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)