Monday 22 May 2017

The AQA Lit text lottery

I'm not going to tell you which set texts I taught this year (it is actually five different ones across two schools), but it is not going to take a genius to work out what I wish I had taught!

Let's kick off with Shakespeare. The Macbeth question was a gift, Lady Macbeth's 'Glamis thou art...' speech and a focus on 'ambition'. The word is actually in the extract and, if any of the students sitting the exam couldn't quote 'vaulting ambition' to go with it, then they don't deserve to pass! Nice metaphor to analyse right there too. The extract is packed with metaphor, parallel structures and references to the supernatural. No obvious problems for well-drilled students there.

So, after a question about arguably the play's most obvious theme and a central character, you'd expect similar for Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and fate?
Juliet and love?

You'd be wrong.

Samson, Gregory and Abram. But at least it would be an extract chock full of metaphor, references to destiny, the stars, or religious imagery? Well, you could have a stab at exploring 'naked weapon' (pun intended) and then...

Well, there is the repetion / repeation / repitition of 'bite my thumb' and some questions. My worry is that students will assume the turn-taking is Capulet then Montague, one side then the other, which it isn't. The follow up question on male aggression is fair enough, but not quite the gift of 'ambition' in option one.

So, the next question returned to main characters: Prospero and Ariel in The Tempest. The focus was about how loyal Ariel is as a servant. Reasonable question until you look at the extract. Starts off relevant to the question and then it is a description, with loads of great language features, about what Ariel did during the storm. Nothing to do with his loyalty as such.

Option 4 was for The Merchant of Venice, again the focus on a main character. Nice extract, nice question about Portia being a strong female, plenty to write about. Perhaps the fairest question on the paper with plenty to write about in both the extract and the rest of the play.

Much Ado is your next choice. Focus: Beatrice. Theme: her 'attitude to romantic love'. Lots to write about, there, but hang on a minute, there are some pretty obscure references in the extract. Without having that particular extract taught in detail, I doubt students are going to have the general knowledge to know what a 'measure' and a 'cinquepace' are! The references to 'earth', 'dust' and 'marl' take some explaining too.

So, then we get to our final choice for this section, Julius Ceasar. What should we expect? What patterns have been identified in the extracts and questions?

Are you kidding me? 'Friends, Romans, countrymen...'!

So, remind me, it was 'Is this a dagger..?' for Macbeth, 'Gallop apace' for Romeo and Juliet, 'The isle is full of noises' for The Tempest, 'The quality of mercy' for Merchant, and 'Rotten orange' for Much Ado, wasn't it?

Oh, no, it wasn't!

At least the question about a manipulative character is a bit of a challenge, but still.

How is this fair?

It isn't difficult to make it fairer than this. It really shouldn't be a text lottery. If the focus is gender roles, then that applies to all the texts; if it is fate in the tragedies, then it should be love in the comedies; if it is obscure minor characters, then so be it. But for all of the plays.

Clearly, with no tiers now, the questions need to be accessible to every ability as well. Not all of these are by any means.

On first glance, Section B seems a bit closer to an even playing field. None of the extracts were obscure, students should have been able to deal with whichever text they studied. Clear, character based questions, some leading to a related theme in the second bullet point.

Only, on second glance, there is one question that doesn't follow this pattern. The question for 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' was the only evaluative one, i.e. 'Explore how far you agree with this opinion'. Again, not fair.

At least it was on Dr Jekyll, but again, if six of the questions are about the main character, why is the seventh not? Jekyll, Pip, Jane, the monster, Elizabeth and Holmes, but the Cratchit family for 'A Christmas Carol'?

So, you may have come out on top in the text lottery this year, but I urge you to complain to AQA anyway. Your students might be the ones to lose out next time if this continues.

Anyone fancy an Innogen question for Much Ado next year?

Finally, make sure Edna is covered for Friday's 'An Inspector Calls' paper! You have been warned.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

A Tale of Two Ofsteds

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way –

Yes, I am going to horribly abuse Dickens in this post... Sorry!

It has taken a while to collect my thoughts before writing this and, before I go any further, I have to say this is a very personal account of both the positive and crushingly negative effects of Ofsted on teachers. I knew I wanted to start with this quotation, but didn't realise until I read it again in its entirety, just how apt it is.

In 2012, our school got a 'Good', with 97% of lessons observed graded 'Good' or better. Less than a year later, we got visited again. This time we got a 4 in every category.

Now I'm not party to all the relevant information, but this is an account of how it affected me personally.

First time around, the inspection team was very keen to hear everything we were proud of about our school. I remember being invited to speak about my professional development in the Head's office with other colleagues. The lead inspector was eager to hear how we used our Wednesday afternoon CPD, how we had taken on the idea of Dylan William's TLCs to trial new initiatives, and asked for anything else positive that we wanted to say that we thought he should know about. There was a really positive, confident buzz around the place.

Personally, I was observed teaching Y13. It wasn't a 'showy' lesson (although, believe me, I'm capable of those too!). The observation was relaxed, unobtrusive and the lesson was graded Outstanding. The Inspector looked in folders, talked to the students (but not in a way that disrupted the learning) and the feedback was pleasant, positive and useful for my professional development.

As an English Department, we'd been hit hard by the GCSE fiasco, but they understood that wasn't our fault. They asked for our estimated grades and judged us accordingly. They smiled.

They didn't crack a smile once, second time around.

Those of you living in fear of Ofsted, probably should stop reading now.

If you decided to continue, I'll say again, this is a personal account and I don't have all the relevant information. I don't know what triggered the visit only 10 months after the last one, but I believe it was parental complaints. Regardless, they arrived 3 weeks in to term and caught us, as more than one person put it, 'with our pants down'. If you don't know, for a normal Ofsted, they ring you the day before they come in. This lot turned up at 8 am on the first day. A real 'no notice' inspection.

On day one, they complained books were not marked, lessons were boring and came in to classrooms like a plague of locusts. I was teaching Y11 English with a very challenging D/C group. They interrupted the Q&A by talking to students, glanced at books and left. It was very disruptive. Naturally, their instinct took them straight to one of the most difficult students in the year / school. Is that representative? My books were clearly self / peer marked, but was that enough 3 weeks in to the academic year? (I was just about to set them their first summative assessment, but I figured I better teach them how to do it first!) I was modelling how to write an exam answer with suggestions how to improve from the students. Is that boring? Possibly, but would I defend it as good practice? Absolutely!

I have no way of knowing if what they saw contributed to the comments at the end of day one, but you can't help feeling that it must have done. It's like when the whole class is kept back because one person did something naughty. The guilt is infectious.

Day 2 we had more of a chance as there was time to fully plan lessons. Unfortunately, the timetable went against us. It seemed that very few of the strongest teachers were on during the observation times. They also wanted to observe teachers who had been on the ITP course and, as a result, got an unrepresentative slice of lessons to observe.

Then the feedback started. Teacher after teacher came back in floods of tears. Not only was the feedback focused on the negative, but the delivery of it by all accounts was really cutting. This was by far the most destructive element of the visit. Some staff have not recovered 3 months later. Some won't at all. No matter what the quality of a lesson, nobody deliberately sets out to be inadequate. All feedback should therefore be constructive, not destructive, especially from Ofsted. But I guess we all know the impact of formative vs summative judgements.

At that point it turned in to a full inspection. I pretty much knew I was going to be observed as they had to see some 6th Form to do a full report, and I had Y13 the next day. I have already mentioned some of what happened in the lesson in tweets, but this is what happened in all its horrible detail. I can already feel my blood pressure rising...

I knew the lesson plan was outstanding. I'm not stupid (or arrogant), I did a version of a lesson I had originally planned for my AST assessment day. Why wouldn't you?

Unfortunately, the inspector wasn't really interested in my lesson. She did not talk to the students, or look in any of their folders. She came in with a face like thunder.

Part way into the lesson, the students were working independently, so I went over and asked if there were any questions she had about the lesson. BIG mistake. There followed a tirade of questions about KS3 English. Unimpressed about what she had just seen in other classrooms, she questioned me about the curriculum, SOWs, assessments and progress. In the middle of an observation. Now I'm a firm believer in the Hawthorne Effect, but the impact of this observer took it to a whole new level!

But it didn't end there. She made a snidey comment about how clearly Sixth Form teaching was my 'raison d'ĂȘtre' and implied that I didn't care about KS3. Interesting she should jump to that conclusion. I actually love teaching all levels and abilities. I had just rewritten the LTP for KS3 even though I didn't teach it! She wasn't interested in plans for improvement that were in place though. Then she said, 'You're the Head of Department aren't you?!' In a very confrontational manner. It caught her on the back foot for a moment when I told her I wasn't, but only momentarily. Even if I had been, surely it still does not give her the right to an interrogation during a lesson?

She then actually turned her attention to my lesson. It was on Text Transformation, which is English Language and Literature coursework. The main focus was to get the students to understand the sometimes very subtle differences between a transformation of a text and creative writing (or what AQA call 'spring boarding'). She said they should know that already, and then came out with her classic (and soul-destroying): 'There should be nothing new by the time they get to Sixth Form'.

Not only is this utter crap, but the lesson was based on feedback from the examiner's report (and years of experience teaching the course). This distinction is something even the most able students can struggle with.

Then she came out with her clincher, 'Well, you can't get an Outstanding when the teaching we've seen at KS3 is so poor'.

Teaching by other teachers?

I would have thought it was more relevant that it was impossible to get an Outstanding judgement whilst being interrogated, but hey!

So, I was really looking forward to the feedback...

Firstly, it took a large chunk of my lunch to hunt her down. She wasn't where she was supposed to be, clearly not respecting how stressful the process is for teachers. When she did start, she began with that awful question: 'How would you rate it?'

I said, 'Good.'

She replied, 'Yes, very good, but that's not the point'.

She turned it straight to another inquisition about KS3. I fielded all of her questions, but she wasn't listening, and despite repeatedly asking for feedback about my lesson, she wouldn't give any. Finally, I got really annoyed and said, 'Please can I have some developmental feedback about my lesson?'

She opened her clipboard, flicked through a few pages, said, 'Differentiation' and snapped it shut.

I replied, 'Well, you'll have noticed that the questioning was differentiated.'

'But they were all doing the same task.'

'Yes, it was new to all of them. You'll have seen from the lesson plan, though, that the next stage of the lesson was grouped by text and ability.'

'We didn't see that part of the lesson though.'

It later turns out she also had an issue with my data, but in a particularly surprising way. I had raised the level of challenge for several students beyond their ALPs. She said that I shouldn't have had to do that if their progress had been better lower down the school. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Turns out it is irrelevant what progress those actual students made (one exceeded her KS3 target by 5 fine levels; one didn't even come to our school). It is also irrelevant that I have done it every year as I believe challenging expectations are crucial to success. I am normally right. Last year we had two students who got an A* at A2, neither of whom had that as a target and neither of whom under-performed at KS3 or GCSE.

Even a good lesson needs to be ripped to shreds in a bad Ofsted it seems.

I can't underplay the impact of this Ofsted. I have worked at the same school for 14 years, and we have never been rated as anything other than 'Good'. It was the same school as 10 months previously when it got a 'Good'. It felt like a bereavement, and just like a bereavement, you go through the 5 stages:


But let's face it, none of them are useful when it comes to moving forward except acceptance. I'm not going to say that the judgement was right or wrong. We have to live with it either way. The only thing I cannot come to terms with is how a school rated 'Good' in one inspection can go from that to 'Special Measures' in just 10 months. The way schools are graded has not changed that much.

I'll leave that one with you to ponder.

Anyway, there are positives. Despite apparently only caring about A level teaching, it has given me the opportunity and drive to rewrite the LTP, restructure the MTPs and write 60 individual lesson plans for Y7, 8 and 9 in the last month. And, in a cheesy cyclical structure only appreciated by English teachers (and probably not many of them) I will inappropriately quote Dickens again:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done

More of that to follow.

Friday 27 December 2013

13 highlights of 2013 and 14 new resolutions

I have been putting off doing this as I felt that when I looked back at my resolutions from last year, it would make me feel a miserable failure. Actually, I'm pretty chuffed I've actually managed more than one of them! However, we will ignore the first 4/5 ;)

1. Lose the stone

It's Christmas!

2. Spend more time with family

Still a bad person.

3. Blog more

Rubbish! I have really neglected this, but maybe next year?

4. Work more with other teachers

Still need to work on this. I'm naturally an introvert, so it is hard to shake off the belief that I work far more efficiently by myself.

5. Survive GCSE fiasco

My classes did well. I am particularly proud of an SEN student who got his C on his third attempt in June after switching to iGCSE and doing coursework. School did not survive though...

6. Holidays

We had a glorious week in France with private pool. Not nearly as expensive as it sounds and with added bat aerial display every evening!

7. Stop imagining, start doing (and finishing)
See 8

8. Remodel my lounge
After 14 years of staring at artex on the chimney breasts and a hideous brick fireplace that extended the length of 2 rooms, I took a sledge hammer to it. Following further applications of drill, hammer, screwdriver, saw (and, yes, No More Nails), I now have a calm little retreat to come home to with a log burner. We have had a real fire every night since September!

9. Art projects

See 8. That kept me busy enough - my shelving unit is made from wine crates, I finally got my artwork up on the walls, and my boyfriend gave me a make your own muppet kit for Christmas!

10. Get on top of marking

Not sure this is possible, but I have approached marking very differently this year. Instead of taking it for an endless series of walks (to the car, from the car to the house, back to the car, to school, back to the car, back home, repeat) I now see it as fundamental to planning the next lesson, rather than a tiresome chore. It makes a difference. Also, I make sure that my classes spend at least a lesson responding to comments after each main assessment. If you doubt this approach, you clearly managed to miss Austin's Butterfly! Go watch it now!

I haven't yet managed to find a way to stop the cat chewing it though!

11. Avoid doing graded observations

Managed this so far... Clock is ticking though...

12. Do an MA

No longer see the point. It won't improve my teaching, probably the opposite as it will take up so much time.

13. Make more 'Feel good Friday' phone-calls

This is still on the list!

To make up the difference, other things I'm proud of from 2013:

Managing to get a (very) good when Ofsted came in to do a hatchet job on our school.
Apparently it isn't possible to get an outstanding judgment with Y13 when current progress at KS3 is inadequate. I also managed to achieve this whilst being interrogated about KS3 during the observed lesson!

Despite the enormous destructive power of Ofsted's visit, it has given me the opportunity to redesign the KS3 English curriculum. And where do you turn for inspiration? Twitter of course! Not only am I really enthusiastic about the new approach, but I have planned 60 lessons for 7, 8 and 9 in the last couple of weeks. I will blog about this soon, and thank people who currently don't know how inspirational they have been.

I have started working on a whole-school writing project too. More of this to come.

The final highlight of my year is yet again my boyfriend, who miraculously is still with me, despite me putting him through a truly vicious Ofsted and the fallout!

14 resolutions for 2014:

1. Help get school out of the crap.
2. Not to crumble under pressure of time and stick to what I know works.
3. Finish KS3 schemes and create an exciting and innovative curriculum that both students and staff enjoy.
4. Improve writing whole school.
5. Work with other teachers more effectively.
6. Keep healthy and sane (although both of those are debatable at the moment!)
7. Thank people I've never met who inspire me on Twitter (long overdue).
8. Blog more and share ideas.
9. Sort out the garden.
10. Sell all the jewellery I've made before it takes over the house!
11. Clear out the shed - does anyone know anything you can do with video tapes other than landfill?!
12. Do more exercise (shouldn't be hard, just have to do some exercise).
13. Cuddle the cats more.
14. Cuddle the BF more.

Friday 23 August 2013

The results are in - Cambridge iGCSE vs AQA

If you read my previous blog entry on teaching the Cambridge iGCSE, you will know that I refused to pass judgement until the results came in. Well, they're in.

The background:
This year I taught a set of 32 Y11 A*- B target students who took AQA Language and Literature, a set of 16 Y11 C/D borderline students who started AQA in Y10, but changed to iGCSE in Y11, and 2 Y10 sets of 16 students with targets of C/D who did early entry iGCSE this year too.

Yes, I struggled to get my head around that too - thank you timetable gods!
What it did do, however, is put me in a position to look at the 2 exams side by side and draw some fairly interesting conclusions (at least I think they are interesting, feel free to disagree!)

My 'top' set did reasonably well on AQA, but the top grades were fewer than I had predicted. Overall, I am a bit disappointed as I was hopeful they would do much better. A handful got Cs which, in my opinion, does not reflect their ability. Basically, our Language CA was moderated down by 4 marks across the board for every student over a C. I have not read the report, but our marks have never been changed before and it obviously looks a bit suspicious to me. I may be wrong, but it is a less obvious way of manipulating the pass rate than changing exam boundaries. The Literature CA grades were unchanged...

So to iGCSE. Here the results were great. In Y11, bearing in mind these students had failed miserably AQA English and iGCSE Core earlier in the year, they nearly all passed iGCSE Extended. There were even 3 B grades!

In Y10, the results were less spectacular. There were more passes than I had predicted though, but only a handful in each group. Pleasing for me, it was those particularly hardworking students who got it early and the others have hopefully learned a valuable lesson. Honestly, I never felt they were ready to do it, the vast majority are the kind of kids who need to feel the pressure of the clock ticking in Y11 to motivate them. Those who got Cs are probably capable of Bs next year, so I'm not sure they gained much either, apart from maybe a confidence boost.

IGCSE is easier for the majority of students. The students who got Bs are proof of that. They are nowhere near the quality of the Bs from AQA, or even the C grades from my top set either. Students who failed AQA English passed iGCSE comfortably. It is particularly good for students who are sparky but have done nothing for 5 years and feel the fear at the last minute. The reading exam is something you can train them to do like monkeys. The results would also suggest that it is easier to get a C on the Extended paper than on the Core.

Another advantage of iGCSE is for SEN students. One particular student I taught was very hardworking, but all the extra time in the world was not going to help him pass an exam. He was able to do the coursework option, take his time, use IT, redraft. He finally got his C after getting a B on that unit, and it was my favourite result of yesterday.

And, of course, the Speaking and Listening was also very useful for several students in boosting their grade. However, I would also say it probably caused a significant problem for just as many. How we go about teaching this aspect is something we have to look at very carefully next year. They don't get multiple chances to do it, reflect and improve like AQA used to allow, and it shows.

Personally, I am left feeling dissatisfied with the whole thing. Just like last year, I feel there are students who have grades they don't deserve (both higher and lower) down to the exam they took. Our entry requirement for A Level study is a B at GCSE. There are students who have that from iGCSE who have that now, but are in no way prepared for the demands of A level; iGCSE does not encourage independence in any way shape or form. They don't have to read anything longer than 5 paragraphs for a start!

I realise my job is to get students good grades, and improve their life chances, but my reason for teaching is to foster a love of reading, writing, discussion and critical thinking. I want students to leave with skills, not just grades. Teaching the iGCSE exam is DULL. The texts they use are awful - the whole exam is very old-fashioned.

With another 3 groups taking it next year, I am not feeling terribly inspired by it.
Thank God they still have to do Literature... although, of course, they don't have to pass.

Monday 1 July 2013

A special day

It's very easy to forget that our students have personal lives, just as they forget we have one too. Today I'm glad I remembered.

Let's call him Sam. A bright, sparky chap, but one who is lazy and prefers to talk rather than write; will find distractions rather than concentrate. Today he was lost in a daydream that just struck me as a little out of character. I left him alone to wake up for a few minutes (it was Period 1 after all) but then waded in.

'Are you alright, Sam?'

'Yeah, Miss.'

'Well, it's just you haven't done any work yet, what's the problem?'

Expecting the usual don't understand/ don't know what to do excuse, I was quite surprised with the, 'I lost someone, Miss', that I actually got.

So I told him how sorry I was, and then I told him about my stress bucket philosophy: I find it extremely useful to have a school bucket and a home bucket. When crappy things are happening at home, I don't let them add to my school stress bucket. When crappy things are happening at school, I don't let them add to my home stress bucket. If you just have one bucket, it has a habit of over-flowing.

Sam nodded and then said, 'She died of breast cancer'.

I was floored momentarily, but managed to regroup. This is something I can relate to. One of my best friends died at the age of 33 from cancer. It started as breast cancer, but spread to her liver, lungs and brain. She was a (brilliant) Head of Year at the school I still work at.

'Do you see that tree out there?' I asked, pointing out of the window, ' Well that was planted in memory of one of my friends who died of cancer. It was the point at which my home and school buckets were very hard to keep separate, but I managed to keep it together.'

He nodded, so I carried on.

'And one of the things that held me together is that I believe in immortality. I'm not religious, but I do believe that everyone you meet has an effect on you. What they say and do lives on in you; your memories of them in a way make them immortal. If they affect you and you affect someone else, then they kind of go on living.'
He continued to look at me solemnly.

'I guess all you can do is make them proud. It's one of the reasons I'm a teacher. I think that you can pass on all the amazing things other people have taught you.'

He didn't say anything, but he picked up his pen and wrote for the whole of the rest of the lesson. He even wanted to stay on to finish his work at break.

Today was one of my best days ever as a teacher.

Saturday 18 May 2013

iGCSE -decide for yourself

Job done. Breathe.

Yesterday saw the last exam for the Cambridge iGCSE and the completion of a huge shift in focus this year for our English Department.

We really struggled to find help and advice from people who had done the exam before, so I thought this might prove helpful to those considering the move.

Firstly, your most important question answered:

Yes, the Cambridge English (First Language) iGCSE does count in your A*-C figures.

Second question:

Yes, you do have to do Literature as well, but it does not have to be the same board and they don't have to pass. We stuck with AQA for Lit. this year.

The course has slightly confusing options, but goes like this:

Speaking and Listening: Presentation and Discussion
Reading exam: Core (like Foundation) or Extended (like Higher)
Writing exam (same for everyone) OR 3 pieces of coursework.

As I understand it, iGCSE will have Speaking and Listening as a component until 2015 despite the changes to normal GCSE English.


Students have to give a 4 minute presentation on a topic of their choice. This is followed by a discussion which leads on from their presentation for 5-6 minutes.

Most of our kids are confident speakers (opinionated!) and have always done well on S&L. It is also a skill employers really value. Removing it from GCSE (especially mid-course) is stupid and unfair. The assessment is one to one, not in front of a class, which helps those of a nervous disposition.

All the students need to be recorded (which does not help those of a nervous disposition). You need to allow 15 mins per student. Do the maths. If you are entering 200 students, then that is 50 hours. Then you need to allow time for moderation if more than one person does it. Also allow for those who forget to turn up, those who 'forget', those who are sick, and those who are 'sick'. Oh yeah... and breaks for the interviewer! Someone really needs to be off timetable for around 3 weeks to be able to do it. We had one teacher and our trusty Faculty Support doing it over a fortnight. The cover also has to be a consideration, and you will need your whole school behind you as kids will be out of other subjects. Basically, it is not an aspect of the course designed to make life easy for large centres.

It is also extremely stressful for those leading it. For one thing, they will be having discussions about everything important to teenagers from football to divorce, from football to knife crime, and from football to eating disorders. Seriously, some of the discussions were quite upsetting, one even ended in tears.

READING EXAM (with a few marks for writing)

We have entered students for both the Core paper and the Extended.

They tell you the Core paper has 2 questions, based on reading non-fiction style texts, but it is actually a series of lots of short questions worth a couple of marks each (1a, 1b, 1c, etc.). It is a doddle. The skill level required does not go above inference and most of it is retrieval. They have to summarise too, a skill we had not ever taught before, but not exactly a challenging one. It is capped at a C. There is no analysis or comparison required.

Oddly, the Extended paper may be even easier to pass than the Core! There are 3 questions based on 2 texts. For the first one they have to read Text A
and rewrite it from a different perspective. The second asks you about Language in two paragraphs of Text A (but you can just do a PEE chart, not paragraphs) and the last one asks you to summarise part of Text A and Text B. Again, no comparison required. It covers the range A*-E.

If teaching hoop jumping is your thing then this exam is your dream come true.

Our middle ability really struggled to finish the paper in 2 hours, something I found very surprising. Some of the vocabulary in the texts is very challenging, but then they can always choose something else to write about if they don't understand something!
The pass mark on both papers has been very low in previous years. 34 out of 50 would get you an A. My AQA D graders have been getting Bs in mocks. I don't see how that can be maintained with the number of schools shifting over to iGCSE if the pass rate has to be maintained nationally. I fully expect another shift in the grade boundaries this year. There was a 10 mark shift overall in November.

WRITING EXAM (with a few marks for reading)

The same for everyone. Question 1 asks students to read the source material and convert it into something else (very similar to Qu 1 on the Extended paper). Question 2 is one from a choice of 6 - two argumentative / discursive, two descriptive, two narrative.

Students are given the information and ideas for their writing in Qu 1. They do not have to be particularly interesting, creative or have any general knowledge. For Qu 2 there is no specific form or audience given, so they can't make mistakes there.

We got scripts back and clearly this paper is marked negatively. EVERY mistake was circled. Your students need to be VERY accurate writers to do well on this paper. No comma splices, fragments, rogue apostrophes or spelling mistakes!


They have to complete 3 pieces of writing - one informative / persuasive piece, one narrative / descriptive, and one in response to an article they have read.

It's coursework, you know the benefits: they can redraft it (once), they can word process it, and they can check their spelling and grammar. If you do the coursework before the exam entries are done, you can put any students with incomplete or substandard folders in for the exam instead (no, you can't enter them for both).

The standard required for a pass is very high. Much higher than for the exam as they take into consideration that students have access to IT and should proofread their work.

The proof of the pudding...

Well, we won't know if this was the right decision until August. What we found from November was that, compared to AQA (and for our students), the S&L is of a similar standard, the Reading component is a LOT easier, the Writing component is a LOT harder.

A typical AQA C/D grade student got C/D in the S&L, a C on the Core paper, and a D/E on the writing. But we did do it with only a 4 week run up! Hopefully this time they will be better prepared (plus they are doing the Extended paper in the hope that better reading marks will make up for the inaccuracies in their writing).

So, should you go for it?

I'm very much still on the fence. It still has S&L, which is important. I like the focus on accurate writing, despite our students struggling with it. I really don't like the extremely narrow range of reading (and skills) required.

Have you also noticed there is no requirement for analytical essay writing? You may want to consider how that will prepare your students for the demands of A level.

Finally, a lover of Literature, I hate to see it get such a raw deal. Students will only study prose fiction, poetry and drama (including Shakespeare) when they do Literature. Whilst we still have the ridiculous loophole that you don't have to pass it, just be entered, some students will not even be taught the set texts. As long as they write a paragraph for cwk, and turn up to the exams and write their name, it validates their English qualification. If you are under pressure to improve English, then sacrificing Literature is one way to go about it, but that is surely going to leave a nasty taste in most English teachers' mouths.

Monday 31 December 2012

12 Highlights of the old year and 13 aims for the new one

Although I feel like making a list of things I'd rather leave behind in 2012 (a rotten year in many ways), I'm going to join in and do the healthier approach and stick to the good...

1. RSC Courtyard Theatre

My version of 'As You Like It' was chosen to be part of the RSC Open Stages regional Showcase. As it was several months after the original run, not all the original cast were available, so I also got to do 'All the world's a stage' at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford too, filling in for Jaques. With a little stretch of the imagination I can now say I've acted and directed for the RSC!

2. Pride and Prejudice

The first event inspired me to audition for the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham, and I was cast as Charlotte Lucas in 'Pride and Prejudice'. The whole cast was just lovely and it is great to have a hobby completely separate to teaching with energetic and creative people. It also means we have been to the theatre a couple of times a month this year. No longer can I moan about going to the theatre more often!

3. Holidays at half-term

Normally half-term is saved for what I term 'Human MOT' - dentist, hairdresser, eye test, etc. This year we went to Lanzarote in October and lay in the sun. I think it was the only thing that got me through to Christmas. Definitely going for a dose of sun same time next year.

4. I lost my Grandad this year

The low point of the year. However, the stories of his teaching days at the funeral were very special to me. He was a firm believer in being a personality in the classroom and, as far as I am concerned, he was stand-up comedy's biggest loss. Deadpan Lancastrian wit in bucket loads. My favourite anecdote had to be about the briefcase he carried every day with him to school. Outwardly the image of the consummate professional, but actually it contained nothing except 3 perfectly packed pipes, wrapped up and ready for smoking - one at break, one at lunch and one after school.

5. Having a form again

After a couple of years without one, I actually asked for a form again this year. I really missed it and was sick of people saying, 'It's all right for you, you don't have a form' and the like. Working with a form is a privilege. Without one I didn't feel part of the school - you miss out on messages, you get tagged on to challenge days as a spare part and, most importantly, you miss working with kids on a very different level.

My form are already very special to me. They are not an easy bunch as they are Y11 and underachieving G&T students. In one term we've had an overdose, dangerous sexual activity, cyber bullying (and the more upfront, in your face kind), harassment of staff, a stunt involving an aerosol and a Bunsen burner and I could go on... But they have also made me very proud. We have gone from being the self-proclaimed 'reject form' to getting fully involved in baking cakes for CIN, collecting food for the homeless and creating a life sized advent fireplace with acts of kindness to be done on each day. I have also had the privilege of one students showing me photos of his Grandad the day before his funeral. One of the most important conversations I've had this year.

6. Cats

We did the bad thing last year and got cats for Christmas. So much more humour and lots of extra cuddles now.

7. Ofsted

So glad they came at last. I hate the ever-increasing pressure when you know they are due. The general feeling in the staffroom was, 'Bring it on!' But, as an AST, you are under enormous pressure to get an 'Outstanding' judgement. There has been much talk of how the Ofsted criteria has changed. I just did what I know works. In fact, I did a version of a lesson I did last time they came which was judged 'outstanding' and it got the same this time around too.

8. Working outside of the Department

One aspect of my job that has really developed this year is working outside of English. I redesigned the observation lesson plan last year (so that progress is at the core of it) and that meant doing joint planning and CPD with departments and colleagues across the school. Since September, several colleagues I have worked with have moved to Good and that is a a great feeling. Although most of the credit should go to @charlhere for 97% of lessons observed by Ofsted as 'Good' or 'Outstanding', I like to think I contributed in part too.

9. Olympics

No list of 2012 would be complete without a mention of the Olympics. I loved it. A fortnight of drama, tension and screaming at the telly like a nutter!

10. Twitter

So many people doing this have already mentioned Twitter. I like to be original, but can't here. Starting a blog and getting positive feedback, trialling SOLO and Marginal Gains, moral support when Ofsted descended, ending up on the Tweachers map - all little highlights in their own way. It has been said so many times but it really is the best CPD I have ever had. There are so many inspirational people on here who deserve thanks, that I'm not going to list them but you can always look at who I'm following!

11. Good food, good books and good friends.

And finally (well done for sticking with it)...

12. My boyfriend
Who is the highlight of my year.

(Thankfully much shorter) aims for the coming year:

1. Lose the stone

About 4 years ago I lost 2 1/2 stone. Over the last year, I've put about a stone back on (I blame points 11 and 12 above).

2. Spend more time with friends/family

Not waiting until holidays to get around to doing this!

3. Blog

I was doing this once a week, need to get back to at least once a fortnight.

4. Work more with other teachers

This makes me happy. Never stop learning. Via Twitter, or in my school it keeps the job interesting. Would like to meet some of the people I follow in person this year.

5. Survive GCSE fiasco

I'm currently teaching 4 GCSE groups who all do their GCSE English this year. They are not all doing the same GCSE though. Two are doing iGCSE with cwk, one is doing iGCSE with exam and AQA English and the last is doing AQA English Language and Literature!

6. Holidays

I love travel and having a trip to look forward to me keeps me sane.

7. Stop imagining, start doing (and finishing)

8. Remodel my lounge

I'm an English teacher. I have books. My boyfriend is doing an English degree. He has books. We don't have space. The idea is to turn the unused room at the front of the house into a library. Then we'll need a conservatory, billiard room, lead piping and a candlestick (see point 7).

9. Art projects

I need to rediscover my artistic side. The spare room is filled with (unfinished) arts and crafts.

10. Get on top of marking

There must be a way. Before the holiday I was faced with the equivalent of 200 essays that needed marking. I have a tendency to wait until I have a complete set and then mark it in one long sitting. This might be a habit that needs breaking.

11. Avoid doing graded observations

One of the things I think is really important in the AST role is that observations are developmental, rather than judgemental. My favourite compliment this year was from a colleague who requested an observation. She said, 'With you it's not like you're being judged. It's more like advice from a friend'. I've worked hard to establish that feeling and I'm worried that the minute I am made to grade lessons, colleagues will be reluctant to invite me in to their classrooms.

12. Do an MA

I've found one that combines my love of teaching and Shakespeare. Just not sure I can find the time!

13. Make more 'Feel good Friday' phone-calls

Every Friday, pick a student who has particularly impressed you that week and phone home. The responses are priceless (especially from those parents who usually only get bad news from school). It is a brilliant way to start the weekend and I don't do it nearly often enough.