How can we help the weakest catch up?

“So let me get this straight: we’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”- Bart Simpson

 

Our instinct is often to assume that a kid with a reading age of 7 couldn’t possibly be asked to sit and read a Dickens chapter in class for an hour.  So rather than cruelly forcing them to do so, we might perhaps choose to watch a film clip and draw a storyboard instead. On the surface, this seems entirely legitimate and reasonable. After all, pupils cannot be expected to run before they can walk. But this is where I think we have been going wrong with the weakest pupils for a long time. Our good and caring intentions have unwittingly lowered the bar for the pupils who struggle the most. By reducing the expectations we have of their behaviour and output in lessons, we limit them from ever being able to achieve the best possible outcomes. Weak pupils will simply never catch up if they are rarely exposed to truly challenging tasks and aren’t pushed to meet the demands of an academically rigorous curriculum.

 

The weakest pupils need more focus, more rigour and more practice if they are to stand any chance of catching up with their peers.

 

  1. More Focus

 

For some reason, we don’t expect weak kids to behave as well as we expect top set kids to behave. 7.1 may be a dream to teach, but why, in the same school with the same teacher, are 10.8 a complete nightmare? Bottom set kids are doubly disadvantaged: not only do they come in knowing the least; their lessons are often the most disrupted. They need to spend the maximum amount of time in lessons listening to the teacher, following rules and working hard, yet often they are surrounded by chaos.

 

Think about the precious minutes that are melting away whilst the weakest pupils sit in a chaotic classroom. Think of all the things they could learn during that time if they were actually listening. School leaders must do everything in their power to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn from their teacher every single lesson.

 

 

  1. More Rigour

 

When pupils find extended reading and writing difficult, there is a temptation to reduce the rigour in the content and tasks they are asked to do. It’s tough to give a kid with a reading age of 7 a full page of text to wade through, but surely it is better for them to struggle and come out the other side than to never even attempt such tasks. Again, we feel like it might be cruel to expect a bottom set pupil to sit and read a challenging text for an hour, but isn’t it crueller never to give them the chance? Reading texts in lessons with weak pupils is tough, but it isn’t impossible. If they get into the habit of doing it every lesson- perhaps, even across subjects- they will get better at it and will feel successful.

 

  1. More Practice

 

If a child has a reading age of 7 and cannot spell, they need to spend the bulk of their time in lessons reading and writing. They are literally years behind where they should be, and we simply do not have a moment to spare. Every planning decision we make gives us a choice: spend time doing things they can already do (drawing a story board), or spend time developing skills they desperately need to master if they are going to stand a chance of being successful in the future.

 

We must also remember that pupils only spend around 25 hours per week in lessons. This time is so precious. With such limited exposure to teachers and their expertise, we should strive to make the most of every second they have. They can watch films, make posters, do a bit of drawing and chat to their mates at home. They can’t work out how to solve quadratic equations or read and understand a Dickens novel without the support of a subject expert.

 

 

 

The weakest kids have the biggest mountain to climb. With the support of their teachers, a rigorous curriculum, meaningful lesson activities and focused behaviour in lessons, they stand the best possible chance of reaching their potential.

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If you found yourself nodding along in agreement with this post, why not apply to work with us at Michaela? We’re hiring English, Humanities and Science teachers. More information here: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/

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Women: Know Your Limits.

Growing up, I was fortunate enough not to have to worry about gender inequality. As far as I was concerned, I could run just as fast, shout just as loud, and be just as smart as my brother or any of the boys I knew at school. My dad was a Judo coach, so from about the age of 8 I spent weekday evenings throwing boys twice my size around a hall in the local community centre. Of course I had heard about gender inequality, but I saw it as a thing of the past. From my perspective, the women  who fought for women’s rights had given me the chance not to have to do the same for myself. Through their chastisement of the status quo, I was liberated from the limits that had been imposed on them for millennia, and for that I was grateful.

 

Over the last few years, as I creep steadily towards my 30s, a few things have helped me to see that perhaps I was naïve to believe that women were unquestionably equal to men. The usual stuff kept cropping up: woman are ‘emotional’ and ‘bossy’, must be married with kids before 35, should weigh no more than 8 stone, and should spend more money on hair cuts than rent to avoid being considered a slob. Bla bla bla. But I was most shocked when, recently, at an event hosted by an older man, I sat myself between two guys I know well and respect deeply; the host engaged sincerely with them, shifting his eyes from the man on my left to the man on my right, and yet overlooked me completely. I was more than a little annoyed. My inner Judoka wanted to leap up and thrash him to the floor in the names of feminism and good manners. Of course, I didn’t. I sat there politely and nodded along, trying occasionally to squeeze a word in or earn a second of his focus, to little avail. His loss. I’m great.

 

Explaining these lurking concerns to a devout feminist acquaintance, she declared: “Yes, Katie. Welcome to the Patriarchy!” She’s right. The Patriarchy does exist and it is terrible that women aren’t as equal as they ought to be. But I fear that looking at the world through this lens is problematic. I fear that too much acknowledgment of ‘the patriarchy’, and all the evils that go with it, renders women less powerful. In doing so, we place subtle, damaging limits upon ourselves, and I am not about to let that happen to me.

 

Maybe it wasn’t because I’m female that the host was rude. Maybe he was just rude! Maybe he didn’t like me because he disagreed with something I wrote in a blog once. Maybe I’d accidentally said something that annoyed him. Maybe he thought I was an arrogant idiot (a fair assumption). I’ll never know the truth, but by instantly jumping to the conclusion that his rudeness was a response to my gender, I actually did myself a disservice. Gender inequality isn’t the answer to all of life’s woes. I blamed abstract ideas – ‘society’, ‘the patriarchy’, ‘misogyny’. Ideas are easy to blame, but very difficult to change if they come to define us. It’s like we are all standing around pointing to a massive neon sign saying ‘PATRIARCHY’, giving it more credit than it deserves. By viewing the world through this prism, we subtly impose further limits on ourselves.

 

I may be great, but I cannot control the minds of others. I cannot control their thoughts, their prejudices, their attitudes, their ignorance. I cannot change history, either. Yes, men have had the power since time immemorial, but I cannot change that. Focusing on the fact that this is unfair won’t change it either. It’s a huge leviathan composed of an infinite number of moving parts. It’s extremely hard to pin down. Focusing on it too much risks removing women of their agency and ability to overcome the lingering barriers that society will inevitably present.

 

So I urge women not to allow the problems in society to limit them, but instead to move beyond them. So the next time someone says something that triggers your inner feminist, don’t allow that thought to limit you. Overcome it. Realise that you cannot change what is not within your control. Carry on as you would have, had misogyny never existed. Be brilliant, and work to improve the things about you that you can control. There are things that all of us need to work on, but don’t let gender inequality posses you. Know the limits that lie within, and ignore the limits that lie beyond, and perhaps one day the apparent need for ‘Feminism’ will cease to exist.

Grammar and the Art of Writing: ResearchED Literacy

Here is a write up of the presentation I gave at ResearchED Literacy in Swindon yesterday, in case anyone missed it and is interested in what I have to say about grammar (feel free not to be!).

 

What makes a good writer?

When I first began teaching English, I thought carefully about what it meant to be a great writer, and how I might be able to help my pupils get better at writing themselves. At the time, I was reading ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates. It has since become one of my favourite books, and I re-read it at least once every year. The story is good, but I adore Yates’ writing style. There’s something beautiful about the way it flows. Struck by a couple of wonderfully rich, yet concise, sentences of his, I came to a conclusion. I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses. So that is what I needed to help my pupils get better at: controlling clauses. By beginning with a clear goal in mind, it is easier to understand the direction and purpose of grammar teaching. From there, I began working out what knowledge pupils needed to know in order to be able to control clauses effectively.

 

Parts of Speech

Joe Kirby began sequencing a grammar curriculum into three parts: the parts of speech, syntax rules, and punctuation rules. I agreed that these were helpful categories.

 

One of the main criticisms grammar receives is that parsing sentences is a waste of time. I hear some teachers say that knowing that the word ‘run’ can be both a noun and a verb is unnecessary. I can understand why some may see it this way. On the surface, knowing the parts of speech doesn’t appear to be particularly useful. However, since I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come across a number of examples that demonstrate why this knowledge is in fact extremely helpful.

 

Take the following examples:

 

He married an intelligent, charismatic woman.

 

He wore a bright red coat.

 

Why is a comma necessary in the first sentence, but not the second? The parts of speech hold the answer: ‘intelligent’ and ‘charismatic’ are two adjectives and therefore should be separated by a comma. ‘Bright’, however, is an adverb modifying the adjective ‘red’, so no comma is necessary. Knowledge of the parts of speech also enables us to understand why we say a ‘bright red coat’ rather than a ‘red bright coat’. Red does not qualify the adjective bright; rather, the adverb ‘bright’ tells us how red the coat is.

 

Whilst most people will intuit this knowledge, many people will not. As teachers, we should be as systematic as possible to ensure that every pupil knows how to punctuate sentences properly. Even the humble listing comma cannot be applied correctly without an understanding of the parts of speech.

 

I gave more examples of this during the talk. I’ve attached the presentation to the bottom of this blog post if you’d like to read more on this.

 

Sequencing

Sequencing a grammar curriculum is key. I argue that it ought to have 20% of curriculum time at KS3. Over three years, pupils ought to study 9 units.

 

Year 7: The basics of the parts of speech, syntax and punctuation. These units should provide a broad overview. For example, when teaching the parts of speech, you wouldn’t want to go into the detail of types of nouns (proper, common, abstract, etc.) as this will overload pupils. Instead, simply teach them what a noun is. Come back to nouns in year 8 and then teach the different types.

 

Year 8: Detailed breakdown of the same three units. Here is your opportunity to teach the more nuanced aspects of what was taught the year before.

 

Year 9: Deepen pupils’ knowledge of the complexities of grammar. A strong emphasis should be placed on its impact on meaning.

 

A Grammar Lesson

Grammar lessons should be ‘DEaD’ good: that is, it should contain a clear definition, illuminating examples and unrelenting drills.

 

For example, when teaching adjectives to year 7, I would begin the lesson with a recap of the parts of speech that I have taught previously. I would do this by giving pupils a few phrases to parse, for example:

 

Our house

Lucy’s kite

A window

The door! Jamie!

Karen’s doll.

 

Next, introduce the concept. At Michaela, we have created a short story about grammar. In each chapter, a new part of speech is introduced in the form of a personified character. The Adjective Ladies are the eponymous heroines of this lesson. They are a group of gossipy old women who sit around and describe people. The story contains several examples of adjectives, all italicised.

 

The next step is to learn the definition. Pupils learn that adjectives describe nouns and we chant this together as a class. This is quickly followed by a sequence of examples and non-examples.

Once pupils are consistently giving correct responses to the question ‘adjective or not an adjective’, they are ready to practice. Begin by asking them to circle the adjectives from a list of simple words. Increase the challenge in subsequent activities by asking them to circle the adjectives in simple sentences, then more challenging sentences. Increase the challenge further by asking them to tell you which noun the adjective describes in every example.

 

Finish the lesson by carrying out further parsing activities, this time including adjectives. For example:

 

Our lovely house

Jane’s delicious meal

The music? Wonderful!

Matilda: a reader

Frightening, that ride.

 

To ensure pupils don’t forget this in between grammar lessons, and to increase the chances that they will apply grammar to writing across other lessons, carry out daily drill exercises. For the first five minutes of every lesson, pupils parse a few sentences/ underline all the subjects/ punctuate sentences with non-restrictive clauses, etc. as appropriate. On the whole, these should be aligned to the unit you are currently teaching them, but recap of previously taught content is also helpful.

Thanks to Tom Bennett, David Didau and Ruth Robinson for organising what was a brilliant event. I’d highly recommend looking into the work of James Murphy, Eric Kalenze and Dianne Murphy. I attended their talks yesterday and all three were totes amaze!

 

Here is the PowerPoint I delivered yesterday, which includes the sample lesson I have explained above: ResearchED Literacy Grammar

 

Give him a break

Palmer was a popular lad: square-shouldered, dishevelled, dramatic. An eternal creator of classroom chaos: he and I did not share many positive interactions.

 

On a typical day, he would wander in late, toss his JD Sports bag onto his desk, slump into his seat, and immediately turn around and chat to his mates. In Palmer’s eyes, reading and writing were unnecessary distractions from his social life, and his disdain for me- a teacher, and therefore the unfortunate embodiment of such hindrances- could be felt in his every scowl and grimace.

 

In those early months of my teaching career, I was permanently exhausted. I had been warned about the late nights, absurd SLT demands and excessive workload, but nobody had quite managed to express to me the emotional toll of teaching. In the first term, I must have been trying to diffuse around thirty arguments a day. Most people won’t experience that in a year. It was draining. I found myself pleading with children who wouldn’t sit in their seats and sworn at by children who threw things at me. I was ignored when I tried to get the class to be silent; I was laughed at when I tried to sanction them.

 

Palmer was a frequent sparring partner, and he often pushed me to the limits of my self-control. Any instruction I gave was not only ignored, but sneered at or derided as if I were treating him like a prisoner.

 

It turned out that Palmer had quite a lot of ‘issues’. I won’t go into them here, because the issues themselves aren’t particularly relevant, but they were profound enough to manifest as they did. I found him difficult to teach, and I’ll admit that a wave of relief would rush through me every time he was absent. He was tough, I couldn’t handle him, and I felt guilty about that. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn’t being sympathetic enough to his needs or trying hard enough to understand them. Perhaps I wasn’t a kind enough person. Perhaps I wasn’t patient enough. Perhaps I was expecting too much. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head, so I made the decision to give him a break. When he was naughty, I would try to understand why he was behaving this way and try to see things from his point of view. When he was rude, I’d remember what was going on in his home life and would calm myself down. When he was bored or angry, I gave him a break from the lesson and let him take a breather outside, as was his wont.

 

I gave him a lot of breaks. It didn’t work.

 

I now think that giving kids a break often isn’t the solution. Palmer’s life was an unfortunate mishmash of circumstance and bad luck. Disempowering and inescapable, he chose to shove two fingers up to the world and hide his anger behind a veil of heroic self-confidence. His brashness made him a tricky classroom customer, and his teachers became helpless victims of his every whim. It wasn’t just me who had decided to cut Palmer some slack. All his teachers had, because they were all human. Multiple simultaneous sighs of relief; a collective exhale of expectations. We lowered our standards because it was easier than not lowering them.

 

Some convinced themselves they gave Palmer a break because he really needed it. They did it because they cared about his welfare. Even I convinced myself that I was letting him get away with all sorts because of I cared about his wellbeing. After all, if a kid has ‘issues’, it would be cruel to expect them to function like a person without issues, wouldn’t it?

 

But by the end of the year, he had no controlled assessments, was catastrophically under-prepared for his exams, and couldn’t have a normal conversation with an adult without getting into an aggressive altercation of some kind. Was this what ‘care’ really looked like? Was giving Palmer a break really the right prescription?

 

I have taught too many kids like Palmer, and whilst I still have a lot to learn about building the strongest relationships and providing the best possible support, I am sure about one thing. If you give a kid a break, you reduce your standards for them, and to do so is to allow them to fall to those low standards. We do care, and caring is a thread inseparable from the complex tapestry of teaching. But sometimes, the most caring thing we can do for a child is to raise our standards even higher.

 

 

 

20 Months’ Reading Progress in 10 Months

This week, we carried out our first set of nationally standardised assessments. These show the progress our pupils have made throughout the year in reading, English and Maths.

 

Pupils are delighted with their results. The average Michaela pupil made 20 months’ reading progress in 10 months. Over half our year 7 pupils now have a reading age of 14 or above, and our SEN pupils have made rapid progress, catching up quickly with their peers.

 

Of course, there are many factors that have contributed to these outcomes, and we are very much aware that we still have a long way to go, and that we must maintain this as the school grows. However, a few people have been asking us how we achieved these results, and whilst I don’t think there is one formula to rule them all on this one, here are a few ideas that have played a part in making this happen.

 

  1. How to get them reading: which diagnostic assessments are useful? How should pupils be grouped? Which intervention programmes work best? What are the key focus areas in reading instruction? This blog provides a broad overview of our approach to reading at Michaela.

 

  1. How to motivate reluctant readers: in this post, I argue that habits, a feeling of success and increased challenge are important levers to pull when trying to motivate reluctant readers.

 

  1. How to read texts in lessons: At Michaela, pupils read thousands of words every day, in subjects across the curriculum. How could teachers go about this? What should reading look like in a lesson in any subject? This blog gives some examples of what this might look like.

 

  1. How to increase a pupil’s vocabulary: Vocabulary acquisition and extension is complex and boggling at times. In this post, I summarise some approaches we read about in Beck et al.’s excellent book, and a few other things we do to build vocabulary.

 

  1. One Hundred Classics for Every Child: The simplest way to improve pupils’ reading is to get them to read loads. Here’s how we will give every child a minimum of 100 classics over five years.

 

 

I should add that nothing here is revolutionary or new. Everything you will read about in the above posts has been pinched from stuff we’ve read, seen or heard about over the last few years.

 

Like I say, we aren’t experts, nor do we think that these are necessarily the best ways to get results. I’d welcome others’ tips and views on all of this, so please feel free to add what you do in the comments below.

 

Finally, whilst this is all very encouraging, I’m mindful of Kipling’s profound words:

 

            If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

            And treat those two imposters just the same

 

Results most certainly are not everything, and I wouldn’t want us to pin all our hopes on them or grow complacent. It’s important to see this triumph as a bit of an imposter, and not to let it distract us from doing our best by the kids every single day. That is, after all, what we’re all in this for!

 

Knowledge is Power

When I began blogging in 2013, the argument that knowledge should be at the heart of the curriculum was readily rejected. The most common counter-argument was that rote learning of lists of facts was a waste of time as it would not lead to ‘deep learning’ (whatever that means) or understanding. Since that time, the debate seems to have shifted somewhat. Fewer people now argue that knowledge is irrelevant. Instead, critics argue that knowledge is just the beginning, or that we should somehow teach knowledge and skills simultaneously, or that a distinction between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy (yawn).

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of knowledge. It’s one of the reasons I joined Michaela– where our motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’. Although I’ve always believed that a knowledge- rich curriculum could lead to great things, I had never seen it in action until I came to work at this school. Over the past year, I have come to see the impact that knowledge can have on a child’s ability to make interesting connections and links, and to analyse and evaluate ideas. At Michaela, all our children are expected to learn lists of facts by rote. This is still very unusual and there are many out there who criticise us for it.

But time and time again, I have seen the value of learning such lists of facts. Not only do pupils genuinely enjoy knowing loads of stuff, this rote learning has proved to be incredibly useful when they come across new knowledge. They are able to make connections and inferences that someone who lacks such knowledge would simply not be able to make.

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

I was reading through a biography of Percy Shelley with ‘Poseidon’- one of my year 7 classes and my tutor group. Many of the pupils in this class have reading ages far below their chronological age. More than half the class have Special Educational Needs.

On this particular occasion, we were preparing to study Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. In the biography, we came across this piece of information:

Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement that the British Museum was to acquire a large fragment of a 13BC statue of Rameses II from Egypt.”

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

Within seconds, a forest of hands shot up. Slightly baffled, I asked one of the pupils to tell me what was wrong.

“Miss, how could Rameses II be a Pharaoh in 13BC when Egyptian civilisation ended in 31BC? Miss, that doesn’t make sense.”

I was stumped and couldn’t answer for this. It later transpired that there had been a typo in the printed version of the biography. Instead of 13BC, the date should have said 1213BC. Because I lacked knowledge of the date of the end of Egyptian civilisation (which the pupils had learned in Mr Porter’s History lesson), I would never have been able to spot the mistake. In fact, I would have had a completely incorrect understanding of Rameses II and the statue, which was over a thousand years older than I had believed it was.

In this instance, a lack of relevant knowledge rendered me incapable of grasping an accurate understanding of the facts. I consider myself to be a relatively good ‘critical thinker’ (although I’m sure many readers may disagree!), but my ability to think critically was useless in this instance because of the gaps in my knowledge. My pupils, by contrast, had been empowered by their knowledge. Consequently, they were in a far stronger position to critically analyse the text they had been given than I was.

Rote learning is perceived to be a dull, mindless activity that leads to little other than parrot-like recall, but this simply is not the case. On the contrary, mastering lists of important dates is essential for critical thinking to take place.

Corridors

You stand behind your chair and hoist your brand new Reebok bag up on to your shoulders. You check to see if your shirt is tucked in, but the weight of the rucksack and your general awkwardness make any on-the-go wardrobe adjustments impractical and inelegant. Just tap your fingers on the table instead, you think. That’ll make you look cool and nonchalant. A broken light buzzes and flickers overhead. A faded clock-face screams that break time is nearly here. A rumble of chairs above tells you that others are packing away now, too. Mrs Archer stands stern and firm at the front of the room. Her unshakeable glare and an almost imperceptible eyebrow shift suggest that you should stop the table drumming this instant if you wish to avoid a verbal lashing. Fold your arms and look somewhere else, you idiot! Once again, you berate yourself for doing the wrong thing.

 

All is still and silent. The clock hands continue their lonesome strides across the barren seconds and minutes. Time is not slipping by unnoticed today, like it does usually.

 

A click, and the stillness is shaken. The bell wails and the room shudders and trembles as the hoards charge towards the doorway. Elbows, kneecaps, the stamp of eager feet: hundreds of bodies swamp the maze of corridors that lead towards the canteen. It’s rush hour for teenagers: chaotic, violent, and out of control. Mr Shetland arrives at his duty post and observes the ensuing mayhem. He munches on an apple and feebly points his fingers and utters ineffective words. Nothing changes. The madness heightens.

 

There are only fifteen minutes of freedom available, and you have many tasks to complete in that time. Your course to the lunch hall to meet Tina and Hanna is a gravelly road indeed. Try not to tumble down two flights of stairs; sprint across the yard without getting caught by a teacher or laughed at by an older kid; push through the hundreds of pairs of year 11 legs to get to the front of the snack queue. And the corridors: the endless corridors. You have to pick up your lab coat for science next lesson, and it’s in your locker. Your locker is on the Geography corridor at the other end of the school. The thought of going there fills you with dread. Maybe I could say I left it at home? Your mind is awash with potential excuses as you desperately try to think of a way to avoid going to fetch it. Nah, Miss O’Neill will kill me if I forget it. You remember last time: the shrillness of her voice, and the snotty note she wrote to your mum in your planner. Shrugging off the memory and admitting defeat, you make your way over there.

 

Locker number 101. You are too young to notice the irony. It’s about the size of your Reebok bag, contains your PE kit, lab coat and German dictionary, and is guarded by a huge silver padlock that your dad used to use for the garage. It’s on the bottom row, right in the middle. The stampede is still flowing through the Geography floor. You pick a moment and dive towards the ground, gripping a tiny key in your fingers. You are swift: the door swings open within seconds. Hand on lab coat, you are ready to stand again and make your escape, when suddenly, the human tidal wave crashes and consumes you, and your forehead makes its acquaintance with the sticky, gum-covered linoleum floor. Boot to the face. Trainer to the rib. You see nothing but school shoes and frayed trouser hems. A year 10 boy trips and slumps on top of you, his Lynx-soaked body weighing heavily on your bird-like frame. The air fills with uproarious laughter and shrieks of “OHHHHHH! She fell over! GUTTED!” The second wave is one of shame and embarrassment; you’re on the floor… again. And the clock, which was previously so sombre, so forgiving and so slow, has raced on and now your science lesson starts in less than three minutes. Can’t be late. Stand up; brush the dust off your bum and the stupefied look of shock off your face. Stuff your lab coat into your bag. Run as quickly as you can.

 

***

 

You awake from the daydream and take in more familiar, calm surroundings. The kids are strolling past you in single file, all smiling and wishing you a good morning. No pushing. No shoving. No jibes. No jostles. Some people hear of this and say you are ‘extreme’, that ‘no excuses’ are harmful, and that walking in silence in the corridor is too ‘militant’. And you remember the corridors and the fear and the dread and the loathing and the horror, and the words of the naysayers do nothing to perturb you or shake your faith in the environment you have helped to build.

 

The pupils snake gently into their classrooms and the doors close. Empty corridors. Mission accomplished.