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 :)