Archive | June 2014

Challenge, Challenge, Challenge!

I’m always banging on about challenge. I do this in lots of different ways. For example, I frequently vent my disdain for “learning passports” and their equivalent (those little excuse cards in the students’ planners that encourage them to believe they can’t read aloud or that they mustn’t attempt to construct their own paragraphs without having all the words or phrases they need given to them first). I also get annoyed at the fact that most schools still place students in sets and teach the bottom set easy texts (or easy maths or BTEC Science) and the top sets get to do the good stuff. And sometimes I moan about how easy the novels we expect our students to read in KS3 are. No matter the day or time, I usually find some excuse to bang on about challenge, or the lack of it.

As teachers, it is our job to make the good stuff accessible to the kids that don’t yet quite have the tools to access them, not save it for the “bright” kids (the ones who’ve had a lot more practice at reading and writing and have a home environment that nurtures and encourages these skills). Three things happened to me this week that served to emphasise this point of view (and yes, I know, I’m seeking confirmation bias, but that’s what works for me I’m afraid).

Last Sunday, I was sat marking some English GCSE exams for AQA. Some of you may know that these are all done online these days; all the papers are scanned in at some central location and markers can log on when and where they want providing there’s an internet connection. So there I was, marking away, when the 5 year old appeared at my shoulder and began reading the first line of an answer aloud. When she’d finished reading the line she pointed to one of the words, something like “sunny” or “large”, and said “Daddy, I know what that word is. It’s an adjective, a describing word.” I whirled round and said “wow, that’s great! Can you find a doing word?”

“A what?” retorted the bemused visage.

“A doing word? You know, a verb?” At this she looked at me with utter contempt and said, “Daddy, a verb is an action word, not a doing word. Look, there’s one there.” And promptly pointed to a verb.

Now this got me thinking; I’ve just waved goodbye to some year 11s who still couldn’t tell the difference between a verb and an adjective, and yet here I am faced with evidence that even a five year old can identify these things. So what went so wrong that these 16 year olds can’t even do it? Could it have been a lack of challenge? A lack of expectation? A lack of practice? All three?

Then, on Tuesday morning, I was teaching a small group in year 9. This group is the set 5 in the band, littered with SEN statements and learning passports (the cynic in me might say a group created to fail, a self-fulfilling prophecy.) The group are currently studying The Lord of the Flies, a challenging text at any level, and are really enjoying it. All of them, despite their excuse cards, actually read out at one point or another, and many actively ask to do this at the start. We’d just finished reading chapter 4 and I thought it might be a good idea to pause and take stock of some of the themes in the book. Our lesson objective (I always frame these as questions now) was “Why are some themes more important than others?” This is clearly a very challenging objective that requires many smaller steps to build up to, and one that can be entered from any (post-unistructural) SOLO level. The idea was that by the end of the lesson the students would be able to produce a piece of writing in which they could evaluate the importance of some of the key themes in the story and then make an informed and justified decision as to how they ranked in importance. And, through lots of whole class discussion (to which everyone contributed), a silent debating activity using big paper and felt tip pens, and a little bit of teacher modelling, they were perfectly capable of doing this.

That same afternoon I had my set 1 year 10 group. They’ve just finished reading the first act of Macbeth and I wanted to pause to do a piece of writing that would test their learning, develop their critical thinking, and give them something to go back to when it comes to preparing for their controlled assessment in September. I wanted them to think about the act less in terms of plot and more in terms of a tool used by Shakespeare. Their (again very challenging) learning objective was “How does Shakespeare use Act 1 to engage the audience and set up the rest of the play?” The previous lesson had been set up to allow them to explore the objective in terms of characters, themes, settings, events and foreshadowing/clues. During this lesson I wanted to spend a short time recapping the work done in the previous lesson before giving the group half an hour of focused, silent writing time. During this time the work that they had produced the previous lesson was displayed around the room so that if they felt stuck they could go over to it and have a look to get some inspiration. At the same time, each table was given a wad of post-it notes in case they wanted to ask me anything. These they could stick on the board in a queue and I would deal with each in turn; they key was that the silence wasn’t broken.

Anyway, I had just set this activity going when one of the DHTs walked in with a guy from the National College who was shadowing HMI (who were also in school). The first comment was “It’s very quiet!” So I explained the point we were at and how we’d led up to the task. They talked to a few students, looked at a few books, and then disappeared. I later bumped into the DHT in the corridor where she told me that the chap she was with (who was an English specialist) was impressed at the high level of challenge and how well the students engaged and coped with this, usually expecting to see this kind of thing in a year 13 class. But it wasn’t anything special; they know they are expected to operate at a high level and I know they can, so they do.

So, to recap. My daughter was identifying things that some 16 year olds can’t; the year 9 class were doing things that the institution wouldn’t expect them to be able to do; and the year 10 group were engaging at a level that is well above what is expected for their age. And so here is the point. As teachers, we should expect this from all our students, regardless of “ability”, age or what their learning passports say. With the right support and conditions and given enough time, there’s really not very much that your students can’t do. You’ve just got to give them the tools to do it.

Engaging Teaching Strategies #3

Three more strategies that I find indispensable in my everyday teaching. The first is directly linked to SOLO taxonomy; the second and third are quite specifically English-related but can be used in a variety of ways.

Hexagons

Using cut out paper hexagons is a great way of consolidating current knowledge and building multi-structural and relational knowledge. I keep a bag full of these in my classroom ready to hand out. At any point in a topic you can hand them out and get students to write a isolated facts on a set number of them (you can differentiate here). Once they’ve got their facts they can lay them down in turn, discussing how the one they are putting down links to the others that it touches. They’ll end up with something like the old Blockbusters grid. Once they’ve done this you have many options: you could get them to circulate round the room and talk through other groups’ grids; you could get them to trade hexagons with other groups; or you could get them to take the grid apart and get them to rebuild it differently; you can get them to use the grid as a scaffold for writing; you could even set up debates between groups where they have to argue for whose grid is best, justifying their reasons. I find 2 inch hexagons are best, but you could also explore the possibilities of different sizes and of using different colours to represent different aspects or qualities. They are also useful for teaching sentence structure. Get them to write different word types onto different hexagons and get them to build up different types of sentence structures , all the time thinking about why words can and can’t go in certain places.

Images of settings (link to theme and character)

Providing students with a series of images can be used as a foundation for a variety of activities or types of learning. I last used this when we had finished reading About A Boy. There are many, many locations used in the novel and providing students with them in picture format helps with revision and embedding learning. As with the dice, the possibilities are limitless: they can arrange them in the order they appear and try to summarise the story through discussion of the pictures; they can change the order they appear in to try and evaluate how changed narrative structure would have affected the story’s effect on the reader; they can rank them in order of importance in relation to the outcome of the story; they can group them by related themes or in relation to character. Having the images in front of them is just a really great way to engage them in the learning and get them talking.

Ingredients List

This can be used for creative writing or speaking and listening activities. Very often the hardest thing for students getting started is a phobia of the blank page. If you give them a list of things to include it automatically eradicates that fear and they will begin thinking how they can fit the ingredients together in a narrative. You can vary this either for genre writing or by using ingredients from a variety of genres to create more challenge. I’ve used this recently in two ways. First of all I gave a top set of year 10 students a list of twelve ingredients (a murder, a European city, a jilted lover, a terrible dream, an old man, a flood, a beautiful forest, a gang of wandering entertainers, a lone hill amid flat countryside, a family heirloom, an angry mammal and a coastal tavern). The class’s job, in groups, was to create a narrative that they would present to the rest of the class in an entertaining way. Some of the stories they came up with were fantastic and the list meant they were stimulated from the outset as fitting the elements in requires a problem solving approach. The other way I used an ingredients list lately was to ask groups to list 10 key ingredients they would expect to see in a ghost story, draw them on paper and then order the pieces of paper to create a narrative which they then wrote up independently. Again this led to some extremely productive discussion and writing.

Engaging teaching strategies #2

Here are three more tried and tested ideas for everyday use in the classroom. The first is a great trust and relationship builder; the second can be hard work but pays huge dividends in the long run; the third is a fun, engaging and novel way to start a lesson that can be adapted to almost any subject or topic.

Doing the work with them.

When I give students a task to do, I try wherever possible to also do it myself. This has numerous benefits. Firstly, it conveys the message that we’re all in this together. Secondly, it models good writing habits. And thirdly, it provides the students with a model answer with which they can compare their own writing which then leads into debate and discussion about writing styles and structures and hitting assessment objectives.

Explicitly teaching planning skills

How many times do we ask our students to plan a piece of writing or a presentation but not actually check that they have a clear view of how to plan? By explicitly modelling planning techniques it allows students to choose the best way for them. I usually try to give them at least three models; mind-mapping, bullet-pointing and flow chart planning. If we show them these things in practice it gives students the ability to embed them into their own habits.

Favourite food of characters.

This was something I first used as a starter a couple of years ago when I was teaching Romeo and Juliet. Students had to try and decide what each of the characters from the play would choose as their favourite food and then justify the choices they had made. It was a great way to test the students understanding of the characters and also to engineer a highly effective debating situation.

Marking for England or Marking for Effect: a feedback journey.

andywarner78

Some years ago the school I worked in had no real accountability measures or explicit expectations about how teachers marked their books. Consequently, many never did, and the vast majority of the others (including myself) did it sporadically and with no real impact or reason. It was very much a case of ticking the pages and leaving a “well done” or a “good work” at the bottom to show the student that their books had been looked at. I remember a training day where teachers who were deemed outstanding were asked to put on exemplary lessons for teachers to partake in. It was a great experience but what shocked me was that in one lesson the books were marked with nothing other than ticks and “well dones”. Clearly not “outstanding” practice (whatever that may be, but that’s another discussion!).

Then, about 3 or 4 years ago, I started to read…

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Engaging activities that work #1

andywarner78

This series of blogs is a compendium of activities that I find work well in the classroom. It grew out of a desire to document all the best things I use in my teaching, week in week out, so that I could pick and choose from a list to ensure that things were kept fresh, different and exciting. Clearly any activity has to be chosen carefully to aid the learning that a lesson sets out to deliver, and some will be more effective than others depending on the types of classes and the individuals that make them up.

When I started teaching, planning very much involved planning for tasks and activities rather than for the learning that was taking place. In fact, I don’t think I ever thought explicitly about the abstract learning that children were doing; rather I designed tasks that I thought just made interesting and exciting ways…

View original post 407 more words

Marking for England or Marking for Effect: a feedback journey.

Some years ago the school I worked in had no real accountability measures or explicit expectations about how teachers marked their books. Consequently, many never did, and the vast majority of the others (including myself) did it sporadically and with no real impact or reason. It was very much a case of ticking the pages and leaving a “well done” or a “good work” at the bottom to show the student that their books had been looked at. I remember a training day where teachers who were deemed outstanding were asked to put on exemplary lessons for teachers to partake in. It was a great experience but what shocked me was that in one lesson the books were marked with nothing other than ticks and “well dones”. Clearly not “outstanding” practice (whatever that may be, but that’s another discussion!).

Then, about 3 or 4 years ago, I started to read quite widely about educational practice and realised that this simply wasn’t good enough. Hattie and Wiliam published their stuff and it became apparent to those of us that read this kind of thing that marking and feedback probably the single most important thing a teacher can do to improve student progress, if done well.

So I decided to change my ways. When I sat down and thought about it, which I’d never done previously, I realised that sometimes I only marked some sets of books once or twice a term. Where was the good in that? By the time the work was marked, students had moved on to a new topic! The marking was irrelevant! The second problem, I realised, was that the comments weren’t targeted at the work the students had produced; they were simply generic praise or encouragement.

To tackle these two issues I resolved to do two things: mark more frequently and regularly, and ensure that the comments I wrote were actually referring to the quality of the work students had produced and suggest ways they could improve. These two simple things seem so obvious now, but working in a culture where these basic things are not seen as normal and marking isn’t ever spoken about or monitored creates a situation in which terrible practice can develop.

Anyway, I decided to start tracking my marking using a spreadsheet (something that I still do) so that I could see when each set of books had been marked. This turned out to be a fantastic tool in supporting and motivating my marking. The visual record of highlighted and un-highlighted boxes served as a catalyst to ensure that each class got their fair share of attention and that no books were left for an unacceptable period of time.

The second change, the quality of comments, was also massive. As well as marking for literacy errors throughout a piece of work (which I’d always done), I began leave one comment at the end that embodied both some praise and formative feedback, for example “Lovely description with excellent choice of similes, but please revise the rule for using apostrophes.” Clearly this was much better. But I still didn’t see a lot of impact.

I began looking at other colleagues’ work. I determined to steer well clear of the frankly patronising and nauseating “2 stars and a wish” that some colleagues employed, but I did discover that one colleague separated out the two parts of the comment, beginning with a positive and then setting out the target for improvement below next to a circled capital letter “T”. Again, better, but still no real impact on progress.

At this time it began to be picked up by the SLT, thanks to a county visit, that actually marking is quite important (you’ll detect a hint of understatement here), and they began to talk more about marking and make their new higher expectations more evident. HoDs suddenly felt that the answer was to have pages that had more teacher feedback than student work on them. The emphasis was on the quantity of what was written, and this was reflected in the scrutinies. I am fairly confident that I could have covered those pages in irrelevant scrawl and, provided there was plenty of it, the scrutinies wouldn’t have picked this up.

And, as I stated earlier, still no real impact. So what was missing? From a 2014 perspective, it will be obvious to most: a lack of DIRT time. Giving students the time and space to reflect on their prior learning, respond to teacher comments, make corrections, redraft their work and enter into a dialogue with the teacher about what they have done. Couple this with high quality peer assessment and you have, in my opinion, the silver bullet. The gaps will close, the students will make progress and, if done regularly and routinized, a culture of learning and aspiration will begin to develop.

The last thing that we introduced, which I think really makes for great practice, was the use of highlighters in our marking. Rather than just having the two comments at the end with a positive and a target, we now colour code these in blue and yellow. Blue = www (what went well), yellow = ebi (even better if). The students know what the colours stand for and the students work looks great. We don’t cover the whole lot in highlighter, but pick out key bits that correspond to the comments at the end. And, if you keep on top of it, it really isn’t all that time consuming.

So, why the blog title? I few weeks ago I was discussing with my new headteacher the importance of marking and feedback, and he coined this phrase, acknowledging the potentially back breaking work load associated with good marking that isn’t carried out in a smart way. “Teachers need to be marking for effect, not marking for England.”

And herein lies the rub; great marking that has an impact isn’t about teachers writing a lot in books, in fact sometimes we may not need to write anything. I don’t like to comment extensively on class notes and things like that. Comments should be reserved for pieces of writing that are original and demonstrate a student’s learning and ideas and they should be targeted in a way that supports and develops that learning and those ideas. It should only ever focus on the work in the book and it should consist of questions, targeted comments, peer assessment and DIRT time, not lines and lines of generic blather telling the student how lovely they are and how much the teacher thinks of them.

 

 

Engaging teaching strategies #1

This series of blogs is a compendium of activities that I find work well in the classroom. It grew out of a desire to document all the best things I use in my teaching, week in week out, so that I could pick and choose from a list to ensure that things were kept fresh, different and exciting. Clearly any activity has to be chosen carefully to aid the learning that a lesson sets out to deliver, and some will be more effective than others depending on the types of classes and the individuals that make them up.

When I started teaching, planning very much involved planning for tasks and activities rather than for the learning that was taking place. In fact, I don’t think I ever thought explicitly about the abstract learning that children were doing; rather I designed tasks that I thought just made interesting and exciting ways into novels, poems and plays. When I look back, I realise that yes, students were learning a lot, but we just weren’t ever explicit about what the learning was.

 But when you think about it, it makes a lot more sense to begin with the learning and then choose or design the activities afterwards to allow the learning to take place. What follows is a kind of menu of tried and tested activities that I have used in the classroom and that you can pick and choose from to ensure your learning objective is achieved. Very few are my own invention, and so I owe a huge debt of gratitude to many, many educators. I’ll post them in groups of three. Please get in touch if you want to discuss them in further detail.

 

Allowing thinking time for questioning

This appears obvious but in reality doesn’t happen often enough. When you ask a question in the classroom it’s important to allow students plenty of time to cognitively process their thoughts and articulate an answer. It’s so easy when we don’t get an answer straight away to rephrase the question or add another on to help students answer the first one. But, although it can feel like a long time, giving 10 seconds thinking time will almost always result in somebody offering a decent answer. So don’t keep stacking the questions up; get used to allowing that long uncomfortable silence that will give students chance to process their thoughts and ideas.

Collapsing (or filleting) a text (word quarry)

This is a fantastic way into poems. It involves putting the text into a word document and rearranging the words into alphabetical order using the find and replace tool. You can then present the resulting “word quarry” to students who can try to rebuild the text or work out what the original was about. It works equally well for analytical and creative work.

Dice to add an element of randomness

Using dice in teaching is a great way to engage students. The dice automatically shout excitement to the students because of the connotations of luck and chance. You can use them in lots of ways. When looking at a text or passage you can use the dice to randomly select words to analyse or use creatively. You can use them to select students to answer questions or to select groups to do activities or tasks. The possibilities are limitless.