Archive | March 2015

Teaching Grammar: a confession.

I had an unexpectedly cracking lesson with my mixed ability year 9 group this week. But I shouldn’t have. Oh no, forgive me Lord, I really shouldn’t have.

You see, I’m ashamed to admit that we didn’t do any group work. And I didn’t plan for their “learning styles”. I’m sorry to have to come clean and tell you that “discovery learning” was nowhere to be found. What was more unforgivable was that volume of “teacher talk” was through the ceiling. And worse still, there was absolutely none of that “differentiation by task” that apparently makes a good lesson.  In fact, all I really did was stand at the front and teach them some grammar. This was on Thursday, and still I’m unable to lift my head and meet the accusing and disappointed eyes of my colleagues. Through my traditionalist approach to the teaching of such an outmoded and outdated topic, I’ve let down my school and the profession generally.

Anyway, enough of the wallowing confession. This is how it happened.

I had planned for a lesson in which students would spend up to half an hour going back through their books correcting and improving their work in response to my written feedback, after which they would move on to planning and drafting a piece of biographical writing. At first, all went well. Students busily went about their work and I circulated to support them and answer their questions. Half a dozen of them had a similar comment in their book, which was something like:

“Try to create more complex sentence structures by opening some sentences with adverbial and prepositional clauses.”

Ten minutes into the lesson it became apparent that none of them knew what this meant, and I felt it would be beneficial to everyone in the class to “do some grammar”. So I called a temporary halt to what the class was doing and began a bit of old-school chalk and talk (without the blackboard and chalk, obviously). I’ve always felt that the best way to teach the building up of complex sentence structures is by starting with simple sentences, building up through compound sentences, and then liberally dropping in subordinate clauses around that compound sentence.

So I asked one student for a simple sentence. Her response was “I can’t think of one”. I thanked her very much and wrote on the board “Carrie couldn’t think of one.” (Students’ names are changed here by the way). I then asked why this was a simple sentence, and it took a bit of gentle steering and targeted questioning before one bright spark finally realised that it only had one verb in it. When I asked the group how we could turn it into a compound sentence, Gemma offered the wise idea of adding more information using a connective (I’m kicking myself now for not reminding her that it’s a conjunction, not a connective), and somebody else realised that we’d need another verb phrase (although he didn’t use that term, and again, I didn’t correct him – two missed opportunities in almost as many minutes!). When I asked for a suggestion, Carrie called “but Tom thought of one for her!” (great – she was getting it). That went straight on the board and we were then free to talk about how and where to add in adverbial and prepositional phrases (once we’d cleared up the differences between the two).

I elicited several examples of different subordinate clauses that could be slotted in and around the original sentence, and with a different coloured board pen I wrote them on the board with an arrow pointing where they could go, after getting students to explain why they could go there (I probably missed an opportunity here and should have let the kids come and write their ideas on the board whilst the class scrutinised and argued about what they were doing).

By the end of it we ended up with something like “Unfortunately, whilst sitting in the classroom, Carrie, who usually knows it all, couldn’t think of a simple sentence, but Tom, who thought he was much cleverer, kindly thought of one for her”. Clearly, this isn’t the most elegant sentence in the world, but it was just about what I was hoping for because every bit of it had been thoroughly discussed and explained by the students. We then discussed the potential changes in the meaning of the sentence if we played around with the adverb, so that Tom “savagely” or “cunningly” or “spitefully” or “violently” thought of one for her. This brought about lots of giggles.

As we were all in high spirits after this discussion, I decided to take a bit of a risk and gave them a new sentence to play with: “Mr Warner drove to work”. There were some fantastic responses to this, but I think my favourite was “Joyfully, Mr Warner, a barbaric savage, drove to work to brutally discipline the cowering children”. I thought this was a perfect sentence in regard to the traditional, old-fashioned, stereotypical grammar lesson we’d had (I bet this fictional Mr Warner was probably going to teach some good old-fashioned grammar after getting the discipline out of the way).

Unfortunately, I suddenly realised was that the lesson was almost over and we’d spent 40 minutes “just playing” with language. Everyone had had a good laugh, but most importantly they’d been “doing grammar”, which should be the cornerstone of all English teaching. And I’m pretty confident that all of the kids in that room now have a much better idea of the whys and hows of sentence construction.

Two years ago, in a blog entitled “Embedding Grammar: developing subject specialists in English”, I’d promised myself that I’d do a lot more of this kind of thing, but, like so many ideas, this went by the wayside in the race to cover content.  And yet explicitly teaching and revisiting grammar is so important. Moreover, it’s something that our students will need to be experts in if they are to do well in the new English GCSEs. But the best thing about it is that in actual fact exploring the effect of grammatical fiddling is actually a bloody good laugh. So, note to self: I MUST TEACH MORE GRAMMAR!


Mocksteds and Passengers: trying to make things better.

We had a County monitoring visit on Tuesday. It went exactly as I expected. Everything in our faculty was deemed to be good, with one or two tiny exceptions that I knew about anyway and I’m already in the process of ironing out.

Let me contextualise this a little bit: in September 2014, I joined a small rural secondary school in a very small town in the East of England. The school was in Special Measures from 2010-2012 due to some very bad results and “interesting” financial management. In June last year, Ofsted came again and deemed that the school was currently RI. However, some very good results in summer 2014 and the tightening up of practice this year puts the school, in our humble estimation, firmly in the “good” category, but due to the Ofsted judgement we are subject to frequent monitoring visits from County.

When we were told on Monday morning that the “Mocksted” would take place the next day, I held a Faculty meeting in which I asked colleagues not to change anything that they’d already planned and not to put on a show. There is an inherent urge in all of us to be seen at our very best and this is fine and natural, but this shouldn’t stretch to being seen doing something that we wouldn’t normally do. I was lucky as I knew that on that day there were only two lessons in which I could be seen: I have a couple of frees periods 1 + 2, year 10 period 3, the year 11 group I’d normally teach period 4 were in a Literature Mock, and I’d finish the day with a year 9 lesson. The year 10 group were at the point in the course where they were planning and preparing for their Literature controlled assessments and the year 9s were also going to be planning a piece of writing, this time a persuasive letter for which they’d spent the last lesson debating the issues and ideas they wanted to include. I told my colleagues that I would not be veering from this plan and that I’d like them to do the same.

The observation came period 3. My year 10s have been studying A Christmas Carol and Romeo and Juliet since December, and are now at the point where I’m not allowed to physically teach them anymore, so they just came in and got on with their drafts and plans. I reiterated the ground rules and expectations at the start: I wanted a very low working level of noise but I expected them to consult one another as well as myself to get feedback on what they were doing, self and peer assessing what they produced against the exam board’s marking criteria and comparing it to the model essay I’d provided them with. I’d also provided some planning scaffolding sheets for those that wanted them, but made it clear these weren’t obligatory. As always, I was perfectly happy for the observers to be in there; the students were well prepared, their books were clearly and effectively marked and they all knew what to do. My only concern was that the noise level might increase too much; 33 mostly male teenagers in a small classroom can get quite noisy, even when the talk is about work, but they were fine.

When I got my feedback at the end of the day it was exactly as I expected; the visitor was impressed by the students’ knowledge of the topic and the seriousness with which they took their work; some of them were a bit vague about their targets and how to achieve them (fair point) and some weren’t responding effectively to the comments I wrote in their books (fair point), both things that we are currently working on as a school.

When I started at the school as HoD in September, my key aim was to establish a department in which good solid practice was consistent. I’m not interested in busy, noisy “outstanding” lessons in which teachers pander to the perceived “kinaesthetic” needs of students who actually just need to practise and improve their reading, writing and verbal skills. I don’t care about seeing sandpits, fancy dress or “whodunit” role plays in lessons. What I want to see is lessons in which students are engaged, interested and working hard to improve the aforementioned skills and their knowledge of our astonishing literary heritage through the deep study and discussion of lots of excellent texts. I want to see them striving to write about these texts in analytical and evaluative ways, and to try and emulate great writers by creating their own poems, stories, diaries, letters etc. Sound traditional? I suppose it is, but in my experience, it works.

The school and town I work in are unusual. There are no large settlements for many miles and not a lot happens there. It’s a traditional little town, quite culturally homogenous, and our students have little knowledge or experience of the outside world. However, teaching here is hard. Whereas I’m used to chasing huge gangs of smokers, confiscating all sorts of interesting paraphernalia and dealing with outright hostility from kids who see education as just another arm of state apparatus that’s out to get them, this school has students who just seem to float through life and school oblivious to anything except themselves, blissfully unaware ofimportant issues and current affairs. They think that nothing affects them and therefore aspiration, for many, is non-existent. Teachers at this school need to be tireless in expecting excellence and aspiration (as they do everywhere) and refuse to accept the “passenger mentality” that pervades so many of our students. By modelling hard work, passion for excellent literature and a thirst for learning, my hope is that eventually this will permeate through the culture of lethargy and passivity that seems to characterise so many of our students. If we strive to do a good job, then the students will too.