A memorable weekend…examining

A Memorable Weekend

‘Drown her!’ Those two words made crumble.

Let’s go back to the begging of a dull Friday afternoon.

I was a collage student, and it was another boring English lesson.: Day shar vue you might call it. I put my hands into my head, and waited patiently with baited breath for the end of school. It finally came; I ran down two fights of stairs and excited the doors. I couldn’t wait to get home and when I did, I gave my mum and brother a huge.

“Go upstairs sweaty,” She said kindly.

I climbed the two stories to my room, as the sunset was rising.

“Sleep well. You’ve got a big day ahead tomorrow,” as she sprited to the door. However, before she closed the door, her town suddenly changed, and she turned back to me. “You’d better be carfull tomorrow, mind!”

Before too long, everything was packet, and we were on our way to the airport, and my smile could not be moved. It was as if it had been drawn on with a sharpie. Have you ever been on holiday with some of your friend?

We were going to Magaluf. It was a know brainer. I didn’t want to leave my best friends’ behinds, but I was going with my cousin, Jess and she was great. My stomach was soon rubbling so we got ourselves some food although we had to weight in the queue.

It was a three hour flight, and my friend Jess decided to read for a while. She can be anti-social. I looked out of the window and the view was astoning.

We soon arrived, left the airport, and got in our hire car to drive to the hotel. However, before too long, there was something a bit strange about a car that had pulled up alongside us and wasn’t going away. The two men in the car were big bulit guys and looked a bit weird, as if they had done some coke caine.

I started to get a little scared and whispered to Jess, who simply replied

“There’s nothing wrong. Ignore them. Stop being a complete and under wimp!”

But I was right; there was something wrong. Suddenly the other car slammed into us and we were forced to pull into a layby. The other car pulled up next to us; the two men got out, and there was a vicious screech as the two men ripped off our passenger side door. My first thought was ‘C’mon. This is brand new.’

I knew then though that we were getting kidnapped, and the great bass of a classic basshunter song became audible.

I hurdled in the corner of the car. But they pulled us out, and took us both screaming and kicking to a path next to a river with a sign saying ‘DO NOT TRESPASS. UNRESTRICTED AREA.’

The first man pulled a knife from his waste band, and calmly declared,

“When you kill someone, it’s like you steal their sole.”

Jess and I both shuddered.

The other guy piped up next.

“Teenagers are humanities’ greatest cruelty. Drown her!’

“Don’t kill us please,” I begged. “We were so exited to come here; we don’t want to die! Am I aloud to just call my parents?”

The first guy with the knife dropped it for a moment, and reached into his bag for a phone for us to use.

This was our chance! It was a break or make situation.

We ran for it, and were too quick for the men to follow. We managed to find a nearby hotel, and tell them everything that had happened. It had been a crazy day and a lucky escape for shore.

 

Effective Analysis – The Waffle Files

Just a short post here to follow up on my recent one: ‘The problem with techniques’.

Having just finished marking English Language Paper 1, I’m convinced that there are three main reasons why students have lost marks on the reading section, and these are areas that I will be working hard with my department next year to address:

  1. Using waffle, particularly around techniques

  2. Not sharply identifying the meaning/effect of a quote

  3. Not covering enough quotes as analysis needs to be more succinct

I used to run a challenge in Year 12 that encouraged students to see if they could offer 200 words of analysis based on one quote. I showed them an example I had written as a model, exploring almost every individual word and technique, and alternative interpretation possible, patting myself on the back for my analysis wizardry. I realise now that even at A-level, this is not something to aspire to, and it is incredibly dangerous indeed to promote long examination of a single quote at GCSE level.

Succinctness of analysis of a quote, then swiftly moving on to the next, is fundamental to success.

I believe this extends beyond English Language reading sections, into Literature: Anthology analysis, Extract analysis, Unseen Poetry, and probably further. Can I emphasise again just how many clearly top end students have scored significantly lower than they should have, as they dwell on 3 or 4 quotes for too long, making labored points about techniques, rather than covering 7 or 8 briefly in the time provided.

I think there needs to be a move towards succinctness from Year 7 upwards.

Here is my model for ‘Effective Analysis’ which I’ve come up with. The closer to the centre, the more important it is. Any analysis missing the yellow and red band is worthless in my view. Green and Blue bands will help push for the very top grades, but should be carefully taught alongside an awareness of the dangers of waffle, which I’ve mentioned before. Hope you like the way I have symbolised the waffle as menacing shadows!

Effective Analysis pic

Click here for the picture slide   Effective Analysis

In the resource below, I offer two activities for teachers to use to get students to explicitly identify which examples of analysis are ‘waffle’ and why; which one is ‘good’ (sharply analysing the quote’s meaning/effect), and which one is ‘excellent’ (including technique focus). Here’s a snippet:

AN example 1

AN Example 2

The third sheet in the resource offers students the chance to become examiners, and spot where the tick would come, putting a line through all the unnecessary waffle.

AN Example 3

AN Example 4

Click here for the resource document above  Establishing effective analysis – The Waffle Files Sheet 1

There are notes for teachers alongside.

I hope this is helpful. I am convinced that results will significantly increase for us all if we can make analysis succinct, and remove the ‘waffle’ from students’ analysis.

Thanks for reading.

 

The problem with techniques

It’s costing our students marks: many, many marks.

Let me try and explain how in this short post.

Firstly, can I state from the offset that I like techniques. I think we have a duty, as English teachers, to engage with the craft of writing; of course we do. I was excited to learn more recently about subtle varieties of repetition from esteemed Twitter colleagues like Mark Roberts and many others. We have terminology lists for every module for every unit across Years 7-11. I plan to have Faculty Meetings next year with more focus on building teachers’ subject knowledge of techniques. I admit I had no idea what Commoratio was until I spoke to Mr Pink!

However, it is the foregrounding of this teaching within the analytical method that I have a big problem with, and, if my examining so far is anything to go by, in my opinion, marks are tumbling around the country as a result.

Our passion for techniques, and for some, sharing new, increasingly sophisticated and subtle terms, sometimes from Year 7, with students, is leading them to equate discussing techniques as a necessity for top marks.

On 9 out of 10 occasions, this is NOT the case.

I am an English Language examiner this year, and have been for many years for Eduqas,  as well as an English teacher for 12 years, and it is quite clear that across the ability range, across schools, a tiny minority of students are able to analyse techniques effectively. Most invariably get themselves into a huge mess in their desperation to use them, as they substitute focusing on sharp analysis of the quote’s meaning/effect for waffley, laboured technique spotting.

Top students are often using long wordy paragraphs examining language and structural techniques around a single quote, sometimes effectively (usually not so), but, as a result, they only manage to cover three quotes in this way in the allocated 15 mins per question. They will not earn more than 3 or 4 marks for this then. (It’s roughly 1-1.5 marks per quote analysed sharply I reckon, although this is obviously not set in stone)  They should be covering 7 or 8 quotes  (1 every 2 minutes) for the top marks.

Lower ability students are waffling on about techniques they don’t understand, ending up with lines like ‘creates a picture in the reader’s head’ and earning next to nothing.

For all students, I’m really concerned that they don’t understand why they’re losing marks left, right and centre. We’ve raved about techniques and they’ve learned them, and they’re going to damn well go in and find them!

Let’s look at two fictional, amalgamated examples from this year’s exam paper, that I’ve written (based on things I’ve read from students). Disturbingly (with recent events -sorry), it’s about escaping from a house fire, and the question I’ve chosen is  ‘How is drama and excitement created by the writer?’

EXAMPLE 1

The writer uses a compound sentence in the line ‘she doubles up with a fit of coughing and splutters’ which creates drama powerfully and makes the reader think about it being exciting. The use of repetition is very powerful in the piece adding a strong sense of drama in the line ‘Fire, Ruby, Fire.’We learn ‘she hoped the fire wouldn’t hear them’ and this is personification because of course the fire can’t really hear and it isn’t a person. The writer’s using this for effect.In the line ‘Gasping, retching and hanging on to one another’ the writer uses a triplet and high energy verbs to build up excitement and sparks drama in the text and within the reader making them alert and scared for the girls. To make it dramatic, the writer uses a range of sentence lengths and some are short  in the line ‘We’re human chimneys’ which make the reader slow down and the reader feels on edge, and the text pauses for what will happen next. Another way the writer’s kept it dramatic is by lists of verbs and adjectives which makes the reader worried in the line ‘She tries to push up the window which is stuck’ and this adds an atmosphere that keeps the reader hooked. Finally, in the line ‘The fires of Hell’, the word ‘hell’ has a capital to denote it is a noun, and it also comprises part of a complex sentence which creates imagery in the reader’s mind. 

  • Sounds amazing, right? They’ve learned some techniques though! I’d give it 0/10. Not one accurate analysis of meaning. I’ve tried to point out common avenues below of how many students deal unsuccessfully with techniques from my example above:

  • Examining the mechanics
  • Explaining its definition
  • Merging too many techniques together at once for clarity
  • Desperation to link back to the question too early before meaning/effect considered.

EXAMPLE 2

In the line ‘she doubles up with a fit of coughing and splutters’, drama is created as the reader learns Ruby is struggling to breathe and choking due to the fire. The call ‘Fire, Ruby, Fire.’ indicates how Ruby’s sister is desperate to wake her to ensure she doesn’t die in the flames. The writer uses the phrase ‘she hoped the fire wouldn’t hear them’ and this reflects the fear of the two girls who are desperate to escape the menacing clutches of the fire that appears to be listening out for them, adding to the drama. In the line ‘Gasping, retching and hanging on to one another’ the writer observes that the girls are becoming ill from the fumes, almost vomiting, but using each other for comfort – the way death seems imminent here adds to the drama. The image ‘We’re human chimneys’ illustrates the way the girls are immersed in the smoke and they are breathing it out constantly. Another way the writer’s kept it dramatic is the sense of hopelessness as everything appears to conspire against them, as their escape route is seemingly blocked ‘She tries to push up the window which is stuck’ .Finally, in the line ‘The fires of Hell’, the word ‘hell’ indicates the sheer scale of the fire and has associations with the biblical place of torturous suffering, which the girls are facing. 

 No techniques whatsoever. I’d still give it 8/10. Techniques exploration, yes, might have driven it into 9 or 10, but really- is it worth foregrounding this element in our teaching for the sake of 2 marks?!

Look where my bold type comes each time in Example 2. That’s where my tick would come. It’s where the meaning/effect is sharply nailed, and linked to what’s going on in the story (far more important than identifying the technique in my view, and often forgotten by students who sometimes analyse language in isolation.)

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So, how might we do it differently then, going forward?

  1. Prioritise the analysis of the quote’s meaning/effect every time, and do many, many exercises that encourage students to spot where the tick would come. Make this explicit. Analysing meaning/effect is NOT a lower level skill. It is the crux of reading analysis -more important than technique analysis, and something that many A-level students still consistently don’t quite nail.
  2. Show examples of slightly waffly technique analysis with a sharp nailing of meaning/effect in the middle, and encourage students to condense down the piece of analysis. Being succinct is everything.
  3. Encourage students to get to it quicker (Abandon PEA)  – The line “_____” suggests ___________________ while the technique also indicates…
  4. Share examples of waffly discussion of technique definitions/mechanics, and encourage students to spot why no marks would be awarded.
  5. Talk about techniques being of secondary importance to meaning/effect. Let’s put them in the ‘middle ground’ somewhere. Encourage students to weave them in but don’t overplay them and let’s try not to get too excited by them! It’s the meaning/effect that is what earns the mark and shows real understanding of the writer’s craft.
  6. Discourage students from analysing via ‘technique leads’. e.g. The writer uses similes and compound sentences in this section…  This leads to redundant sentences in my view. A technique analysis sentence must ALWAYS include sharp analysis of meaning/effect to be worthwhile.    Much better to lead by content. e.g. ‘The writer focuses on the desperate struggle and challenge of ________________ in the line “________” and the simile here suggests__________…
  7. Discourage reader obsession. This leads to lines like this ‘This provides tension for the reader as the reader becomes scared and more alert’. Nonsense. I don’t ever remember in my life as a reader, becoming ‘more alert’ when I was reading! It sounds silly and conjures up images of a reader in all kinds of animated poses on their sofa, reading. Surely it sounds more sophisticated to just reference the writer’s intention, and frame it from that perspective? e.g. ‘The writer aims to create tension / a fearful mood here…’

Thanks for reading!

‘Will you be quiet and let me think?’

 

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I’ve always needed silence to think productively. Background music always seemed to disrupt my train of thought; In my teens, I escaped to my grandparents’ place in the Welsh countryside to revise for my A-levels, and my current home office is in our converted attic, away from the albeit adorable chatter of my excitable 2 and 4 year old kids!  I’ve been known to pause films and say to my wife ‘Wait, I need to think, let me work this out.‘ Yes, I’m one of those people!

As for learning anything, often at school, teachers and lecturers’ points seemed to wash over me, and it wasn’t until I got home and reflected carefully, away from my mates, away from the classroom discussion, that the lesson ideas seemed to become clear, and I ‘got it’.

I’ve been struck by the power of silent work in the classroom over recent years, and decided to do a little research this week around the area regarding its productive use, and the misconceptions we might have as teachers concerning it.

I’m indebted to the following two research articles which have helped me consider this fascinating area further and I would highly recommend reading:

Hamelock and Friesen 2012 ‘One student’s experience of silence in the classroom’

Claire Deans 2012 ‘Pupil Perspectives on Silence’

I arrived at 8 main points on the topic:

  1. 1.There is an unfair negativity around silence.

Some students view silence as dull and unhelpful, and is often associated as an oppressive last resort from the teacher who wants to establish discipline by ‘silencing us’. @DrHelenELees, in her book ‘Silence in Schools’ draws a distinction, however, between “strong” and “weak” silence. ‘While the former is a deliberate stillness, where pupils are encouraged to sit and reflect, the latter is an enforced quiet, where teachers impose silence.’

2. The all powerful social aspect is removed through silence, creating the conditions for unrestricted, focused thinking.

laughing_students

Lyndsey Caldwell spoke at Researched Oxford of the ‘heightened teenage sense of self’ which basically means that, without fail, students will prioritise acknowledging a peer’s comment or look, over thinking hard almost every time.  Daniel T Willingham reminds us that ‘Unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking’. 

It follows that if our job is to create the conditions to enable thinking and learning to occur, we need to remove the all powerful social burden from students’ shoulders, by asking for silence. They will ‘silently'(!) thank us for it, I’m sure.

Additionally, the social pressure of a class discussion can be immense too. By giving a period of silence, we remove the demands and potential anxiety around quick fire responses -something that often would hugely benefit from an opportunity to silently think and reflect before the discussion.

3. The illusion of the ‘productive working/learning environment’ and the vast difference in productivity during silent work.

During many observations of teachers over the years, I have commented on a ‘productive working environment’. This meant, in essence, that students were behaving, talking about the task (well those closest to my ear-shot were and they might have been talking cluelessly with a lack of prior knowledge to guide them in the task but I digress…), and writing stuff down. I may have even replaced ‘working’ with ‘learning’ now and again. I’m pretty certain 90% of the time, I would have been wrong to go as far as the ‘L’ word.

I never cease to be amazed at the way students can cover 2 questions with vague, muddled answers in 30 minutes sometimes in these ‘productive working environments’, then answer 6 questions sharply in the next 20 minutes of silent work.

It is clear then, that we have an obligation to create periods of silence in every lesson we teach if we are setting high expectations.

4. Resist attempts to break the silence. Stay strong!

It’s so easy to feel unnerved, awful as a teacher, cruel even during these periods of silence. No-one’s smiling! Hell, they’re not enjoying your lesson!  Andy Tharby talks of an anecdote where he gently waves a student’s hand down, angling for more resilience from them. Students will ask questions, ask you to check their work, ask to go to the toilet… RESIST! They’re testing you! If your task is a good one, they’ll be required to recall, think, produce, reflect on the process of what they’re doing, and refine, all beautifully uninterrupted. And that includes US! During silent time, we need to resist the urge to interrupt their thinking with a ‘Just one more thing, guys!’ reminder.

5. Talk to articulate and refine learning, not to learn.

‘When we talk, I’m not learning’ -So said a student in the study covered by Deans. This isn’t always true though. We do often need to refine and adapt our understanding of concepts based on articulating what we know already with our peers. This is a useful process. But so is silence in allowing the chance to reflect and internalise learning in the FIRST instance. This first instance would greatly benefit from silence I believe – perhaps after an important instruction, model or explanation.

6. Call it thinking time rather than ‘silent work’.

Simple really – less negative connotations, and justifies it nicely!

“When it is quiet, I can think more clearly. It helps me to get my thoughts about what I am going to write or say next”. (From one of the Year 5 students in the research covered by Claire Deans)

In addition ‘time to think’ seems to have consistency with Vygotsky’s work on thought and language (1962), particularly the stage of maturation, where speech goes ‘underground’ and becomes inner-speech. If we can therefore assume similarities between inner-speech and time to think, then for these processes to take place most effectively, a silent environment on occasion could be conducive to more thoughtful reflective responses.

7. Silence offers the opportunity for the learner to control the pace.

Don’t we all want this chance at times in life? Silence grants it!

Slow-time is defined as time where learners can think at their own pace rather than the pace of the rest of the class. This time was characterised as private time or space free from intrusion, interaction or demand for an immediate response (Ollin, 2008).

 

8. Reconsider our perception of the silent student.

testing

I have a mental checklist at parents’ evenings:  Behaviour, Contributions, Effort, Data, Next steps.  I often end up commenting on Contributions – they don’t speak much – they need to contribute more in lessons. It is even one of our prerequisites of a ‘Highly motivated’ learner in my school, but is silence always a sign of disengagement, of apathy, of not being an ‘active learner‘?

Check this out from Hamelock and Friesen:

In “some cultures silence…can be viewed as a sign of complex thought” (Bosacki, 2005, p. 86). I recall various situations of my own silences as a student and know that my experiences were not all the same. Sometimes I remained silent because I agreed with what was being said and chose not to speak. In other situations, I was deep in thought and was using the time to make sense of my thoughts and gather a response.

 

Final thoughts

What might we ask for then from students in these periods of silence?

To think before a discussion, to think after a question, to allow reflection time after an activity, to concentrate/focus on an activity, to reflect on the process involved in completing an activity.

It’s all sharpened, I believe, through silence -as a powerful weapon in the teacher’s arsenal.

I’m not advocating silent classrooms all the time. My own target is around 30% of the lesson -short bursts of anything between 5 & 20 mins  -that should utilise productive learning. I shouldn’t admit this, but I often also give an incentive of 10%  – 2 mins free talk time following the silence. This works well as a reward!

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Join Club Silencio today! It’s a pivotal scene in one of David Lynch’s finest films ‘Mulholland Drive’. If that’s not a good enough reason to try it out more, I don’t know what is!

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Student X’s story and a Vision of Teaching and Learning

For a while I’ve been wanting to collate the core ideas from my recent reading into a vision for Teaching and Learning for my Faculty. I think I’ve achieved it!

Pic A

From an A2(!) notes sheet I recently filled with reflections on important next steps, the word that comes up time and again is knowledge, and my aim is to ensure our Faculty embeds that more effectively over time.

The books and following people have all helped along the way in shaking the foundations of what I understand about teaching and learning, transforming my views, and I would highly recommend either following them on Twitter, and reading their fantastic blogs/books. Carl Hendrick Daniel Willingham Lyndsey Caldwell Katie Ashford Dawn Cox Mark Roberts Tom Sherrington Sarah Barker Mr Pink Shaun Allison Andy Tharby David Didau Chris Curtis

I recently presented to the Faculty my vision, and I started by sharing a narrative that one of my Yr 11 students had written. Frankly, it was appalling. She’s about to sit her English exams where one task is Narrative writing. She’s going to fail and she shouldn’t do.

She’s got a SPLD, there’s lower than normal attendance, but she’s a sparky girl verbally, and I presented the case that we could have done more for this girl who should be leaving school with a C (4/5?!) in English.

Basically, we could/should have done more to embed the skills she needed to succeed by utilising more of the kind of activities Science tells us help students learn most effectively: repetition, skills drills, mixed practice, re-drafting time, quizzing, recaps.

If this stuff below had been embedded in her long term memory by Year 11, it would be automatic when she is writing – as automatic as driving a car is to us.Pic B

For the whole Powerpoint, click here

I don’t know yet how it’s all going to look but I’m excited to work with my team on the details.

Here are my guiding focuses as we start to plan:

Knowledge Organisers: Deciding what we want ALL students to know by the end of each year. Make this explicit. Consider how to differentiate this effectively.


Repeated Practice:
  The path to expertise.  1) For fluency-to embed in long term memory. We also need to rectify embedded bad practice which will take much repetition! 2) Deliberate practice – to draft, take feedback, improve, take more feedback, re-draft and find ways to celebrate excellence in the refined end product.

Offering a balance of creative aspects that engage curiosity/interest, WITH the other side:Repetition, skills drills,  recap activities etc  – and being unashamed, unapologetic, and open with students about this side -sharing with them our vision of how people learn best:  – these activities help make knowledge automatic and embedded in LT memory over time, freeing up working memory. Knowledge provides the foundations we need to progress onwards to creative and critical thinking successfully.

Targets work: Sufficient time to reflect on, and respond to specific targets set, not only evidencing improvement, but metacognitive awareness of these targets through opportunities to explain to others the processes followed in improving.

Quizzing within, and at end of each module – closed qns, qns with cues, multiple choice, etc, and then interleaved recap tests to embed knowledge during the year – systematic, dates planned.

Stronger focus on the basics – Grammar, Spelling, Vocabulary, Terminology – systems in place – skills drills, etc. Let’s be unapologetic about this traditional grounding. Many students are ‘word poor’ – Let’s address this. Many students in Yr 11 don’t know what a simile is. Let’s address this so it’s as automatic as 2+2=4.

Silent work – Creating opportunities for this more in lessons removes the social pressure and innate reluctance to think. ‘Teenagers have a heightened sense of self’ and will always prioritise a word or smile to their friends over thinking. This is natural. Let’s help them out by removing this obstacle and using silence a bit more. Collaborative group work is fundamentally flawed in aiding effective learning to take place.
Modelling – Critical we share exemplar work at every turn. Live modelling, modelling of students’ work, improve on low level models, and most importantly model the processes followed to achieve effective work and overcoming obstacles along the way.

Challenge – Make it a struggle, make it tough, not what they can do. Strike the balance though. Cognitive Load theory awareness – the most important thing teachers should know about. Don’t overburden working memory but if tasks are challenging but achievable, then dopamine is released. The buzz of overcoming a problem just beyond comfort zone is immense for students.

Consistency – Working together to refine important aspects of our provision, achieving greater consistency in messages and explanations of key areas from teachers over Yrs 7-11. Complete teacher autonomy is not always effective in achieving the best practice.

Flexibility/Slow approach – Setting up Year overviews that have scope to be flexible, and teachers don’t feel the need to rush through content. If something needs to be re-taught/ consolidated for 3 extra lessons, do it.

Role of Homework (and Starters?) – Recaps/Targets work/ Embedding knowledge only?

 

Hope it’s of interest. Thanks for reading.

Literacy across the Curriculum ideas

I thoroughly enjoyed the role I led from 2014-16, and just wanted to share a powerpoint summary of some of the ideas I have used in case they can be of interest to anyone else.

It is a challenging role, and some things worked better than others, but I learned a lot, there were some real successes along the way, and I really enjoyed working with representatives from other Faculties, assisting them in developing their Literacy provision.

With nearly all subjects’ exams having SPAG content now, the importance of a school wide Literacy strategy is vital in my view.
I have read many inspiring blogs on this area, not least @FKRitson who continues to inspire with her work that she readily shares.
If I was to do the role again in the future, I would focus in even more on data to track gaps in Literacy knowledge and application across subjects.

Hope the powerpoint below offers up some interesting initiatives! I have lots of linked presentations if people want to find out more about any of the ideas.

Literacy across the curriculum ideas 2014-16

 

Is the private aspect of reading the problem?

How do we get young people reading more?

Why do so many teenagers turn off reading, particularly in the modern day?

They’re the million dollar questions that we, as English teachers, as Literacy coordinators, and as parents are continually grappling with.

What if reading’s fundamental draw -the individual, imaginative, private experience, was in fact a key reason why many students are essentially switched off it?

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Teenagers are social animals – their existence depends on it. Their interests are usually ones that can be shared and reflected on afterwards with others: sport, bands/gigs, films, social media/youtube, gaming… kids playing football outside

But with reading, it’s different – people rarely read the same book at the same time – it’s less likely to be a topic of conversation for keen readers I would guess, and even less likely to be an attractive draw for ‘reluctant readers’ (as we’ve termed our key battleground in our school recently)

I’ve had several experiences recently which have led me to the idea that the social experience (and an enforced one at that!) is the way to drive reading forward and ignite enough curiosity to read privately in the future.

  1. My promotion of Communal Reading at my school. I blogged about it here. No longer are students ‘playing the game’ chatting behind book covers in tutor time. Over the last couple of years all students have read the openings of up to 10 pre-selected books – together as a vertical tutor group, discussed and enjoyed them together.
  2. My Year 7 English group’s communal reaction this year to ‘The Lost’ by Alex Shearer, and the big twist. I’ve read it for a few years on and off to groups, but this year’s response was insane. Students were off their chairs, heads in hands, hands over mouths, screaming they didn’t want to go to break, ‘cool kids’ begging to ‘just read’, chatting about it at break proudly in front of mates, rebelliously stealing a copy (two students!) to read and finish at home over the weekend…It redefined the term ‘engagement’! One student who I taught 6 years ago who still gets in contact now and again, remembers the day her class erupted together as they read that twist.
  3. My Year 10 top set’s recent parents evening. Many parents revealed to me something I had suspected -that their sons/daughters don’t read anywhere near as much as they used to. I went down my normal line – why not try this? What are their interests? All the normal nonsense that invariably has no effect. One parent suggested that I make it compulsory. Genius! So I did just that – chose 3 books that I said the class had to have purchased one of and read by the end of the month. Yes, they’re a top set, but many have come in enthusiastically regaling me and each other with moments from the books, and THE BUZZ IS BACK!

 

Things we could do then:

  • Choose a book and read aloud together in tutor times
  • Set a book you’ve chosen (or maybe chosen as a class) to read as homework
  • Set up reading groups
  • Make sure every year group has a class novel in the English curriculum

And don’t just try and find a book that matches their interests. It’s patronising and one that has hardly ever yielded success for me. My Yr 7 winner was about a child kidnapper – not ever likely to be an interest of kids! We have the expertise to know which books pull at children’s heart strings most of the time!

How much more powerful to have that warm reading experience together (at least a bit more anyway!)? Think of those moments reading with parents when you were young, in primary school, maybe even reflecting as an adult in a book group?

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Don’t get me wrong – I fully appreciate the personal, escapist experience of reading a book, but many don’t. They don’t ‘get it’…yet.  There’s got to be a first step – and for me, that’s finding ways in schools for more enforced reading of the same book to nurture that social aspect often lacking from the pursuit.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Do your students really know what to do to improve?

We tell students their subject targets, they write them down dutifully, but how do we know they’ve really understood them? Also, are the systems in place to support retention of these targets over time? Why do so many targets crop up in the following test again? And more importantly, what should we do about it?

I’m known for my preoccupation with target posters, target work and anything that specifically links to students developing a strong understanding of the specific strategies we identify that they need to work on to raise their attainment. For me, target work is absolutely critical, and I’ve sought to up the ante around this area in my department, and wanted to also investigate targets awareness on a whole school level. I recently therefore completed a short research study of 30 students across year groups and departments, looking at their understanding of targets subject teachers set them.

The Survey

The Survey Results:

In Qn 1, Students were asked to ‘go blind’ (without looking in their books) and recall what their targets for improvement were in 3 subjects they had that day.

60% were able to adequately recall ‘real’* targets for 1 or more of their subjects.

Qn 2 asked Students to look in their books and identify their targets for improvement

56% were able to identify these targets in their books

Qn 3 and 4 asked Students to estimate their understanding of these targets and ability to explain them to a friend, providing a mark/10 in Qn 3.

8/10 was the average mark, suggesting many students claimed to understand their targets and could explain them.

Qn 5 asked students whether they could explain how these targets would directly lead to improvement.

Most said ‘Yes’ but didn’t take the time to explain how. (Bad Qn on my part!)

Qn 6 asked students to estimate how often they are invited to work on their targets in class.

The most popular answer was ‘monthly’.

The Final Question asked whether teachers referred back to progress made against targets over time.

A range of answers cropped up here from ‘Yes, he talks us through’ to ‘No, rarely’.

*Other comments on the surveys included the following written down as targets which I dismissed as too vague and not specific enough to directly be correlated to improvement: ‘Better presentation’, ‘Revise more’ , ‘Put up my hand more’, ‘Be confident’, ‘Prepare more’ , ‘Be more organized’ , ‘Work quicker’ 

Conclusions

The results were slightly better than I thought, and it is to our school’s credit that over half of the students surveyed were able to recall their targets. However, some of the data above, and the sheer number of comments like the ones I am about to share, lead me to think we must still do more in this area: ‘I couldn’t find targets’, ‘I don’t really get set targets’ , ‘Normally I forget targets from the previous piece of work -we just usually move on to the next topic’.

Recommended action points for improving our students’ successful engagement with targets

  • Metacognition work all the way! Don’t settle for cursory responses to your targets. These are vital for improving their next piece, and need to be engaged with properly one at a time. The two examples below show an attempt at an explanation of a target (albeit an incorrect one), and a good improvement example but with no metacognition work considering what exactly has been improved.

Here are three better examples which offer gold star stuff like definitions, the ‘before & after’, where they’ve improved, and an awareness of what they’ve improved:

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  • Create sufficient time for them– dedicate at least 1 lesson, and/or a homework to working on targets.Can this time be built into your Faculty’s systems – is it the expectation after every assessed piece that this work takes place effectively?
  • Recap these targets regularly in lessons – You might use starters, cold calling, or a quiz to keep these targets at the forefront of their work in your lessons.
  • Encourage students to link back explicitly to these targets, in a new piece of work, via the ‘Margin Targets reminder’. This helps maintain focus.

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  • Encourage students to explain to you, before they start writing, how the piece they’re about to write is going to be better than before, with direct reference to their targets.

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  • Ensure you as the teacher check back on progress made – Have their old targets been met in the new assessment? This should be relatively easy to do.

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Thanks for reading. I’d be intrigued by any exciting targets metacognition work you are undertaking. Here’s a final summary for students sitting down with new targets:

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English A-levels: Purposeless, Vocationless… The dying Arts.

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This week I checked our potential figures for English Language and English Literature sixth form classes in September. They currently stand at the lowest figures in my 5 years as Head of Faculty. Why the downturn? Our GCSE results are consistently high, the teachers are popular, our marketing on open evening was strong –

Or was it?

Speaking to colleagues from other schools, there seems to be a relentless trend from students towards Science, Maths, Economics – sixth form subjects with a clear future career pathway.

Do we need to adapt the marketing direction of our subjects if we want to recover the higher numbers that we used to take for granted?

I think we do. I’m pretty certain, with the shamefully high tuition fees parents are going to have to stump up for Uni, the majority are going to make damn sure that their son/daughter not only has ‘a plan’ at age 16 (scary in itself) and is not going to study something for the mere love of it, and God forbid -just because they’re good at it.

Many of my students tell me they enjoy, even love English, but it’s no good for ‘what they want to do’.

It seems to me that potentially English Language and Lit teachers have for too long relied on the ‘traditional’ angle – the vague line that Universities respect it. Well I’m not sure that’s concrete enough to change the minds of many waverers.

We talk equally proudly of the empathy skills, communication quality, etc that our subjects nurture, but again, I think that this is too general, and not convincing students or parents. After all, what’s stopping them effectively ‘doing English Literature’ by reading a few books in the evening and maybe discussing them with someone? Ok -devil’s advocate played too far, but you see where I’m going?

My solution is that in this hard nosed, expensive, new educational landscape, English teachers need to stop trying to simply enthuse about the lives and works of Bronte or Plath (wonderful as they are) and liaise with a whole range of professionals in a range of careers who found studying characters, ideas, writing impeccably structured writing – useful, and make these experiences explicit throughout the year, and particularly at Open evening.

We need to expand our awareness and understanding of the sheer range of careers studying English at a higher level can help open doors in. Every other subject does it – and we are being left behind.

We need specifics from the exceptionally well regarded legal profession for example, as to how first class argument skills (that we hone in English) are vital, and use this information with parents.

Our whole marketing angle needs to change, or in 10 years, our subjects (whilst THE most important at GCSE) will sink without trace at A-level, chosen only by a handful of students with nostalgic parents, or those directionless drifters who just read for the love of it 😉

Trying to encourage students to take your subject at A-level because they enjoyed some of the poems at GCSE just doesn’t cut it any more.

 

 

Reflections on Michaela School

My long awaited visit to Michaela on Friday was timely. It came at a time in my career when I am applying for Assistant Head jobs, considering exactly what I stand for and what I believe matters in education. The school was certainly an eye-opener. I am very grateful to Katie Ashford, Deputy Head who shared time to discuss the school’s English approach, and also Katharine Birbalsingh, Headteacher who kindly allowed myself and a fellow visitor in to her office to ask some questions, and let us share the family lunch.

If I was to sum up my experience, it has led to the need for a realigning of the student-teacher balance in my mind. In Michaela, the teachers command a huge level of respect from students. They are treated in a way that reveres the profession. Hargreaves and Fullan in their book, ‘Professional Capital’  state that in the highest performing educational countries in the world – Finland, Singapore and Canada, the regard for teachers is immense from students, many parents and wider society. Michaela has a model they believe in, and are able to teach every day with little or no disruption and without challenge, which is a dream for many schools. I believe in the importance of listening to the students’ viewpoints -sure, but our limits of tolerance have extended too far; our pandering over the years to their moods, their need to be entertained in lessons, and to often dumb down content has led to a culture where for some students, we simply don’t aim high enough.

 

 

There are 7 key things I will take away as major learning points for me:

  1. The high expectations of all students. 

Michaela employ a simple system – SLANT -(Sit up straight, Listen, Answer Questions, Never shout out, Track the teacher). Simply turning round twice in a lesson can result in a detention. Crazy? Well, why not? The much maligned ‘zero tolerance’ could be interpreted as a straightjacket and causing more problems than it solves, but it has been imposed at Michaela and it clearly works.

The whole lesson is spent focusing and the amount of work completed is impressive when looking at books. With the increase in technology, concentration levels are dwindling; we have a responsibility to try and restore these. I see students looking out of the window after 5 mins of extended writing; I have given rest breaks to my Year 11s now and again after an intensive piece of writing; I have read in background reports that a student needs to be reminded of each step on a  1 to 1 basis, and everything be chunked down. Well, this won’t be the service he gets when he reaches the world of work.

The expectations of behaviour are admirably high. If a student is put in detention, they do quizzing work. If an insufficient amount is completed, they serve the detention again. I wonder what the Michaela teachers would make of the fact I currently send two reminder email messages out via student runners to students who have been placed in detention to remind them to come along, as I hope to help them avoid a stronger consequence.They usually ignore my kind reminder…

The balance needs to shift back.

We should not be worried about putting a sensible blanket rule in place and sticking to it. For example, insisting that any student who walks into a classroom with their jacket/hoodie on has it immediately confiscated, would instantly remove something that is a daily battle for many teachers. There would be kick-back, but within a week of enforcement, the removal of the ‘take your coat off’ to the same students three times before they grudgingly start work, disappears.

The students’ own expectations are exceptionally high. All students on a fellow visitor’s table talked of University aspirations, and there is an unashamed pride and celebration of learning. Waiting for their lunch, students were keen to call out definitions to a teacher as he asked them in the queue. At the start of lunch, students recited poetry together, before the deputy head shared an anecdote about the importance of good spelling and the poor impression you make on people if you cannot spell well. Students were encouraged to reflect on this during their meal. No-one sneered or raised eyebrows.

2. The focus on manners / kindness / appreciation for others -a family dynamic

I was hugely impressed with this, and this kind of culture would be a cornerstone of any school I help to shape in the future. Clearly, students at Michaela have been drilled in the importance of this, and their politeness and manners were a pleasure to behold. Many students wished me ‘Good afternoon’; students at lunch were on mixed year group tables of 6 and each had a role to play – one served the drinks, one the food, one cleared up, etc.

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The ‘appreciations’ come at the end of the meal -all students stand up in unison at the instruction of the teachers (who all sit down to eat with the kids -a nice touch) and literally hundreds of students put up their hands with an offer of an ‘appreciation’ to declare in front of a packed dining hall -further testament to the confidence being nurtured in these young people. I thought this would be for fellow students for being friendly for this and that, but no, the majority of the appreciations are given for teachers and even parents – ‘I’d like to thank Mr X for his feedback and helping me improve today‘ ; ‘I’d like to thank my Mum for helping encourage me with my homework last night‘. They are praised by the lead teacher for sharing and speaking confidently aloud -speaking up is massive at Michaela.

Again, no-one sniggered. No-one nudged the contributors and called them ‘keeners’. (I think of the number of times I have given out haribo at the end of a tough week’s learning to a class, and half the students don’t even say thank you!) These kids seem to have had something quite special ingrained in them that few teenagers have – the recognition their education is a privilege.

 3. The value placed on reading

This is massive at Michaela. 15 minutes in the morning reading their own library book, and 20 minutes communal reading in the afternoon EVERY DAY -reading through one classic at a time. A year 8 boy told me his favourite books were ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (and ‘The BFG’!) Homework reading is also expected.

There is a core understanding across Faculties that all teachers are teachers of reading and literacy first and foremost, and that has been translated into the learning booklets across subjects which purposefully have extended reading extracts in. v1310109as_d

The calculated aim is that students are exposed to 10,000 words a day. There is a wonderful quote on a reception Michaela flyer – ‘Learners are readers, and readers are leaders’.

My reflection here is that many schools don’t do enough in this regard, and the communal reading experience (more important than independent reading in my view for developing understanding) needs to form a much greater part of morning/afternoon tutor times.

Students are also encouraged to read with rulers and all lines are numbered to aid quick retrieval and comprehension questions. I don’t know enough on this area to comment but it seemed interesting. In English, students have a separate literacy booklet which they work from exclusively once a week, and in daily starters to lessons.

4. Making learning simple

Students don’t have backpacks anywhere on show -presumably kept in lockers for the end of the day. They have a uniform zip A4 bag  they carry around, large enough to contain a few books and a pencil case. In each lesson, there appears to be a system to the subject booklets: Lesson content is discussed together, tested, and then corrected together as a group. Recaps are frequent – the science of learning in this respect is embedded here. Students use green pens for corrections.The core knowledge for a subject is also featured on a single page of students’ Year 7 or 8 Knowledge Organizer -learn it in class and then students are encouraged to ‘self-quiz’ this core knowledge at home. Books are immaculate. It is unashamedly traditional -there are lots of comprehension questions being set across subjects based on extended passages of text. There is no peer assessment/paired or group work/powerpoints/posters/visual stimulus of any kind.

The Knowledge organizer is something more and more schools are using, and again simplifies the importance of the core learning and repeated retrieval practice of these vital elements. I like it a lot at KS3 in establishing core terms, but wonder how manageable this will remain at KS4. I am currently trying to do something similar for English Lang and Lit at KS4, but getting anything below 200 questions / core pieces of info is tough. What it must be for more content heavy subjects like Science, I shudder to think!

5 Honesty

Whilst the school believes students who have done well should be congratulated and encouraged to explain what steps they have taken that have led to that success, there is a reluctance to soften messages that students need to hear if they have under-performed. This should be made crystal clear to them without modifying phrases, and questions asked about the reason for their under-performance -effort?lack of prep? etc.

Again, I think in recent years we often cloud areas of focus / learning points for students for fear of being perceived as negative. This is not always useful.

Michaela also welcomes the use of marks and believes ‘competition is good’, disliking the ‘prizes for all’ culture.

I agree with this. Whilst holding back marks temporarily, and providing feedback first prevents the ‘What did you get conversation?’ and leads to richer learning reflections, ultimately I see nothing wrong with revealing marks to students. Knowing where they stand in comparison to their peers is not always a demotivater in my view, and can often give them the firm nudge they need to up their game.

6 Students can be the thief of time!

They’re not allowed to be at Michaela. Even our guides had timers. There is great effort put into avoiding something that exasperates teachers beyond almost anything else – faffing.

Students must take their pen and book out of their zip bag before they enter the classroom, ready to work immediately. There is a short count down, then ‘SLANT’ (mentioned earlier) and students are sitting upright, and tracking the teacher.

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No student has to be told to take a coat off. Like backpacks, presumably these are stored away at the start of the day. Timings for lessons, lunch, etc are adhered to by students with military precision.

Lessons also progress at a rate of knots with the underlying message – ‘it’s more effective if we instruct’. Students annotate poems together. I don’t necessarily agree with this approach but without doubt it leads to a culture of ‘You’d better damn well keep up -this machine ain’t stopping!’ -and students seemingly DO step up.

Sometimes we do allow too much small ‘fun’ lead up activities – maybe we need to cut to the quick a bit more.

7. The collective power of the group

Michaela rejects the idea that every child is unique. Many students are very similar in terms of learning needs, and they treat them as such. Lessons are geared towards the whole group learning together at the same pace, in the same way. In French, students chant back the vocab together; in the dinner hall, students clap twice each appreciation –together. I am fascinated by this element – the community / supportive environment. It is clearly inbuilt in every system in place. It is clearly ingrained in the students that ‘we will succeed. Work with us, and you will go far.‘ There are few if any dissenters.

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There aren’t parents’ evenings either. Parents are expected to support the school judgements 100% without question. It is stated you wouldn’t question a surgeon; have the same respect for us as teachers.

Again, in Finland -one of the highest performing countries in the world, the teaching profession is regarded as highly in society as medicine and law. What has happened in this country for it to sink so low where everyone thinks they know best?

Every detail is considered with the importance of the group in mind. There is no bullying here – students are only allowed to walk round in groups of 4 on their lunch or they get a demerit. This sounds incredible -but there is a logical rationale – that, in groups of more than 4, students may struggle to get their voice heard in a conversation. Equally, bigger groups can appear more intimidating to individual students.

Again, I think the large group culture is a problem in many schools at break and lunch time, and can often contribute to bullying.

It’s not just the students. Clearly, to make this school work, all the staff have to be on exactly the same page, and they seem to be -notable in the consistent use of SLANT, in their teaching approach, their carefully positioned presence throughout the dining hall, but also in their belief in striking a different path together, one which they believe is undoubtedly the best one for their students.

Such marked consistency of approach across a staff body is quite something.

So to conclude, it shows what can be achieved with the sheer strength of will and vision to pursue it. I was hugely impressed with Katharine’s vision and her team’s school, and again, very appreciative of them letting me visit a great school -one that may not be unique for much longer as many schools pick up elements here and there!

There are, of course, questions I have but it would be disrespectful to my hosts to go into any real detail on these here.

Briefly – they are, and I am happy to be challenged on these:

  • Around the students’ seeming lack of encouragement to pause lessons and ask questions, to get individual support, reflect with a partner on the learning, how deeper understanding/metacognition of ideas is assessed if silence and Teacher to whole group teaching is the only model utilised.
  • Whether this learning approach prepares students for future careers where there will be a much greater need to be creative and work independently.
  • The absence of any displays.
  • The lack of models of best work in books- Are these used and interrogated regarding what constitutes higher and lower level work?
  • The absence of marking in favour of the whole class approach. Is this possible as the school moves into Key Stage 4 and individualised feedback becomes more crucial?
  • Is the complete obedience a result of innate motivation, or fear of sanctions/treatment/rapid expulsion?

 

Thanks for reading – a long piece I know, but it’s been a long weekend of reflecting, following Friday!