Searching for Excellence

Searching for Excellence
Searching for Excellence in Education
Searching for Excellence:  'Opening Doors to Famous Poetry and Prose' written by Bob Cox
Searching for Excellence in Education
Searching for Excellence:  Inspiring able learners in English at KS2
Searching for Excellence in Education
Searching for Excellence:  'Opening Doors to Quality Writing for ages 6 to 9' written by Bob Cox
Searching for Excellence in Education
Searching for Excellence:  Bob holding book while teaching class of students
Searching for Excellence in Education
Searching for Excellence:  'Opening Doors to Quality Writing for ages 10 to 13' written by Bob Cox
Searching for Excellence in Education
Searching for Excellence:  Able, Gifted and Talented Learning in English
Searching for Excellence in Education
Searching for Excellence:  Excellence
Searching for Excellence in Education
Searching for Excellence:  Pupils enjoying an outdoors 'Searching for Excellence' session
Searching for Excellence in Education
Searching for Excellence

Searching for Excellence in Education with Bob Cox

“Opening Doors” Blog

NEW:  Blog For December 2017:

Opening Doors to Progress:  Using Objectives Imaginatively

This year I’ve been supporting schools across the UK, from Cheshire to Kent and from Birmingham to Dorset.  It’s been thrilling!  There are many ways in which English teaching is developing but I’ve noted particularly good responses to the ideas that I’ve presented about using learning objectives in fresh ways and to more effect:

          1)  As questions.
          2)  Phrased with much broader aims in mind, expressed as narratives or journeys.

I’ll give you some examples.  It’s the text which gets teacher and pupil excited, so this can be explored first without any mention of objectives.

“… But Heathcliff, if I dare you now, will you venture?  If you do, I’ll keep you.  I’ll not lie thee by myself; they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me, but I won’t rest till you are with me … I never will.”

From Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

The questions come rolling out – whether from post-its, white-space thinking or our own interventions.

Why is the word ‘dare’ used?

Why ‘keep’?  What kind of ownership is this?

How can a church be ‘thrown’?

How has the semicolon helped the meaning?

Is this a bit weird?

Much more text can be offered, but, for the purpose of a short blog, the point has been made about the vital place of questioning and curiosity, especially with challenging texts.  So, instead of a predictable objective, often limited in scope, why not now introduce:

Can you find creative ways to express a character’s powerful emotions?

Pupils have found the dialogue associated with this exciting, and it sets a deep learning journey for all.  Stages of the journey can be planned for – with pupils progressing at their own rate, but with the whole class collectively sharing the objective.  That enables a mastery learning approach to become a habit and keeps the wonder of the text and the writing it stimulates at the heart of the learning.  Of course, specific and important aspects of improving writing can be targeted too; for example, using prepositional phrases or prefixes/suffixes, but they can then be taught in context and, along with many aspects of SPandG, you will be teaching how technique supports the meaning.

Do read this piece by a nine-year-old, making good progress on the open-ended objective:

“In the dark, dusty attic, I had been sitting on the hard wooden floor, trying to forget the replaying events in my mind.  Me, standing at home, in the spare lifeless bedroom, staring at the creepy mirror next to the table.  I never remembered that being there.

All of a sudden, my attention changed from that image to something much scarier, something that made me freeze in fright for a second.  My blood turned to ice.  My heart stopped beating.  There was only silence.  The mirror, the mirror I saw in that horrifying event was there.  A scarlet cloth lay peacefully next to it.  Walking forward anxiously, I faced the mirror, holding the cloth like a bullfighter would.  Before covering the mirror though, my feelings changed.  I couldn’t resist a tiny look.”

Hopefully, you want to read on!  Please see our pupils’ work website – you’ll find the work from which the above extract is taken in the 10–13 section, and it’s from Ravenscote Junior School.

Opening Doors to Famous Poetry and Prose – link

Opening Doors to Quality Writing (ages 6–9) – link

Opening Doors to Quality Writing (ages 10–13) – link

The same principles can be applied at Key Stage 1 of course, and ‘Opening Doors’ schools are enjoying using some of these objectives – though, I stress, effective dialogic talk must be an integral part of the way the objectives are used.  Cold statements pinned to the wall will achieve little.  As pupils learn to love the literature, and the lesson too, through the text and the dialogues, they should understand more about the ‘why’, and not just the ‘what’ of the overall process.  It’s still that magic formula – the relationship between pupil and teacher – that unlocks the mysteries of the text and the rationale behind the learning.

Try these objectives from Opening Doors to Quality Writing (ages 6–9):

‘How successfully can you use repetition in a poem’?  (See ‘Slowly’ by James Reeves.)

Can you create a funny moment in a poem to make your friends laugh?  (See ‘Daddy Fell into the Pond’ by Alfred Noyes.)

Can you give your fantasy creature an original personality?  (See ‘The Psammead’ from ‘Five Children and It’.)

There is huge momentum built in a room when everyone understands how much more there is to learn and how exciting a quality text can be.  A rich, deeper journey for all gives the scope for benchmarking routes as appropriate for each pupil, to include greater depth in expectations, and to give your pupils experiences of famous literature en route.  You can assess progress and give advice accordingly in an integral and inclusive way.

You may find the articles and ideas of the following useful.  Their work has certainly influenced me:

Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment, Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment.

Eyre, Deborah (2016) High Performance Learning: How to Become a World Class School.  Oxon: Routledge


Brontë, Emily (1995 [1847]).  Wuthering Heights.  Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Searching for Excellence

Blog For June 2017:

Doors Opening Across the UK

Links and Trails – The Adventure of Literature

Since the excitement of winning an Education Resources Award in the ‘educational book’ category earlier this year, I have continued a pioneering trail with ‘Opening Doors’ across the UK in schools, conferences and cluster meetings!

A recent Michael Rosen tweet seemed to sum up the kinds of approaches we are supporting schools with:

          “The best way to learn how to write well is to investigate how good writers write ...”

I want to tell you about some very exciting links and trails which are arising from schools delving deeper into the potential of quality texts – getting inspired by great writers and teaching with such rigour and passion that pupils’ own writing starts to reach new heights. Schools who have worked for longer with the Opening Doors team have tended to find that more links and ideas evolve as the books’ strategies are more frequently used, with one creative possibility leading to another.

There are no better messages or phone calls than the ones telling me that schools have taken suggestions and possibilities further, reaching the stage where they can run their own area CPD or ask us to support them towards becoming an ‘Opening Doors School’ with a quality text curriculum as a ‘norm’ – raising standards of reading and writing for all. That definition of ‘quality’ can of course mean picture books, children’s fiction, poetry or literature from the present and the past. The ‘Opening Doors’ books have a focus on the use of famous literature because that’s where some primary schools could better exploit potential for knowledge building and mastery learning: a more in-depth vision for English can be the result. The scope for what can be learnt about language, style and form is huge.

Let’s consider the use of more literature as a knowledge trail – an exciting set of links which lead teacher and pupil to more possibilities. Here are a few lines I started with from James Reeves’ ‘A Garden at Night’:

          Over the bed where the poppy sleeps
          The furtive fragrance of lavender creeps.
          Here lived an old lady in days long gone,
          And the ghost of that lady lingers on.

For easier access, exploring just a sliver of text can stimulate so many questions:

How can a poppy ‘sleep’?
What is a ‘furtive’ fragrance?
Is this a beautiful garden or a sinister one?

Even with four lines, the trail extends, winds and fascinates. Pupils can invent their own questions but teachers should be sure to have specific teaching points designed to deepen learning. Pupils can learn about the way Reeves uses alliteration, rhyming couplets and some unusual and mysterious imagery to set up the night scene. Why not use an open, ambitious learning objective to challenge pupils from the start?

                              How well can you write an original night scene in a garden?

Then, below this, tag the aspects of poetry and spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPG) you wish to teach en route. The writing becomes the main target, the flow of ideas is maintained and pupils’ SPG is improved in context.

Following brief taster drafts with advice and feedback plus exposure to the full poem, I found the pupils’ own crafting of ‘A Garden at Night’ showed just how much had been learnt from Reeves. Young poets were emerging!

          A Garden at Night
          Here lived an old, old Spirit,
          From days where the world had magic,
          An old woman whose spirit lives on,
          To protect the garden from evil and wrong.
          Moonlight dances across silvery petals,
          While the soft smell of steam drifts from the kettle;
          The house tells of warmth and of kindness in the day,
          But dark corners of the garden speak of death and decay,
          Yet the good spirit protects it for evermore,
          And evil and darkness can’t live here, for …
          Warmth in the petals and the strength of the sun
          Outnumber the darkness two to one.
          Then the sun rises,
          The spirit finds repose,
          And the day begins with the sweet scent of the rose.

          By Rebecca Worley, Year 5

I hope you enjoyed that!

The trail is endless. It’s our trail as well as theirs, and it will lead to much more reading which links with core classroom texts. ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett is an obvious trail to find but try also ‘The Door in the Wall’ by H.G. Wells. Teachers using this text have also branched off into image-making on types of plants or flowers: thorns, roses, weeds, weeping willow. Then there are neglected gardens or cultivated gardens, the appeal to the senses of standing in a garden at night and stopping, listening, hearing.

What about the author trail? What other poems do you know by James Reeves? He is an exceptionally talented poet who wrote brilliantly crafted poems for children from around 1952 to 1975. Look for ‘Prefabulous Animiles’, ‘The Snail’ or ‘The Wandering Moon’. I have included ideas on ‘Hippocrump’ and ‘Slowly’ in Opening Doors to Quality Writing: Ideas for writing inspired by great writers for ages 6 to 9. The work we do for specific, targeted teaching in the precious minutes we have with our pupils can be systematically complemented with whole text reading if we lay down these trails for deeper learning.

I have been working with schools on constructing reading journeys year by year, including poetry trails, which start to include an expectation of link-reading for all pupils. Ask yourself: ‘Which books do I now love which I would never have encountered without a teacher’s recommendation?

‘Reading for Pleasure’ very much encompasses ‘Reading for Challenge’

Take a look at the amazing Churchfields Junior Reading Express underground map concept, which is creating an expectation of quality text trails for all learners in a very creative and inclusive way. Click this link:

This is a school with whom I’ve worked for years, and in which they have developed approaches and ideas in an incremental and evaluative way: an approach which their school community is now reaping the benefits from.

If we can keep opening doors with reading trails and the whole in-depth adventure of literature, we can help our pupils excel and develop more connections in our pupils’ minds with which to comprehend and enjoy reading. Aidan Chambers in ‘Tell Me’ calls them ‘matches’ in the mind.

When faced with a new text, the brain searches through its archive to find anything that ‘matches’ with something in the new text. If no match can be found, we say the text is too difficult for us. The more matches the brain finds, the easier it becomes to read the new text.


Chambers, Aidan (2011). Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk with The Reading Environment. Stroud: The Thimble Press.

Cox, Bob (2016). Opening Doors to Quality Writing: Ideas for writing inspired by great writers for ages 6 to 9. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.

Cox, Bob (2016). Opening Doors to Quality Writing: Ideas for writing inspired by great writers for ages 10 to 13. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.
(Contains the full unit on ‘A Garden at Night’.)

Reeves, James (2009[1952]). ‘A Garden at Night’ in Complete Poems for Children. London: Faber and Faber.

Links to the ‘Opening Doors’ series:

My website and Twitter pages:

The books themselves:

Testimonials to the impact of the books:

Judges’ views:

Pupils' Work:
Opening Doors to Famous Poetry and Prose – link

Opening Doors to Quality Writing (ages 6–9) – link

Opening Doors to Quality Writing (ages 10–13) – link

      Searching for Excellence

Bob Cox  BA,  MA (Ed)

Director  “Searching for Excellence Ltd”

Award Winning Author


Twitter:  @BobCox_SFE

Mobile:  0781 069 4569

Searching for Excellence:  Bob Cox

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