated many variations of Coast Toast.

Here’s Emma’s brilliant idea… from her new blog.

Georgia was a little more forthright with her plate of baked potato and sausage

sausage stack
I’ll add a link with some other examples as they appear online. The students are currently switching over to WordPress from Posterous.

I think it would be right and proper to credit Tony Cassidy who’s pioneering work with Angel Cake laid the mashed potato foundation for sausage stacks. Anarchic home educator friend, Mark Tanner took things even further with electrically conductive, edible circuit boards (part of his masterplan to teach 4 year olds to eat the rich?)

Self-guided virtual field trips in Google Street View

 Google Maps, Student work  Comments Off on Self-guided virtual field trips in Google Street View
Feb 152013

I’m currently seeing some excellent work by Year 11 students who used Google Street View to identify and comment on different features of the flood prevention scheme at Boscastle. With almost ubiquitous coverage of the UK, there’s lots of opportunities to set students off on similar virtual voyages of discovery.

The original task was set on my GCSE Posterous. Here’s a really excellent example of a finished piece of work by Rowan…

Jan 192013

Year 7 have completed their landscapes in boxes. The creations ranged from amazing models of the local area to distant urban and rural scenes from diverse countries including Turkey Finland and Egypt. Look out for brilliant recreations of the Burj Dubai, the Glastonbury Festival and Pamukkale. The most innovative idea this year incorporated blancmange to represent glacial ice.

Work from 2012 and the background to this activity







RSA Animate style meanders: Teach Less!

 ICT, Student work, video  Comments Off on RSA Animate style meanders: Teach Less!
Jan 102013

Over the holiday I happened across a super blog post from US educator Paul Bogush describing a sequence of lessons where his 8th grade students created RSA animate style videos to tell the story of the Louisiana Purchase. It seemed like a great idea, but I felt the planning and logistics were a little ambitious for my own circumstances.

Roll on to the new term and the majority of my GCSE class were completing their coursework projects.  Three students finished unexpectedly early and required a task that would lead them into the next topic. I considered for a moment what esteemed Lazy Teacher Jim Smith would do, given that I wasn’t in the position to be able to give any time at all to the students, what with assessment having to be Controlled these days. The idea of an RSA Animate style video sprung to mind; but circumstances dictated the most minimal of instructions…

  1. Discover what an RSA Animate style video looks like.
  2. Find out how meanders and oxbow lakes form. (The students hadn’t studied river landforms before.
  3. Work out how to replicate the RSA Animate style  using a Flip, a whiteboard and some dry pens.

No other instructions were given, and I didn’t see the students at all until their allowed time (2 1/2 hours) had elapsed. They made two 30 second films which I edited together. This is the result…

I’m really pleased with the video which will make a nice teaching resource. There’s obviously plenty of scope for improvement, but that in itself makes the video compelling.