Magpies, Petals and Christmas Cake – A Journey with Y9

This is a bit of an epic post, but so many Twitterati have been interested in my PETAL points and War Poetry resources that I thought it was worth writing here.

As with all good things….this all started with cake!

In September, I was presented with 20 girls in Year 9, whose GCSE predicted grades ranged from G-C. The first pupils I had every taught who might not pass GCSE English. For weeks I sweated blood, trying to come up with all kinds of methods to boost the literacy skills of these girls. I tired every trick I knew. We blogged, we created, we worked in silence, we pair shared, we close exercised, I stood on my head, they did cart wheels….you get the picture. I knew we needed to do lots of modelling and repetition, but nothing really seemed to work. I was exhausted and exasperated. Then… we all took stock and ate some cake!

IMG_6093 (1)

It was Christmas time, and we were working on powerful writing. I had just been to our county’s annual Head’s of English conference where I had met the effervescent and inspirational  Steve Davy (@_MrDavy_) from Wroxham School. He introduced us to an idea taken from @Piecorbett called Magpieing (sp?!?).

The basic premis of being a literary magpie is to raid the reading to inform the writing. I loved this metaphor and decided to use it with my girls. We had been working on trying to use quotation to explain how a writer achieved something, but they weren’t really getting it and struggled to select information from texts… so I had the bright idea to use the Christmas catalogue of my favourite firm (Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate) to magpie language that is used to persuade us to like something. The lesson went like this…


The girls loved it! Suddenly, they were extracting great words and quotes and discussing them around the room. But then I had the watershed moment. One girl, who was looking at the advert for a traditional Christmas cake, put up her hand and said, ‘Miss, what’s marzipan?’ Then I worked it out. Why nothing worked quite as well as I wanted in these lessons with these girls. I was starting every session thinking about what I wanted to achieve with them, what they needed to improve, rather than starting from their level of understanding and curiosity. I had just assumed they’d know what a Christmas cake tasted like. What else had I assumed over the last ten weeks?I quickly hatched a plan.

Next lesson, I went in with a description of the type of Christmas cakes I like to make…mini Christmas Cakes for all the family. I asked the girls to magpie the language that made my cakes sound appealing. Then I asked them what they would do if they had to design their own Christmas cake. Silence. They weren’t sure. Then I pulled out the secret weapon… 20 individual, handmade (by me) Christmas cakes in need of decoration. I provided edible glitter, icing pens, sweets and silver balls and we began our creative mission….BUT… every time they girls added something to their cake, they had to describe what they were doing to their partner and try to use words they had magpied over the course of the week. For example, they didn’t just ‘put’ glitter on the cake, they ‘lightly dusted the cake with glitter.’ It went down a storm and the next lesson, when we wrote our own websites to advertise our cakes (I took photos of them all before they ate them) the girls wrote some of the best writing they’d managed all term.

Magpie Bakery Template MagpieShindig

From then on, a Y9 pedagogy was born. Magpie, PETAL, repeat and revise. With this in mind I am currently re-writing our Poetry of the First World War scheme of work for these girls. It follows simple ideas.

1. In every lesson, I try to gauge what they already know before we do anything and give them an opportunity to use that knowledge as we go through.

2. Every lesson has a worksheet with key instructions written so that they can remind themselves or follow what I say. The symbols on the worksheet are always the same and indicate whether we will discuss or write during that activity.

3. Learning new ideas (in this case literary terms) will take place over the whole half term. They will learn using examples, they will mix and match, they will fill in the blanks, then they will recall unprompted, then they will learn to spell them.

4. When writing analytically we will always magpie first, then use PETAL to structure our responses.

5. The sow would have to have some focus on their own writing and accuracy. We would continue to use KUNG FU punctuation ( and whenever we read something our loud I would draw attention to key rules and ask questions to revise key concepts.

So what is PETAL? plant-flower-02-buttercup-petal

PETAL stands for Point, Evidence, Techniuqe, Analysis, Link. In other words, it’s an extended version of PEE or PEA. I don’t like the former because it encourages explanation rather than analysis. PETAL tries to get the weaker ones to be more specific in their analysis by adding in the technique the writer has used and then making a specific link to the next idea or back to the question.

Now don’t get me wrong, I agree with the last ‘Moving English Forward’ document, these acronyms can be stifling and spoon feedy. But there is a place for scaffolding when used well. Using PETAL my Y9 girls have managed to write their first GCSE style essay this week, focussing on ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke and ‘Lamentations’ by Siegfried Sassoon. This was after a lesson when we made PETAL plans.

Basically, I cut up a load of petal shapes and each one had either a point, a quote, a technique or some analysis on. The girls had to match them up and assemble whole flowers. They then had to work in groups and decide the best order to position those flowers on a stalk. Then, using work we’d done on comparative connectives, girls had to write the link to the next point or back to the question on the stalk.

petal planning

The results were good. Using what they’d learned, girls then filled in their own petals on a worksheet to assemble all the constituent parts of their essay. It took a week’s worth of lessons to slowly work our way through and  they have struggled to maintain detailed analysis all they way through their essays, but they have written more than they have ever written before and with more sophistication. In retrospect, I would have kept the table format of PETAL for them to fill in on the worksheets, because the flowers confused them and I might have focussed on one poem rather than made them compare. This way, we might have had even better results; but I wanted to be ambitious and the next essay, which just focusses on ‘Flanders’ Fields’ is going seem dead easy to them! Better than that though, when I now say ‘we’re going to magpie…’ a little smattering of ‘yessss’ goes round the room and yesterday, one girl was heard to say ‘this PETAL thing is really helping. I could use this in exams’ and another, when writing out the definitions of technical terms for the billionth time, but this time with no help said ‘I really like the way we do this differently every time…it means I’m getting it.’ Happy days.

Below are all the worksheets I have used with the girls so far. We are building up to thinking about the legacy of the First World War and whether or not we learned lessons from WW1. They will then work on some persuasive writing ahead of our whole school debating competition ,when my group will put forward the motion that the white peace poppy should be sold alongside the traditional red poppy in UK schools. I’ll try and post the rest of the resources as I go. I hope they’re useful to someone and if not, writing this has been really useful for me to remind myself just how far these guys have come and just how good it is to keep re-assessing my own practice.


War Poetry Overview

Intro lesson

War Poetry Pictures for L1

Cover Work or Lesson 2

Lesson 3

Lesson 4 – Sassoon

Lesson 4 – PETAL Points

Essay Feedback Lesson 5


McCrae 2

Article on War Post Lesson 7

Penny Post Lessons

Penny Post Lesson

Letter Writing Assessment Planning


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s