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.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Marginal Marking Gains

This is a follow up to a previous blog on Marginal Gains, so if you haven't read that one, you can find it here.
After looking at the marking criteria for the King Lear essay, and adding a few other things I find useful like SOLO and 'golden quotations', we created this:

The natural successor to this lesson was inspired by my love of felt-tips. Banking on all of Y13 actually doing their homework for the first time in over a year, it was a bit of a gamble, but one that miraculously paid off. However, my shock at every one of them completing their assignment was short lived. Predictably, despite their initial enthusiasm and contributions to the idea of marginal gains in the first place, when I asked if anyone had actually used the wheel to plan/check/improve their essay, the answer was a resounding...

So, the task was to peer assess using the wheels. Sometimes peer assessment can lack focus, here it really did not. Not only did they enjoy this (few students can resist the lure of multicoloured ink) but the responses were really perceptive. The idea is dead simple: using the colours of the wheel for your feedback, highlight strengths and write marginal gains targets on a partner's work.

After swapping essays a couple of times, students then had to act on the feedback in green pen. This is a whole-school policy designed to show students responding to feedback and showing progress. It too is a really simple tweak and works very well at every level, creating a clear learning dialogue between students and teacher (or student and student in this case).

Of course, one of the advantages of well directed peer assessment is that as a teacher you don't have to mark it yourself, and yet the students are still making progress. In this case, it was very clear to students where their strengths lay and where improvements were needed.

So much marking is very time consuming and then not acted upon. Frequently you find yourself writing the same thing on essay after essay (year after year). Well, another slight adjustment you can make to ensure students are acting on your feedback is not marking the actual essays themselves. If you jot down the comments, questions and targets on a separate piece of paper then you don't have to repeat anything. When you have finished marking, you give the essays back along with the feedback and the students have to work out which bits of feedback belong to each essay.

Gains all round. Teacher does less work, students do more. Students engage with the feedback and also get far more feedback than you would write on one essay because they are reading everyone's feedback, not just their own.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Batman and Robin CPD

Last year, I was given responsibility for CPD in English. Now we are lucky, every Wednesday afternoon, the students go home early and we have CPD from 2pm. This means there is an opportunity to use lots of different approaches to staff development. By far my favourite from last year was what we called 'Batman and Robin'.

My biggest problem with CPD is that, usually, you spend your time being lectured to and staring at a PowerPoint you are quite capable of going away and reading yourself. The irony smacks you over the head. Someone comes to speak to you about engaging students and they use a PowerPoint. Someone talks to you about group work and you are sat in rows. Someone talks to you about the value of talk in the classroom... they talk AT you.

The second problem I have is the 'one size fits all' approach. Having the enthusiastic NQT Maths teacher sat with the 30 year seen-it-all-before from the History department doesn't really seem to make the best sense to me most of the time.
We know that students learn best when they understand the point in an activity, they have some control over what they are doing and they can become masters of their own progress. Teachers are no different. This is where 'Batman and Robin' comes in.

The idea is that everyone in the department becomes a 'Batman'. Their strengths in a particular area are highlighted and then someone else, who would like to develop that area, volunteers to be the 'Robin'. They work together for about a four week period investigating, peer observing, researching, etc. At the end, they have a CPD slot of about 30 mins to teach the rest of the department. The areas chosen were things like: starts of lessons, using IT, showing progress, using AfL, teacher talk, differentiation and questioning.

This works extremely well. People feel good about being recognised for their talents. Here, everyone is. This in turn means you are more likely to volunteer to be a Robin to learn from someone else. Because you can choose the area, it tends to be one you think is important to for you to develop and, therefore, something you are motivated towards doing. In this case, nearly everyone volunteered to be a Robin in an area that directly related to targets from their PM observations. Finally, because there is the responsibility of feeding back to the rest of the department, the need to produce something of quality is also a driving force.

My favourite thing about it was that, rather than being talked at, nearly all the feedback sessions were based around modelling techniques and strategies you could take away and use the next day in the classroom. Because you get a chance to see them in action, you are much more likely to go away and use them. My measure of really good CPD.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Motivating underachieving boys

Tackling underachieving boys head on for the last 14 weeks of their time in Year 11 was not a prospect that filled me with joy, in fact I actually had nightmares about it. However, not one to back down from a challenge, I decided to have a serious think about how I was going to approach this group. Clearly, things were not working for them as it was, and more of the same was going to have no effect whatsoever.

The group was carefully selected. It had to be students who we thought had the chance to pass based on coursework and what we knew of their ability, but were underachieving by a grade or more from their mock exam or had failed early entry in November. I ended up with 16 boys: mostly disaffected, three on the verge of permanent exclusion and, all bar Ashley, a foot bigger than me.

The first thing I did was to let them know they were the most important group in the school, that they were my priority and that their achievement made a difference (they took some convincing). Self-esteem was rock bottom, so I then organised the group into 4 teams. Points would be awarded at the end of every lesson for things like homework, attending revision sessions, impressive answers to questions, and most crucially, work of a C grade standard and above. The winning team received a prize each week and the best student got a positive Friday phone call home and their name in a big star at the front of the room.

I was a bit nervous about this approach at first, but after Week 1, when Dwayne won, a group huddled around the board.
‘We don’t like that miss.’
‘Dwayne's name in a big star.’
‘What you going to do about it then?’

The answer was obvious and over whole 14 week period, 10 of the 16 won student of the week without (very much) fixing.

The other crucial thing was to introduce a zero tolerance approach. I work in a pretty average comprehensive, so behaviour can be challenging, but students are rarely aggressive towards staff. We have a 'Discipline for Learning' system which works on a series of warnings and consequences. I sold it along the lines of: ‘I’m not wasting time giving out warnings; if you are using up my energy to tell you off, instead of letting me teach then you’ll be out of the door.’ A few lessons in, Joe decided to push the boundaries, attention seeking and answering back -out he went immediately. The look of shock on his face was a picture, but the effect on the others was astonishing. They knew I was serious, and throughout the whole 14 weeks, I only gave 3 warnings total. This was one of the most astonishing things about the lessons, before the group was put together, I would have expected only 3 warnings per lesson to have been an achievement!

Perhaps part of this might have been down to a shift in attitude I had to make too. Approximately half the group were from a black African, or black Afro-Caribbean background. Before I started teaching the group, I did some research on teaching strategies specifically aimed at boys, and black boys in particular. Lots of the advice I found was basically what I consider to be good teaching anyway: a range of activities, competition (with themselves as much as each other), some visual and kinaesthetic approaches, clear time limits, clear success criteria and clear sanctions and rewards.

However, one thing I read really stuck with me from Dr Jawanza Kunjufu. Apparently, one of the reasons for black students frequently getting into trouble for low-level disruption comes from the way families communicate at home. It is not infrequent for families from Afro-Caribbean families in particular to speak at the same time in conversation. This means they develop the skill to process and understand many voices at the same time.

This really struck home. I have a teacher-habit of asking students to repeat what has just been said if I think someone isn't listening. Just the other day, Dwayne had managed to repeat it back word for word, despite having another conversation at the same time. My middle-class, white expectations were that if you are listening, you can't talk at the same time. In my world it was good manners too. The classroom can't function if everyone shouts out and talks at once, so not seeing that kind of behaviour as deliberate disruption, bad manners, or defiance is quite difficult. But the minute I was able to understand my values are not necessarily shared, I was able to react to and handle this behaviour much more successfully.

The impact of my change of mindset, competition and rewards they really valued improved behaviour no end, but my concern was still that I had to get as many of these boys to pass as possible. I went back to the exam and basically took the questions apart. Lessons involved short bursts of activity following a very similar format:
• Focus on one question type.
• What does it mean?
• How do you answer it?
• Write a model answer together.
• Identify the key words to use in an answer linked to a C/B grade.
• Same question type, different text, timed answer in silence.

They responded brilliantly to this focused routine and the marks began to climb. Every week, after we had done a section of the exam, I showed them how their improvement was affecting their overall grade and where they still needed to focus using a traffic light system on a spreadsheet.

The other aspect of lessons which they really enjoyed was taking over control of the display. I gave them the entire back wall of the room to turn onto a learning display.
They had to co-operate as a class and in their groups. Nothing could go on the wall until the value of it had been explained and the group agreed it was worthy of display. They decided that the focus had to be the language, vocabulary and structure of answers and then set about finding their own examples. One group even decided to write their own D and C grade answers from scratch and then annotate them showing the differences.

Far from being the group I had nightmares about, they became the group I really looked forward to teaching.

The proof of the pudding, however, is in the eating. What you really want to know is whether it had any impact on results. Well, it would be lovely to have a fairytale ending where they all got C grades, and I had a film made about me, but there is only so much you can do in 14 weeks. I am really proud of the fact that my bunch of underachievers all improved significantly from their November exams, all got a D grade or above, 7 got their C grade (another 2 missing it by less than 5 marks), 7 achieved their UQ and 1 exceeded it by a level.

Perhaps the closest I've come to an 'O Captain! My Captain!' moment was when several came back to see me to say thank you :)

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Marginal Gains

INSANITY DEFINED: Doing the Same Old Things & Expecting Different Results

Totally inspired by @fullonlearning on Monday night, I decided to ditch introducing King Lear to Y13 on Tuesday and do a lesson on bicycles instead. Well... not literally.

If you haven't read her posts about 'marginal gains', you should probably stop reading this and read those first. They are much better.

I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to do, but turned up armed with outlines of wheels and two online articles to hopefully inspire the students to think about how to apply the idea of marginal gains and improve their grades. The first was one of many on the success of the British cycling team at the Olympics: the second on marginal gains in everyday life: . I gave them to the students to read and then asked them to apply this idea to themselves. It was an ideal time for the group to be thinking about this approach. They had got respectable results at AS, but on the whole are not producing the work I know they are capable of due to an inability to do homework and meet deadlines!

Working with the idea that 'if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got', I gave them an example of how I had used marginal gains myself. Thoroughly jealous of a friend of mine who always has an impeccably tidy house, I asked her how she found the time to keep everything so neat. She told me her secret: advert breaks. Whenever the advert breaks come on the telly, do a job. Put something away, clean the shower, bleach the loo -it all adds up. She was right. Our house soon turned into a veritable palace... for about 3 weeks until we reverted to our old, advert-watching ways again...

Anyway, the students each came up with ways to improve their approach to their studies. They were far better than anything I could have prepared to tell them, as each was tailored to their own personality, interests and needs.

Danni's suggestion: Write your essay on Day 1. Day 2 look at structure. Day 3 look at spelling. Day 4 punctuation. Day 5 vocabulary, etc. She felt it would be easier to make marginal gains breaking down the focus for redrafting.

Jordan's suggestion: Cut X-box habit of 1 hour 30 mins a day (I suspect it is much more) by 10 mins to release 70 mins extra a week to spend reading.

Brandon's suggestion: Walk to the station instead of getting the bus. He felt this would help him get some exercise to improve sleep and concentration, and also enable him to listen to King Lear on his headphones at the same time.

Lisa's suggestion: Download a newspaper app to her phone to expand her general knowledge.

I added arriving at lessons on time...

They were also really interested in other things the articles mentioned: eating sensibly, sleeping properly, and having the right equipment. They admitted these things weren't easy to do, but understood that the point of a marginal gain was that it didn't have to be something huge. A small decrease in the negative things that they did, which created barriers to achievement, could be mirrored by small increases in the positive things. Like drinking less alcohol and more water! They even pulled out from the article the idea of washing your hands properly so you get ill less often. As Libby said, "Every day you miss off school, is 6 hours of learning".

Perhaps the most interesting thing they started thinking about was what we termed 'dead time'. Where could you find 10, 20, or 30 mins where you could do something productive and not miss out on other things. They had all sorts of ideas from reading in the bath to recording lessons and listening back to them on the bus. Most couldn't really account for the period after they got home and before tea, and so left determined to use it more productively.

Once they had some suggestions, we collected the ideas in pairs on the wheels. One for general study skills:

And one for English specific gains:

This second one was less successful than I'd hoped, so we went back to the exam we are preparing for (bearing in mind we haven't started the play yet!). I got out copies of the question and mark scheme and together we produced a wheel that showed all the different areas marginal gains could be made as they prepare for the exam:

So, that's as far as we've got. I'm thinking about adding something which shows progression up each spoke so students can track their progress when they get essay feedback, maybe A-E grade skills. That way we have a starting point for looking at each aspect and how to improve.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

GCSE English - what went wrong?

I have worked harder this year with my English GCSE groups than ever before, so it hurts that the results are not what I'd hoped for. As a department we did numerous interventions, changed groups, put on extra classes, pulled students from other subjects and generally made ourselves unpopular!

It didn't work.

Now, it could be that we got it wrong, the quality of teaching is to blame, but if that is the case, it seems a bit odd. Our department staffing hasn't changed; it has 2 ASTs, the kids are roughly the same ability as previous cohorts. That doesn't explain the sudden downturn to my satisfaction.

So what IS new?

Well, the course changed. That means several interesting factors beyond our control come into play:

The above link explains how, when changing from one type of GCSE to another, in the first year, they set out to achieve 'comparable outcomes'. This suggests that there is a quota for this year's exams based on last year's results.

No problem, you would think. We should have got the same results as last year then. Seems fair.

Not at all.

And for the main reason: January entry.

You will have noticed the huge differences in the C grade boundary between January and June. On Unit 1 it is 10 marks different, and on Unit 2 and 3, 3 marks each (16 marks in total). So, basically, it was a LOT easier to get a C in January.

And, looking at the papers we got back from January, I was amazed that some of our students had been awarded a C after producing work well below the standard I would expect from previous years. Some of those students re-sat in June, got higher marks on the paper, but lower grades overall. How do you explain that one to angry parents and upset kids? Did AQA Pass too many students in January? Were the boundaries far too low? If they did, and they had a quota to work to, then it would explain why it was so much harder to pass in the summer.

Of course, what makes this whole thing ridiculous is that students who are more able than others have lower grades because they were entered in June and not January! It makes a mockery of the whole thing. A system supposed to be fair is exactly the opposite.

This is speculation of course, but if the schools who have dropped 10% or so waited until the end to enter their kids it would make sense. We did some and some. There are students with D grades who got better marks than some who got Cs. How can that be allowed to happen?

Schools are hardly going to request a re-mark to move their students down, exam boards are not going to remove Cs from January in order for students to receive the grades they actually deserve for the standard of work, so I guess we are stuck with what we've got.

Of course, the other significant problem teachers have faced with the new course is not knowing where the boundaries were for CA. AQA support meetings told us more than once that a C would be 'somewhere in Band 3'. Most people thought that meant a folder of 8s and 9s would be good enough. In January it was. Not even close in June! To scrape a C in Unit 2 you needed 9, 9, 10. That is not really 'somewhere in Band 3', is it?

When the results were published in January, we felt a bit more secure. Now we knew where the goal posts were. Or so we thought. I wanted to play it safe and aimed a little higher before thinking my students were ok to stop sitting new CAs. Unfortunately, I was way too conservative in my predictions of how far the boundaries would change. We now have the awful situation of having students who thought they were on a C based on January grades ending up with Ds. Fortunately, I'm not stupid enough to make any promises about final grades, but it still stings when you know the individual students behind the headline statistics.

So, why did the boundaries change so much?

Everyone else was working just as hard as we were -interventions, extra classes, changing groups! Teachers moved the boundaries higher by 'playing it safe'. If there is a quota of C+ grades, rather than a quality standard, then ironically, we should all agree to work less and the results would stay the same. However, if you 'know' 25 is the minimum for a C in Unit 2, then you aren't going to stop pushing kids until they have 26, or 27. Just to be sure... you know. If everyone does that, the boundary has to move.

This could explain the Speaking and Listening increase in particular- how easy is it to shift those CA marks up one or two? Our Speaking and Listening marks are below other schools. If you met our kids, you'd know how ridiculous that is. We clearly did not over-reward our students!

So, does any of this stop me thinking there was something else I could have done? Does it stop me feeling gutted for those kids we thought were safe who missed their C by 1 or 2 marks?

No, of course it doesn't. I'm a teacher.

It also won't stop me from pushing those boundaries higher next year by doing everything I can to help my new Y11s. God help them!

Monday, 2 July 2012

SOLO and Teenage Voice

So the proof of the pudding...
A national project – C21st UK - wishes to collect from young people writing which reflects life in the UK in the C21st. Your writing should focus on aspects of young people’s lives which you feel are important. You can choose the form of the writing e.g. journalism or narrative.

Not satisfied with the pressure of having to prove my new lesson plan works, I decided to have my PM observation on a Friday afternoon and also have my first observation using SOLO taxonomy... oh yeah... and it was videoed.
So, here is the plan (names of students have been changed):

The resources were:
Extracts from the books above (it is actually possible to find bits that are not too graphic!)
SPLIT the text worksheets (Structure, Patterns, Language, Imagery, Themes)
A student response
Venn diagram comparison thinking tool (each circle represents a text)
A1 sugar paper and felt-tip pens
SOLO display and post-it notes
Students showed their progression at the start, middle and end of the lesson by moving their post-it. I questioned target students (identified on the plan) about their choices and also students who felt they did not want to move. By the end of the lesson, it looked like this:

At the start no one had put themselves beyond multi-structural. An student absent from the previous lesson was able to show progression from pre-structural to extended abstract thinking!
And here is the feedback:

Planning for Progress

If I had my way, the perfect planning template would be a blank piece of paper. That way, people could just put down what they found helpful in a way that meant something to them. And if they didn't need to, then they didn't have to. In that world, all the teachers would be amazing and not need a scaffold, or prompts to remind them of someone else's agenda!
The biggest problem is that, in order to include everything we know makes a good lesson, you have to write a book. It simply isn't possible to show everything you can do with a group, so signposting to the observer where you want them to look is essential.
Added to that you have the problem of different subjects, agendas, educational theories and trends, skills, objectives, outcomes, assessment, feedback, taxonomies and so on. Also, people like to plan in the way that suits them, nine times out of ten focusing too much on the 'what', rather than the 'why'.
At school, we had a perfectly serviceable plan based on the Accelerated Learning cycle. This saw us through two Ofsted inspections, but as the goalposts have recently shifted, it needed looking at again. It also suggested that there was only one cycle in every lesson, when we know that one lesson could have several cycles, or one cycle take several lessons to complete, depending upon what you are doing.
So, after feedback from lots of departments and researching how it works in other schools, is is the result:

The key thinking is that starting with the question: What progress do I want students to make? And then planning the activity, AfL and differentiation alongside it, helps you to plan a really good lesson AND demonstrate clearly to an observer WHY you are doing what you are doing. Homework gets the same treatment to ensure it isn't tagged on as an after thought.
With the lesson plan comes a group plan:

On here you can put target levels, actual levels, which groups students belong to (G&T, SEN, FSM, etc.) and make it clear how you are targeting underachievement. I colour code it red and green. It forces me to work those students into the lesson plan if I've highlighted them for an observer! Once completed, the boxes can be dragged to create a seating / group plan very easily, taking all that student's info. along with them.
And finally, the crucial checklist: the ABC of Lesson Planning:

The Politics of School Car Parking

As I approach my 40s, as a teacher, my thoughts naturally turn to joining SLT, ditching my partner for one ten years younger, and buying an Audi.

It would also be nice to have a reserved parking space for my shiny new Audi at work. Some people already do have one at my school, but I'm not talking about the head or deputies here, I'm talking about those people who reserve their own spaces. In a manner similar to the politics of staffroom seating and the borrowing of coffee mugs, parking in someone else's self-appointed space can cause ridiculous amounts of stress in school. It is all about territory.

The fundamental problem seems to be that most schools weren't designed at a time when every teacher had a car. On top of that, you have early starters and late finishers. From my experience, those who come in late usually stay longer after school, and early risers leave closer to the bell. Well, unless you have ample spaces for everyone, or a turntable in your car park, that simply doesn't work, does it? I'm not a morning person, I live 2 miles from school because I'm not a morning person and I scrape in just before half-past eight, because I'm not a morning person. As a result, I have two choices: park on the mud and risk having to be towed off, or block someone in and face their wrath later in the day.

Imagine if you will, the panic that sets in when it's dark and cold, and you are one of only a couple of cars left on site and you are stuck in the mud. Wheels are spinning and digging you in deeper and deeper. The situation seems hopeless. Images of being airlifted out wrapped in tin foil start to flood your mind when, out of the darkness comes your hero.

"Can I give you a push?"

You suck back the tears of panic/frustration and grab desperately at this hand pulling you away from the precipice. Together you pack the wheels with cardboard from the skip and finally sit back down behind the wheel to give it one last go... and you are free! The only problem being the horrible guilt when you look in the rear view mirror and see your Samaritan covered from head to toe in the fountain of mud sent up from the spinning wheels.

Not something either party needs on top of a full day of teaching.

In fact, just having somewhere to park your car doesn't seem to be asking too much to me. For a start, we only have one space marked in our car park and that is a disabled space (which someone regularly takes as their reserved space on the days the disabled member of staff isn't in). For some reason, people don't take it as a guide for where other cars should park and you get the frustration of people leaving a three-quarter size gap not even the most determined male PE teacher can prove his spatial awareness (and therefore manhood) by squeezing into.

Because yes, there is a difference between men and women when it comes to parking. And it is largely women who use the most annoying 'trump card' of all for parking badly: child care. Apparently, if you have children, you gain the right to park in the same place (note place, not space) every day, block the way out, and block people in by double parking. No thought for other people who might have to leave early, or have meetings elsewhere during the day. Perhaps I should review my comments about turning 40, forget about joining SLT, stick with my trusty Corsa and just get pregnant instead. 'Reserved' parking space here I come.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

From Bloom to SOLO to exam skills

Working in a school where lots of the staff use Bloom's Taxonomy to create learning objectives, the students are very familiar with the language: Know / Understand / Apply / Synthesise / Analyse / Evaluate / Create. However, recently I have introduced my GCSE C/D class to SOLO, and I wanted to get them to think about how this wasn't a complete change from everything they were used to, but simply a different way of thinking about the process of learning.

More importantly, I wanted them to understand how their AQA Foundation English Paper 1 was constructed in a similar way - the skills required building in complexity as you go through the paper: Qu 1a Retrieve, Qu 1b Infer, Qu 2 Retrieve and Infer, Qu 3 Analyse Language, Qu 4 Compare Presentation.

Not wanting to simply tell them how I think this works, I got them to do it for themselves. I gave them the bits of paper, post-it arrows and asked them to create a learning diagram. One group came up with this:

The final step was to think about how those skills can be demonstrated to the examiner. We did this by using PETER paragraphs (Point / Pattern, Evidence, Term, Explain / Explore, Relate to question):

Qu 1a (Unistructural) Retrieve (P x 4)
Qu 1b (Multistructural) Infer (PE)
Qu 2 (Multistructural) Retrieve and Infer (PEE)
Qu 3 (Relational) Language (PETER)
Qu 4 (Relational) Compare Presentation (PETER)

The different skills were reinforced with images which they really liked:


Infer (reading beneath the surface):

Infer and retrieve:

How does the writer use Language:

Compare Presentation:

The impact is hard to judge, as there are lots of other factors involved, but I gave the group a mock reading paper on Friday and 3 of the students improved by 8 marks from their previous attempt. All the others showed significant improvement on the Language and Presentation questions where the most marks are available and students struggle.

One of the key things this reinforces for me is that students, far from being put off by the seemingly complex terminology, really enjoy understanding the theory behind the way they learn. My hope is that they will then start to apply it in other subjects. Simply put, if they can understand the rules of the game properly they will become better players.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Text type mnemonics

So close to the exam and my Y11s are still really struggling to answer the 'How does the writer use language to...' (Question 3 of the AQA Foundation paper). They have real difficulty finding things to write about unless it is a persuasive text. So, I decided if I could come up with a mnemonic that matched the text type it should really help them remember what kind of things they could write about.

So here it (far from perfect) is:

Direct address
Verbs (modal)
Sentence length

Pattern of three
Emotive language
Rhetorical questions
Use of assertion
Direct address

Detail - adjectives and adverbs
Evoke the senses
Sentence length
Brilliant vocabulary (not proud of this one!)

In sections / sequence
Rhetorical questions
Mostly neutral tone

EXPLAIN is, of course, a mixture of DESCRIBE and INFORM (good luck coming up with something for x!

I've just remembered it to write this, so it does work! It should also help them to plan for the writing tasks too. Of course, there are other things you can include, but it it gives them a start, and they can also use it to plan for the writing section.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Writing using board games

This was something I was reminded of after reading a great post on 'Slow Writing' from learning

Simple board game template available from a complicated link:

Students have to begin with writing an opening sentence and then they can roll the dice. The squares repeat so they hit a range of strategies and they have to follow the instruction in their next sentence. If they land on the writing picture, they can write a sentence without a specific technique. If they land on the thinking symbol, they have to stop writing and check through what they have written.

I used this version with my Y9 group L3-4 and it improved their descriptive writing content considerably (the task was based on 'Teacher's Dead' by Benjamin Zephaniah). They loved it, especially the 'Chance' cards which they had to come and collect from me which said things like: 'What is your narrator feeling?' 'Describe 2 senses other than sight', 'Introduce a character and describe their appearance', 'Describe the weather'. They actually deliberately fixed it to land on those squares!

I've even managed to dig out the lesson plan:

It is very easily adapted for different kinds of writing and different abilities. Also great to use (and quieter) are these foam dice which are available from about 40p each online:

You can put techniques, questions, challenges, etc. on the different sides. I've used these right up to A level with different readings on each side: Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytical, etc or use the bullet points or assessment objectives from exam questions and get students to analyses texts according to what they throw.

Even better, get students to come up with their own games to challenge eachother!

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Homework - finally getting it right?

I had the oddest experience at Parents' evening. A mother sat down and said, "You know that Macbeth homework you set? Becky loved doing it." I turned to Becky and asked, "Really?" and she nodded in mortified agreement.

I've struggled with homework for years. I don't like chasing it. I really don't like marking it. A lot of the time it has very little purpose other than parents expect it and complain if it isn't set. And yet, one of the most important things I believe we should do is create independent learners. So I had a proper think about how to do something a bit more meaningful and, dare I say it, enjoyable.

Working on the principles that most students are competitive, like to learn in different ways, and homework should be both relevant and fun, I came up with the Macbeth homework challenge.

Basically, every student has a target of 60 points to reach over the half-term. They can choose to do this lots of different ways, as each task has a different value attached to it. It is designed so that you can't just do 10 point tasks and there is a minimum of 2 to do to complete the challenge. It also covers lots of different VAK ways of learning. They then break it down and set themselves homework tasks in their planners for the coming weeks. The crucial bit is that just because they complete a task, it doesn't mean they automatically get full marks for it. It has to be quality work, showing analysis and creativity and we discussed what that meant for each task. They could also negotiate a task of their own and a points value with me.

The results were astonishing after just 3 weeks:

In a class of 32, only 2 students didn't run with it. Bearing in mind that at this point they should have had 30 points, you can see 27 had met the target, of whom 19 had exceeded it. And yes, you do see 6 students who had met the final target of 60 after only 3 weeks (one almost doubling it with 110 points). Additional voluntary homework is a new one on me! I shared this information with them and three weeks later, every one of them had completed the challenge, more than half doing more than the minimum 60 points. Interestingly, nearly all the tasks had been chosen by someone, which pleased me enormously. It was also a pleasure to mark because they had put so much effort into it.

Most importantly, the work they produced was amazing, and I believe it impacted on their CA marks too. Macbeth was their first CA in Y10 and every student bar one (there is always one) was within a grade of their FFT target for the end of Y11. 16 of them met or exceeded it with their first attempt, which I'm more than happy with!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Using Show Me app and Twitter to feed back to students

If you've not come across the 'Show Me' app before, it basically allows you to photograph something and annotate it, at the same time recording an audio commentary on your iPad. Then it can be accessed by others via the internet.

It's free (obviously not if you have to buy an iPad first!).
You can photograph specific bits of texts to highlight learning objectives.
The stylus helps you identify specific details clearly.
It is a fun way to mark (very important after 13 years in education!).
You can 'flip' the learning so students view their feedback outside of lesson time and come ready to discuss it.
They can rewind / replay it as many times as they like/ need to.
You've got it for next year.
You can share it with other classes.
Students can use it themselves to feed back to each other.
It has other uses including image analysis, annotating texts, modelling and drafting.
Its novelty value creates interest.
Potentially useful for cover lessons.

The photos aren't always clear and the iPad camera doesn't have a flash.
Even the best stylus looks like crayon on screen.
It's really hard to talk and write at the same time!
Students can't immediately ask questions if they need to.
You can't edit it very easily, so you need to get it right first time.

Despite the stumbling in places, I thought I'd risk sharing this in the hope that it proves useful to someone. It is essay feedback on Y12 Language and Literature Unit 1 'Food Glorious Food'.

Please don't crucify me for my first attempt!

I posted a link to this for students on Twitter (a separate account just for revising this unit). Homework was to watch it and comment on it next lesson. I also posted links to pages on writers in the anthology, the Examiner's Report from last year and a link to revision websites. The students have also started to suggest links themselves. Hopefully their contributions will grow. Early days, but it has already engaged some of my more reluctant learners! So it looks promising.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Why Controlled Assessment is stupid

No this isn't about questioning the integrity of teachers. It isn't about 'teaching to the test'. Nor is it about the good ol' days of coursework. Controlled Assessments are ridiculous because they don't prepare students for the real world.

You could apply most of my arguments to exams, and I would agree, but a good exam really tests the skills a student has absorbed. A percentage of controlled assessment, showing what a student can do without help is valuable, but when in the real world do you not have access to help?

The internet, other people, and (God help us) books, are nearly always readily available (unless we are testing survival skills in a remote desert environment). Why then do Controlled Assessments ignore this? I even object to the archaic use of pen on paper (controversial bit no.1). Which jobs don't expect research, presentations or other assignments to be in electronic form nowadays?

In 2012, we are still testing students in silence, with a pen and paper, in a hall with a hundred other students. How does this relate to the world our children inhabit nowadays? How does it prepare them successfully for the future and all its innovations? The only thing it tests better than other methods of assessment is memory, and do I even need one of those if I have a smartphone or access to the internet?

I would also guess that in fewer than 10 years speech recognition software will be so good that even typing something like this will be obsolete. I now speak into my phone when I want to send a text message, yet the option for oral reading assessment has gone from GCSE English. Surely a backward move? It reminds me of my own time as a student when 'Computer Studies' was for those in the bottom stream. How short-sighted was that?

Plagiarism is, of course, held up as a reason why things should be 'controlled'. In the real world the option is there to plagiarise (controversial bit no.2), why not give students that option too? And when caught, face the consequences. The suggestion that it wasn't controlled before is a little insulting too. I have caught many cases of plagiarism with coursework. They are dead easy to spot. I even have a (dreaded) PowerPoint that I used to show my students at the start of the course, identifying 13 ways of spotting it and challenging them to take me on if they thought it was worth it! It always made me smile when I read that plagiarism was 'on the increase'. Well how would you know that if it wasn't getting caught?! I'm of the mind to say that if you get past your teacher, moderation and the exam board sample, then good on you for your skill with language and original use of source material. And anyway, CAs don't stop plagiarism for anyone with a half-decent memory.

And then there is this rule that you can't re-draft a Controlled Assignment after receiving advice from your teacher. Why do we want to encourage students to do everything once and hope that it is the best they are capable of? How does that encourage students to stick at something, re-work, develop, work collaboratively and innovate? Is that really the mindset we want to develop in our future workforce?

Well, the first deadline is here now, and I've also done the sums. Most of my Y11s have done: 7 reading CAs, 5 writing CAs, upwards of 10 Speaking and Listening CAs, the Unit 1 exam (and some of them have to do that again), that's over 20 formal assessments in less than 2 years and that makes me feel awful. And that's just English. No wonder we are experiencing 'exam fatigue' in our students - I've bloody got it! The room for enjoying the subject, encouraging a love of reading novels, plays and poetry, expressing creativity through writing is no longer there. If it is, it's timed.

So is there another way?

For my subject, the only way around it I can see at the moment is to enter all students for English GCSE, regardless of ability, and then offer Literature as an iGCSE option. What this would allow schools to do is to spend more time on the core English skills and the qualification that school league tables, employers, colleges and universities are interested in. Then an iGCSE, with coursework, allows you to develop the skills that students will need at A level and beyond - redrafting, research, independence, etc. It does seem strange that most schools still tie the 2 GCSEs together with teachers and timetable (Literature isn't an EBacc subject after all, and English is arguably the most important qualification students take).

This approach also means that you aren't forcing huge amounts of content down the throats of reluctant readers, kids more interested in Maths and Science, or those who are made to do the subject just because they got a Level 4 or 5 in English at KS2. English and Maths are compulsory, but Literature doesn't need to be. I say that about about a subject I love too!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

In defence of the worksheet

Every single one of my Y9 lessons starts with a literacy worksheet. I make no apologies. I don't do it out of laziness, and can justify this decision for the following reasons:

The behaviour of the group is very challenging.
The routine really helps them to settle. I don't need to give lots of instructions at the start of lessons and that leaves time to sort out all the other issues they might bring to the lesson - and there are plenty of those!

The group has very low self-esteem.
The worksheets are designed so that the students can start the lesson being successful. That doesn't mean they get all the answers right, but it is deliberately pitched so they get high scores. It is also competitive. We have a league where the first three to finish, and make their own corrections, score points. They eagerly discuss the chart on the wall on the way in, out of (and quite often part way through) a lesson.

The end of KS3 targets for my group range from Level 2b to Level 3a.
This means the options for doing extended pieces of writing are somewhat limited. Their basic literacy skills have to be a focus and worksheets are very helpful. Breaking down tasks into simple, manageable chunks has seen the amount they are writing improve considerably and, more importantly, the quality. One thing to focus on at a time really helps. We then try to link the worksheet into the main part of the lesson as our key literacy objective, regardless of what that might be.

I have one hearing impaired student (and several others who can't listen to instructions!).
Having a series of tasks, questions and activities planned and written down means individuals can work at their own pace. Whole class teaching is extremely difficult with this group. It also ensures that instructions and questions are clear, which allows for those who can't (or choose not to) hear.

Several in the group have difficulty with handwriting.
The secondary focus is always handwriting. They have to sit the words on the line. It has made a big difference. They now have a sense of pride in their work that they didn't have in September. They are also able to find their own errors more easily. One student, used to having an LSA write for him, dictated all his answers at the start of the year. Soon, he started to complete every other answer himself. Recently, he did it all himself -what a huge move towards independence for him. I firmly believe the familiarity and security of the routine is largely responsible for this. It is easier to have this secondary focus when they are not putting all their energy into being creative or trying to understand more complex ideas.

The worksheets have built in AfL which allows the students to make their own corrections and targets.
With my worksheets, the word search, crossword, snail puzzle, or secret code is AfL. They have to do the task first and then check their answer with the puzzles. They can only do the puzzle if they get the right answers. Then they can make their own corrections and set targets. This is where I stole the idea from:

They really like them.
I am amazed at how much they like doing these worksheets. I have laminated them and they check the answers with removable marker pens. They have also started 'helping' each other when they have finished. They do find this very difficult to do without telling the answers, but they are learning. And not just the skills on the worksheets.

It seems to me that the method of delivery isn't the problem. It is the content. If a worksheet is poorly designed, has no challenge and is not followed up, then it is a waste of time. The same can be said of powerpoints, questioning, discussion, essay writing, model making and any other method of delivery.

And I'm not just advocating worksheets for SEN groups. I have also found Zigzag publications extremely well written and great for both independent study tasks and generating discussions in lessons at A level. The Hamlet one links specifically to the requirements of the AQA Language and Literature B Specification, which is great as most of the stuff out there seems geared to Literature only. Can't be all bad either as our students ALWAYS out-perform those at similar centres by some considerable margin on this unit. Again, though, worksheets are only part of the varied diet our students receive.

My belief is variety is the key to creating flexible, motivated and successful learners and that includes finding a place in your repertoire for the (challenging / thought- provoking / appropriately targeted) worksheet. If worksheets are all students do that is awful, but if all they do is discuss, write essays, read, or watch videos, that's awful too.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Improving Speaking and Listening - The Sunshine Method

Beautiful weather this week and we were all stuck in the classroom.

Only we weren't.

The sunny weather has a relaxing effect on everyone, so it becomes something you can really take advantage of, especially with Speaking and Listening.

I took my class of less then enthusiastic 15/16 year olds outside onto the school yard and, suddenly, the most reluctant amongst them opened up in the most unexpected ways. And marks shot up.

I have had the group for the last two years and one of the most frustrating things about them is that they have consistently under-performed orally. The problems are quite complex: lack of self-esteem, fear of public embarrassment, the stress of formal assessment, and an unwillingness to 'let go' and risk failure, which of course means they do actually fail. Add to that the pressures you have as an English teacher which means that Speaking and Listening quite often comes third behind Reading and Writing and you end up not giving students anywhere enough opportunities to develop these essential skills.

We started with how to stand properly, followed by breathing exercises, shaking out the tension in arms and legs, and a vocal warm-up. They all went along with it and started to have fun. So I decided to be a chicken.

If you are going to ask students to take risks, then you have to be willing to take a few yourself. After clucking and strutting about for 30 secs, I asked them straight-up:
"Did I look stupid?"
"Did I survive? Reputation intact?"

Two minutes later we had a yard full of chickens, except one (there's always one!). Chris couldn't bring himself to do it. He has a history of being off 'sick' when he knew we were doing S&L tasks, having panic attacks, or refusing to speak. The group got behind him, encouraging him to give it a go. Then I said he could be any animal he wanted:

"I think I can be a cow, Miss."
"Brilliant! Be a cow!"
"Louder, Chris! Release your inner cow!"

It was hilarious, but for all the right reasons. The huge grin on his face was very special.

One of the other advantages of being outside is the space. I set the others their tasks and Chris, Shannon (another struggler) and I went for a walk and a chat (leaving the farmyard behind for a moment). He explained he couldn't do it because he was always picked on at school for being different, his throat just closed up and he couldn't speak, he was frightened of being laughed at by the others, so he was better off not saying anything at all. He was articulate, moving, honest and brilliant. It suddenly clicked that I could grade this conversation as a discussion. He was over the moon.

Stealth tactics firmly established, I set about ambushing other students. Kai, is confident, creative, opinionated and utterly useless at 'performing' when it counts. He crumbles under the pressure and ties his tongue in knots. His task was linked to his re-sit of Macbeth the next day. I told him he was going to perform a monologue as Macbeth, just before the murder. I lied. In order to get in the right frame of mind, we improvised a modern language version of the scene where Lady Macbeth persuades him to go thorough with the murder. I was Lady Macbeth; he was amazing. He stood up to me, argued the case against murdering Duncan fluently, then got increasingly angry as I questioned his manhood and finally snapped as the emotional blackmail tipped him over the edge. Not only was it an A grade performance, but the written assessment he did the next day was double his previous mark too!

The class has 20 students, 5 were absent and, of the remaining 15, 11 significantly improved their Speaking and Listening marks in the sunshine (the other 4 are pretty good anyway). Think about it, if you had a choice to do a presentation out in the sunshine, or in a claustrophobic classroom with 20 people staring at you and judging you, which would you choose? I guess the idea that students might not take it seriously might put you off, but I really didn't find that at all. I'm not going to forget this week as it really lifted my mood at the end of a hard term. I am hoping the students don't forget what we did either (except perhaps my chicken impression).

(Student names have been changed)

Sunday, 18 March 2012

A/A* GCSE conference

Friday afternoon is not the ideal time to enthuse 60 GCSE students about revision, but that is the task I've been charged with, and the free lunch and goodie bag of revision aids does help. The students are off timetable and individually invited by letter to raise the status of the event.

Rather than bang on about revision techniques, this afternoon is aimed at what it really takes to get the top grades. The sessions include:

Using Music to Aid Memory
Using Art to Analyse
The Internal and External Locus of Control
Time Organisation
SOLO Taxonomy - Relational and Extended Abstract Thinking

There is also an introductory video with 6th Formers talking about what did / didn't work for them.

It is all delivered by staff at the school. The Time Organisation session, voted one of the best, is delivered by a Faculty Support Manager and is a version of CPD delivered to teachers at one of our learning fairs.

Last year it went extremely well, the student feedback was overwhelmingly positive with all the sessions scoring 3.5 or more out of 5 for usefulness. After Easter, all students except one (but there is always one) said they had used something they had learnt to help revise over the holiday and something from the goodie bag.

The goodie bag includes:
Post-it notes
Coloured pens
File cards
Memory sticks
Key ring memo blocks (from Muji)

The most popular being the file cards and the least the memory sticks (which happily flies in the face of claims that only flash, expensive things appeal to kids!)

Well, I hope it goes as well this year as last. Our A/A* results increased significantly. Of course it's impossible to tell how much this contributed to it, but I like to think it played some part.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

PETER paragraphs replace poor performing PEE

Yes, I enjoyed writing the title.

Never having been entirely happy with students PEEing down the page, (not because it's slightly naughty - that's great) I've recently changed the way I've been teaching essay writing for years.

The problem with PEE (Point Evidence Explanation) is that students don't get the 'Explanation' part. The well-trained amongst them will dutifully respond with, "It means saying how or why", some even capable of describing it as analysis (PEA). But that doesn't mean they can show the skill they need to in an essay. After all, "The writer uses a simile", or, " The writer wanted to catch your attention", are possible reasons 'why' and 'how' something was used.

So, after reading the AQA English examiner feedback from 2011 criticising the use of PEE, I decided to come up with an alternative. PETER paragraphs were born (Point Evidence Term Explore the Effects and Relate. It was only a couple of weeks later, I realised this new approach fitted in really well with teaching SOLO taxonomy too.

A problem I had reading SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools by Pam Hook and Julie Mills (2011) was it is focused on thinking and has very little on converting that thinking into writing. Yes, it has useful vocabulary to use to show the different levels of thinking, but that doesn't help students structure their responses and paragraphs. The more ambitious amongst my students also want to jump straight to Extended Abstract thinking, failing to realise if you can't link it to the Relational stage, it remains just abstract, not Extended Abstract.

PETER is helping my students in the following ways:
Point and Evidence are fairly simple to teach, but students tend to either avoid using technical terms in their point, so now T is in there as a reminder. With my more able, I have change Point to Pattern to encourage them to identify style or genre features and improve the quality of their analysis.

Explore the Effects is encouraging students to develop their analysis, rather than simply rewording their point and evidence. It clearly signposts them to write about audience and purpose. It is also deliberately plural to invite different interpretations. This starts students making Relational points.

Relate has an obvious link to the SOLO Relational stage too, but also can be understood as: relate to the question, make a comparison, or simply connect to the previous paragraph. At a higher level, this is also where you can show Extended Abstract learning as students can relate it to their own experiences, wider contexts and concepts.

Early days yet, but it does seem to be helping my very able Y10 group and A level classes. I have yet to experiment with my other classes, but C/D borderline Y11 are redoing their Macbeth CA in 2 weeks, so I'll share the results of using it with them then.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Job interviews: lessons to be learnt from dating

My first teaching job interview was a failure. I thought it had gone pretty well. The feedback was that I had taught, 'by far the best lesson', but that I had not asked the right questions in the interview and not seemed interested in the school.
I was gutted. Now I see it as one of the best things that ever happened. Why would you want to work in a school where they valued ability to interview well above ability to teach?
The thing that a lot of NQTs forget is that job interviews are a two-way thing. You have to make sure the school is the right place for you, or you are going to have a truly miserable first year (it's hard enough in the right place). It is really difficult not to leap at every opportunity to get a job at this time of year, especially as everyone else on your course seems to be finding that 'dream' placement, but sometimes the right thing is to wait.
I got my first job in July. The school had flooded overnight and it was as the HOD and I splashed through the corridor, knee deep in water, laughing, that I knew I really wanted to work there. I found out later that he had made up his mind to offer me the job at that point too. I'm still in the same place 13 years later.
Just like dating, it is not enough for one of you to fancy the other. It has to work both ways. I realise that now sounds like I fancied my HOD, but that really isn't what I mean!
Having been party to lots of interview lessons over the years, I have a bit of inside knowledge that might prove useful about what we look for at my place (this is inspired by an ex-student who is now looking for his first teaching job). There are plenty of websites with lists of questions to help you to prepare for the interview, but the day is about so much more than that.
1. The interviewers are looking for someone they can work with, who fits in with, or complements, other members of the dept. Never underestimate the break time 'meet the department' session or the student interview panel / guides. Their opinions on you will be sought after the event. Smile, be pleasant, be your (professional) self. Hard as it may be, don't sit there worrying about your lesson. Equally, alarm bells should be ringing if you aren't invited to meet the rest of the department - why on Earth not?

2. The lesson is perhaps the most stressful aspect of interview. When I'm observing, what I am looking for is a connection with the students, an attempt to use names, listening and responding to the children in front of you. Essentially, I'm looking for someone who is not going to be cooked and eaten by the natives, but also someone who is there to teach children and not just their subject.
3. Bearing in mind the above, the lesson itself does not have to be all singing and all dancing. It MUST for fill the brief though, so if you are teaching poetry to 'Top' set Y9, find out exactly what that means. Is that level 5/6/7, or a mixture of those? It needs to be pitched at the right level, and some thought about differentiation is essential.
4. Ask questions beforehand. Get a class list, find out about SEN/ G&T, the resources available in the room, what the class has been studying recently, all things you would do if they were your real class. This might seem pushy, but I would be impressed by the thoroughness of the applicant who did this. It is also going to help you plan and teach a better lesson.
5. Use the people around you. You have access to loads of people who would be willing to help by discussing your lesson, checking your lesson plan, lending resources and doing mock interviews. It amazes me how many student teachers seem to think they have to do it all independently, that having an AST, mentor, or HOD checking their interview lesson is somehow cheating. It really is silly not to use their experience and expertise.
6. Ask if you can have a copy of the school's preferred lesson planning format. It will help you see what the observers may be looking for. For example, if the school uses MUST/SHOULD/COULD, WILF/WALT, Bloom's taxonomy, etc. it is a good idea to show you know how to do it too.
7. Go prepared to withdraw if it is not the place for you. The first opportunity is usually after the tour of the school. Where they take you and what they show you is very important. Did you see a range of groups, subjects, facilities? Why/why not?
8. Ask about how they support NQTs / new staff. At our place we have weekly training for 30 mins after school on a Tuesday which covers everything from report writing to SEN, praise to plenaries. We also have CPD every Wednesday afternoon from 2pm to 3.30pm (I am aware that either sounds really onerous, or incredibly supportive depending on your mindset!).
9. Make sure you get feedback afterwards on all aspects of the day. It is really useful, but don't forget, it is about finding a match. Just because you don't get one job, it doesn't mean you are a bad teacher. You just didn't fit with what they were looking for - your perfect match is still out there. Also, jotting down the interview questions before you forget them is a great idea. That way you can think of an answer to any tricky ones before the next interview.
10. Don't wear an amusing tie.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Experimenting with SOLO and creative writing #solotaxonomy

I've used Bloom's Taxonomy for years to structure my learning objectives. I've always liked the way I rarely have to change them: understand / analyse / evaluate the poem / play / novel we happen to be studying. It helps students to transfer the skills they are using in one area across the subject and corresponds nicely with C/D to A* marking criteria at GCSE.
The problem is that a lot of students (and it seems teachers) struggle to grasp what analysis and evaluation actually are. On a learning walk at the start of the year, I went around all the Y10 English classrooms and asked students what they were doing, in every classroom the objectives were clearly on the board and used the word 'analysis'.
The conversation generally went:

'Can you tell me what you are doing?'
'We're analysing poetry.'
'Great. Can you tell me what analysis means?'
(Blank look) (Pause) 'It's when you annotate a poem.'

Only it's not, is it? I actually did find one student who gave the response:

'It's when you say 'how' the poem is written, or 'why' the poet wrote it.'

A much more helpful response, but how a student goes about showing that is still unclear. With that understanding, you could argue that saying, 'It was written using a metaphor' and, 'They wrote it to make a point' are both analytical answers!
Evaluation is even more straightforward: 'I give this text 9 out of 10' - job done!
So, my response has always been to train students to use key words and phrases that SHOW the the target skill.

The writer does this because...
This implies / suggests / represents...
A pattern can be seen...
The effect of this on a reader is...
Could / might / may mean...
Adjectives to describe the writer's craft such as impressive / original / thought-provoking / etc (and, of course, their antonyms).

This has proven very successful over recent years, especially moving Ds to Cs and Bs to As, but it still doesn't quite explain what you have to do to get a top grade.
So I'm trying SOLO. Again, the lazy side of me likes the idea that the structure rarely needs to change, and Lesson Objectives can be structured around the different levels of understanding.
I started on Friday with Y13. They are doing text transformation coursework - trying to shed new light on Macbeth along the way. They have all done a first draft, but a lot of them had failed to grasp that simply filling a textual gap by writing from a chosen character's perspective does not quite cut the mustard. Enter SOLO.
I went through the 5 stages and then we applied them to transformation coursework skills. This is what we came up with:

Creative writing that does not shed new light on the original text (therefore does not meet the criteria).
Takes one aspect of the original text, e.g. character or plot, but doesn't do much more than tell the same story from a different perspective.
Takes several aspects of the text, including themes, symbols, but although these ideas may be interesting and relevant, there is no interplay with the original text and the ideas are not linked or developed.
Has interplay with several aspects of the original text. Themes and symbols are developed, connected and integrated skilfully.
Extended Abstract:
The text goes beyond a transformation of the original text and becomes a comment on the writer's craft, literary theories and movements, or changes in contexts and values over time.

We then analysed a piece of work that got maximum marks last year and mind-mapped the Relational and Extended Abstract thinking behind it. They then had to discuss and map their own work using the SOLO framework.

Too soon to tell if it works after one lesson, but you could almost hear their minds ticking away, and I'm fairly sure that the room brightened as a couple of lightbulbs switched on. The verbal feedback certainly suggests that they have gone away thinking in a different way about their learning.
Finally, I realised that it also fits well with a metaphor I've been using for years - that of the juggler. Students seems to get this idea really easily and some have even started drawing it on their Controlled Assessment planning sheets!

Prestructural is having a pile of balls (see, it's appropriate in more ways than one!)
Unistructural is throwing one ball up in the air and catching it.
Multistructural is throwing lots of balls up in the air, but one at a time.
Relational is juggling (and the more balls you can juggle, the more skill you are showing).
Extended abstract is when someone else throws in a club, a hoop, or a chainsaw and you still don't drop a thing!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

How to avoid marking...

Last day of the holidays and suddenly the importance of tidying the house, doing that DIY job and shopping... ANYTHING to avoid marking...has gone through the roof. This time I also have the added distractions of an ipad and a blog! Those Controlled Assessments are calling my name, but they will just have to wait. I'll do them this afternoon.

And the good news is that I can. Rather than the first draft coursework nightmare, CA marking for the benefit of a moderator is breeze. For two reasons: firstly, because I only have to decide a mark out of 15 rather than 54, and secondly, because I don't have to worry about constructive feedback for students to improve their work in a second attempt at the same task. After all, why would you want students to improve?

Seriously, after years of desperately trying to ignore huge piles of marking lurking in dark corners of the house, I have devised several useful ways of cutting down the workload significantly and making sure I am focusing on AfL:

Photocopy the mark scheme for each essay and use a highlighter.

Rather than writing the same comment 32 times, create a cover sheet of the mistakes students commonly make for each type of assessment and tick as you go (I try to write a personal positive comment though).

Give the feedback separately, either on a different sheet of paper, or
projected, and get the students to match the comments to the essay. I love this one - and so do Ofsted inspectors and AST assessors! I like to cut up the comments into strips and get groups of students to stick the comments onto photocopied essays where they are relevant.

Also, just because students can't re-do the same task, it doesn't mean they can't reflect and focus on the skills they need to transfer and improve next time.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Creativity - how to create fizz!

This week saw whole school staff training on creativity. The challenge? In cross-curricular TLC groups, come up with as many creative ways of using random objects in the classroom as you can in 5 mins. Then we swapped the objects and groups couldn't repeat any of the ideas. Oh yeah, and it was of course competitive! Lazy post this week as it is half-term, but some of the ideas are great (and some are hilarious).
Playmobil people:
Use to teach genetics and variation
Challenging stereotypes
Large fake microphone:
Take out your frustrations on the deputy head in a controlled manner
Launch it from a rocket launcher
Revision - roll the dice and come up with that many answers to a question
Probability / chance of surviving in the trenches
Elastic bands:
Replacement knicker elastic
Parabolic curves in Science
(Worryingly) Sex Ed.
Atoms and molecules
Broken umbrella:
Create a better design
Circle of fifths / chord progression
Plastic cups:
Caste system
Building a tower challenge
Create a legal scenario - falling over a bin
What if there were no bins?
Key rings:
PEE mobiles.
Connecting connectives
Cheerleading pom poms:
Cod pieces for Shakespeare
How are these linked to learning?
A man- thong
A ball holder ( possibly the same answer there!)
Flip camera:
Maths value for money research project
Walkthrough exam vodcast
Puppets ( wolf, sheep and monkey):
Use as art critics
Must, Should, Could mascots
3 test tubes:
Science experiment ( I think the point of the session was missed! )
Use as a metaphor
My favourite responses came from one group who had the same answers for each of their items:
Science - burn it!
Music -bang it!
PE- throw it!
Drama - be it!
Art - Draw it!
And finally the winning group...
Bag of sweets:
Still life
Jewellery making
Energy content of food
Create a story from the love hearts
Recipes for new sweets
Resisting temptation
Branding / advertising / design
Effect of sugar on the brain
Chew or suck? Debate
Room 101 which sweet would you ban?
Life cycle of a sweet
Data handling
How do they create fizz?
A world without sweets
Who would you give your last sweet to?
Compare sweets in the western world to the third world
Sweets across the globe
Track environmental impact
Fair trade
Create a desert island disk for each sweet
Training days on the last day of term are always hard, but the positive response from this one was great. There were over 400 creative lesson ideas by the end of 10 mins!
We also used Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity and discussed 'the walkthrough' inspired by @kennypieper.
More of that to follow...

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Success and Failure: The Power of Locusts

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same..."
I've been reading a lot this weekend about failure - a great way to spend a Sunday! It is really interesting to me how students cope with failure and learn to bounce back. Last week I wrote about praise, and how good praise can really move students on if they truly understand what it was that worked and what didn't. On reflection, I think more and more that the same is true for failure, but it depends entirely on the student's attitude towards both these things. Do they believe their success / failure was of their own making?
"I've got that locust thing you were talking about"
Last year I ran an A/A* conference for around 60 of our most able Y11 students. They had the afternoon off timetable, a free buffet lunch, and revision workshops focusing on analysis, transferrable skills, and revision strategies to suit different learning styles. The session I did with them was on the external and internal locus of control (thanks Julian B Rotter for a great idea and even better name!).

In a nutshell, from a student with a strong external locus of control, you might hear:

  • "The question was difficult."
  • "The teacher is rubbish."
  • "I was unlucky."
  • "The dog ate it."

A student with a strong internal locus of control will say:

  • "I didn't revise."
  • "I didn't bother doing it."
  • "I forgot."
  • "I fed it to the dog."

The workshop was about students realising their mindset and starting to take more responsibility for their successes and failures. The link with praise is crucial here. If you praise success rather than the process of achieving success, then you can reinforce an external locus of control. What does someone do then when they have to face failure? Maybe Kipling had a point.

One of the more memorable results of this approach was when I found one of my Y13 students working in the library and almost fainted with shock. He was a bright student, but had got As and Bs at GCSE without a lot of effort (his C grades were down to a absent teacher, a disruptive class and not being told the right thing to do). He never met a deadline, ticked jobs off the list without doing them properly and generally cruised along in Y12, just like he had the year before. It was here he met his failure. Totally unprepared, as this hadn't happened before, I had a chat about what his outlook on life meant. He was an absolute text book case of external locus of control. Once armed with this knowledge he was able to start to change things around - hence working in the library rather than taking it easy in the common room. His explanation: "I've got that locust thing you were talking about".

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Praise just isn't good enough!

As G&T co-ordinator at my school, I've really become aware of the negative impacts of praise and effort grades. Talking to students, sat in front of me with a report displaying a row of gleaming 'Excellent's for effort, I found myself asking them if they felt the same. Most of them simply replied that they did the work, met deadlines, but didn't really consider their effort to be anything out of the ordinary.

So what effect does this have? If we are teaching students that cruise along at GCSE getting As and Bs that their effort is 'Excellent', or even 'Good' then what happens when it gets hard? It's something we really struggle with when students have to suddenly become independent at AS/ A2 and actually put a bit of effort in to get a good grade. Let's face it GCSEs are easy for some people.

If you just say, 'Well done!' to a kid, do they really know what they have done well, or do we leave them to work that out for themselves? Certainly that is the problem with simply rewarding attainment without identifying specifically what worked (and what didn't). It also is a little ridiculous to reward effort - how can you judge someone else's effort accurately? Obviously if they haven't done the work then that's a bit of a giveaway, but 3 paragraphs could be the end result of drafting, crafting, changing and improving, or 10 mins on the bus with a borrowed biro and a hangover!

I reminded myself of something that really works this week when I had to deliver a training session to new staff: 5 star praise. Not my idea, but something I've stolen from a management training book I found on my Dad's bookshelf a few years back: The Mind Gym*.

The five stars are:

  • Context
  • Explain what specifically went well
  • Describe the impact it had
  • Reinforce their identity
  • Congratulate

(Should have a snappy mnemonic to remember it by in the tradition of all good teachers; 'Cedric' doesn't quite do it for me!)

Most praise in my experience seems to stop short at 'congratulate'. If you want the behaviour repeated, however, don't leave them to work out for themselves what that behaviour is.

Academic example:
In your essay last lesson, I really liked the way you remembered to use connectives at the start of paragraphs. This meant your level went from a 4 to a 5. I'm really impressed that you focused on your target as it shows me you're really trying hard. Well done.

Behaviour example:
I really like the way you came into the room calmly, got your books out and sat ready to learn. It means we can start learning straightway and you make me happy! That's why you're my favourite class. Well done!

Give it a go; it really does work. It might seem a bit awkward at first, particularly if it is out of character, but maybe try admitting that too!

One final thought, just remember, colleagues need praise too. Why not try it on them?

*The Mind Gym Time Warner Books 2005 ISBN 0-316-72992-2