Oh, Where Have All The Sandpits Gone?

This week we interviewed four potential new English teachers with the aim that one of them would join our department. It was a brilliant day with excellent candidates and the final decision required lots of hard thought and discussion.

As is usually the case, the candidates were all required to deliver a full hour long lesson. I know that many schools prefer a 25 or 30 minute lesson, but I honestly think that a full hour is the best way to see how potential recruits perform under pressure: anybody can pack an engaging 25 minutes in with a class they’ve never met, but the full hour can give a much clearer picture when trying to differentiate between candidates and tests a wider range of skills, including time management, ability to maintain pace and momentum, and the strength to hold their nerve.

I thoroughly enjoyed observing the lessons. The task was to prepare a mixed ability KS4 class for the “describe” question in Section B of the English Language paper. I felt this was open-ended enough to allow creativity and originality whilst compelling careful thought and application in differentiating across the full range of abilities. A few years ago, I’d have expected to see unusual props brought in to “engage” (entertain?) our more “kinaesthetic learners”, with all kinds of gimmicky tricks that would shock and awe them into devoting their full attention.

Refreshingly, this wasn’t the case.

Without exception, all the lessons involved careful teacher modelling and explanation, clear success criteria, whole class discussion with a range of questioning strategies to elicit understanding, silent thinking, planning and writing time, and time for self or peer assessment. Some also included the study of literary examples in the preparation stage.

I can’t overstate just how pleased I was about this. It used to make me furious back in the noughties when I’d be observed by people who insisted on lessons that contained bizarre and “creative” ways to engage students. I remember once succumbing to this pressure for an observation and bringing in a guitar and trying to get the kids to sing a song I’d written about subordinate clauses; it was absolutely awful because it wasn’t my normal way of doing things – the kids felt uncomfortable, the observer (now a close friend) had all on not to burst into hysterics, and I felt a complete prat. She very kindly gave me a “satisfactory” for the lesson, more out of consideration for my self-esteem than anything else and the students barely learnt a thing (we still have a good laugh about it now).

It was one of my current colleagues who coined the term “sandpits”, which we now use as a catch-all term for those lessons that are fun, busy and practical but have no real application in developing students’ learning. She remembers a colleague actually bringing a full sandpit into a lesson during an Ofsted visit; this wasn’t her typical teaching style and even if it had been she’d have burnt out in two years. As nice as these lessons are for entertaining the students and keeping them happy (and avoiding the job at hand), they are generally a waste of time (English is an academic subject that requires excellent reading, writing and verbal skills, not the ability to build a tower of paper-clips). Our energies should be put into planning great lessons that build these skills up and that feed into what our students need to be able to do to succeed both in life after school and in their exams. The interview lessons that I saw on Friday restored some of my faith in the way that teacher training and teaching generally has fortunately moved over the last five years.

Oh, where have all the sandpits gone? (Condemned to the dustbin of educational history with any luck).

Coming Back After Christmas: why I’m glad I teach English.

The first week back after Christmas is, to my mind, one of the toughest of the year. There’s the mental build-up that begins a few days before New Year, that niggling voice at the back of your mind that keeps trying to remind you of all the things you haven’t done. Then there’s the realisation that you feel seriously unhealthy after all the alcohol, meats, cheeses, takeaways, caffeine and sofa-time. Then there’s the turning on of the alarm for the first time in a couple of weeks, the sleepless Sunday night and the inevitable groggy start on Monday. Add to that the appalling weather we’ve suffered and the knowledge that you’ll be seeing little, if any daylight, for a good few weeks yet, plus the possibility of a month without booze, and there’s no wonder January is so tough (a friend of mine always waits until February for a dry month, claiming that January is depressing enough as it is. It seems a great idea, particularly because it’s the shortest month!).

For me, Monday was a real toughie. I had to lead staff training in the morning, which I knew would be hard. The last thing staff want when they get back is to be given a load of ideas and strategies to use; they just want to be left to get on with it. And who can blame them? Fortunately we had the luxury of an afternoon in departments to “put into planning and practice” what we’d covered in the morning. This was great as it gave us the opportunity to rejig our KS4 long term plan and to revise our vision of how the course would evolve.  We all left that meeting with a sense of purpose and a clearer vision of where we are headed. Windows of time to discuss big issues are so important as, despite best intentions, once the term gets underway we all get bogged down in dealing with the day-to- day issues of teaching and running the school.

The start of Tuesday was also difficult. Seeing the students for the first time since the heady giddiness of the week before Christmas is like watching a stag party emerging the day after the party is over. You try to rally and chivvy them, but they know that it’s dark, cold and wet, and there’s not much to immediately look forward to. I was worried that this would be the shape of things to come over the next few weeks (experience should have told me otherwise), and I prepared to batten down the hatches against the imminent onslaught of those twin enemies of teachers, apathy and lethargy.

But I was wrong. I should have realised I would be wrong. Why? Because, luckily for me, I’m an English teacher. This week I’ve begun Macbeth with my Year 10s (lots of witchcraft, treachery, murder and intrigue afoot) and An Inspector Calls (always an old favourite) with a Year 11 group I’ve inherited due to a colleague changing her hours. I’ve been studying English Renaissance Poetry with Year 9, Orwell with Year 8, and Ted Hughes with Year 7. Quite honestly, the week has just got better as it’s gone on. I couldn’t imagine teaching any other subject and being able to go back with such an arsenal of exciting study material – I have pity for any English  teacher who can’t make the first week back a cracker with that little lot.

And therein lays the rub. The holidays are great, and the longer they are the more distanced we become from work, which is what holidays are for after all. But the whole “coming back” fear is, for me, all in the mind. As English teachers, we are perched on top of an incredible legacy of amazing work that we can draw on to inspire and motivate our students, regardless of age and ability. And that’s why, when you teach this subject, coming back is never as bad as it seems.

The New English GCSEs: a pleasure, not a chore.

There seems to be an awful lot of flapping and worrying about teaching the new GCSEs. I’m not afraid to say that, in our humble little department, we’re quite enjoying it. We’ve had a long term plan since a couple of terms before we started delivering it to our (now Year 10) students after February half term, and both teachers and students are getting to grips with it nicely.

We’ve structured it in such a way that we’ll have all the Lit texts taught by the end of year 10, so that we can interleave fortnightly study blocks of each topic in year 11. We studied Lord of the Flies over the summer term, six poems from the cluster during the first half of the autumn term, and we’re just finishing off A Christmas Carol as we speak. After Christmas we’ll study four more poems, spend the best part of a term studying Macbeth and then finish the remainder of the poems off as we gently meander our way to the end of the year. Mock exams in June will mean an interlude to revise exam topics and practice exam skills, but this should be a fairly painless experience as our students practice the kind of skills they’ll need every week anyway.

The main reason for this is that (as I noted in a previous post, “The Big Question: raising challenge by dropping objectives”) all our lessons are now framed by a big learning question that students write an extended, exam style answer to at the end of the learning episode (it might take one or many more lessons to get students in a position where they can write an excellent answer). Our learning questions tend to use question stems from the new GCSE English papers or the questions are phrased in such a way that the questions naturally compel students to engage with skills and concepts required by the papers. For example, over the last three weeks, my year 10s have prepared for and answered the following questions:

  • How does Dickens develop Scrooge’s character in Stave 2?
  • How does Dickens use the Cratchit family?
  • Why is The Ghost of Christmas Present so important?
  • What effective structural features are apparent in Stave 3?
  • How does Dickens make The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come so sinister?
  • Why is Stave 5 such an effective ending?

Clearly this leads to an awful lot of written output by the class and can make marking a terrible headache, but we’ve alleviated this through the careful cultivation of great peer-assessment. Our students now expertly peer-assess each response that is produced and they are encouraged to make sure that they get peer-comments from at least three different students, in order to triangulate, enhance and vary the feedback. When peer-assessing, they are expected to read and taken into account previous comments left so these are not repeated, and they can build upon these if they see fit. Furthermore, the students have been carefully trained to use language from the mark scheme in order to ensure that the feedback they receive is useful, targeted and relevant. This means that our written feedback is pared right back to the minimum, and provide more of a QA for the comments already left.

The vast majority of our Year 10s also seem very pleased with the way we are delivering the new GCSE. (We recently had an LA monitoring review and the Y10 students were very forthright in praising the English provision they receive and the delivery of the new course). There’s a big emphasis on whole class discussion and debate, with group work only really used in the preparation stage when building up ideas to answer the Learning Question. We did a Literature mock with the Year 10s last week and the results were pretty good, which I take as validation of our methods.

Obviously we are not completely clear on what exactly the new grades will look like, but this doesn’t bother us too much as we are confident our understanding isn’t far off and, let’s be honest; everyone is in the same boat.

As with most people, our biggest concern is how we’re going to get the weaker students through these very challenging and lengthy terminal exams. But there is no magic bullet and we can’t beat ourselves up on this point; we just need to make sure they get plenty of practice at answering the sorts of questions they’ll be asked and try to make the texts as enjoyable and memorable as possible (we were told by AQA that it is still possible to get the highest marks through “references to the text” and that quotations weren’t mandatory, which hopefully means these students will be in with a fighting chance providing we can teach them techniques to activate and use their memories effectively).

So, all in all, a positive start to the new GCSEs. No doubt that there will be unforeseen failings and pitfalls as we move through the course, but I’m confident we have the resilience and flexibility to deal with these as they arise. There’s always a slight nagging worry when doing anything new, but hopefully there won’t be any real disasters. Famous last words…

The Great Marking Debate: why marking with colours works.

There seems to have been an awful lot of cyber-palaver over the last few weeks between educationalists debating about marking and the use of different coloured pens. Howls of derision at being given multi-coloured pens by naïve and idiotic HoDs who want to please Ofsted and the SLT without a single thought for real education and real marking have been emitted across cyberspace, drowning out a lot of the other noise.

I remember being at a CPD event a few years ago where I was forced to bite my tongue when somebody began expounding the virtues of the “purple pen of progress”, turning me into a cringing, shaking mess in the corner. Honestly, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the idiocy of this idea.

But, I’m afraid I have to confess, I am a convert. I am that moronic head of department who unthinkingly forces pens of different colours onto my staff. I ask them, nay, force them, to mark in red. I cajole them into making students peer assess in purple. Even worse, I coerce my long-suffering faculty into providing green pens for students when they are responding or improving their work. And, to top it all off (this really does take the biscuit), I make them use blue and yellow highlighters in their marking to highlight effective work and that which needs to be improved.  Why do I do this? Mwaaaaahhahahahhahaha!. Because I can! The buzz I get from asserting my power and the tinge of pleasure I receive from showing our books to LA visitors, Ofsted types and the public in general makes me bristle with self-importance! Or maybe not.

Why do I do it? Because it works, stupid! Since I began adopting this approach four years ago, my students have learnt more and faster. If they can glance back in their books and instantly see what they’ve done well (blue) or what they didn’t do very well (yellow), then this aids their revision. If they want to find my comments quickly, they look for red. If they want to see how they’ve improved something, they look for green. Why do we colour-code anything (hands up if you colour code classes when you get a new timetable)? Because it makes it more efficient, better organised and easier to use. If the students use nothing but one colour and the teacher uses nothing but one other colour, there is no quick way to differentiate between what’s what.

As we gradually embed the new GCSEs, I think this will become even more important. Our students are given a different exercise book for each topic to help with revision,  and those studying the new GCSEs are going to have to become much better at revising than those students who sat previous exams. The use of different coloured pens in their books is, to my mind, going to be a vital aid in helping them to revise more smartly, more efficiently and more thoroughly. They will be able to pick out much more easily what’s going to be more or less useful. So, for us, the coloured pens are here to stay.

Differentiation in Action: the joy of observing a fantastic lesson

Yesterday I had the great honour and privilege of observing a fantastic lesson delivered by an MFL colleague. I was in the lesson for the first 25 minutes or so, and I can only describe the atmosphere in the room as “electric”. All the kids were completely engaged. Their “thirst for knowledge” filled the room and threatened to burst out through the roof. In short, it was amazing. The observation took place straight after lunch (period 4), and I left that room with a huge smile on my face. I couldn’t wait to feed back to the teacher and was only sorry that it would have to wait until the end of the day.

As I sat and reflected on the lesson, it got me thinking once again about that slippery old concept of differentiation. Some of my earliest and most viewed blogs were on this subject. The most popular blog I wrote, “Why We’ve got Differentiation Wrong,” was an angry response to the expectation that objectives should be differentiated and that “weaker” students should be given easier work and expected to do less. I championed the idea that differentiation should be a reactive process that is perfected by expert teachers who can deliver it in situ without detailed planning of how and when it should happen. The lesson I saw on Friday was a brilliant piece of evidence supporting this theory.

You see, there were no differentiated worksheets. There were no differentiated objectives. Every student in that room was expected to partake in the same activity. The emphasis was very much on speaking French, but the evidence in the books showed that these students (who had arrived 8 weeks ago without knowing a word of the language) could also write extended paragraphs in the target language. The progress that this group had made in the time they had been with this teacher was, quite frankly, phenomenal.

So what’s the key to this great teacher’s success? In my opinion, it is an intuitive approach to differentiation. For a start, the written feedback in their books is focused and differentiated, allowing the students to improve on their work. But the real magic is in the delivery of the lessons. As she carefully guides the class through activities that allow them to grow their vocabularies and practise their grammar, she is constantly checking and assessing every single child in the room, carefully rephrasing questions and explanations to ensure that each child has grasped what they need, or pushing those that have got it just that bit further to ensure that they are challenged. As she does this, she oozes passion and enthusiasm for the subject and for the students. Her body language shares an excitement that is contagious, shouting to everybody that she is so pleased to be in the room and sharing this fascinating stuff with the class.

And the students know that there is nowhere for them to hide (but then, nobody wants to hide). The exciting atmosphere in the room encourages everybody to do their best; every single child in that room is desperate to please this amazing teacher. A student who is wheelchair-bound arrived several minutes late with her TA and was seamlessly absorbed into the action. Within seconds she was answering questions and behaving like she’d been there from the start.

For me, it was invigorating and refreshing to watch this lesson. It gave me a reminder of how lessons ought to be taught and gave me further contempt for the nonsensical distinction between “sages on stages” and “guides on sides”; often the kids learn best when they have a brilliant “sage on the stage” to admire and aspire to emulate.

My last job of the week was to feedback to this teacher, and it was great to finish the week on such a high. I try not to talk about work at home, but after ten minutes of being back through the front door my poor wife and kids were fed up of me waxing lyrical about this fantastic lesson that I’d watched that afternoon. I hope I can take just a little bit of what I saw and inject it into my teaching next week.

 

Testing, Testing: The devil is in the delivery.

One Saturday afternoon during the spring of this year, I had just served up tea for my two kids. Without warning, the eldest, then aged six, began to weep uncontrollably into her pasta. I was shocked and very concerned. When I finally managed to persuade her to tell me what was the matter it transpired that she was worried about her upcoming SATS test on Monday. It turned out that her teacher had told the students that they were expected to produce their best work and that if they didn’t, or if they talked during the test, they would have their papers torn up in front of them.

As you can imagine, this made me really angry. At the time I tweeted about what a travesty it was that my daughter should be suffering like this at her age, worrying about tests when she should be enjoying herself.

But I now realise that it isn’t the testing that I have an issue with; it’s the way the tests are sold.

There has been a lot of debate and discussion this week on the necessity of testing after Nicky Morgan’s declaration that she wants to reinstate externally standardised tests at various points in a child’s school life. Much of the debate has been over whether teacher-assessed tests are as reliable as externally standardised tests; to me this is a nonsensical argument. I know that I have to constantly check the summative levels I give to my students’ work when I’m assessing it because  I personally know the students, and therefore, before I’ve even marked the work, I have formed a prejudiced expectation of what that child will achieve.

However, I also mark GCSE English Language for AQA, and so I am quite confident that the same prejudice doesn’t apply when marking work for students I don’t know: I may look at the handwriting and form some assumptions (a circle or love heart used to dot an “i” rarely implies anything above a “D”), but I’m pretty sure that my marking for the exam board carries way less bias than when I mark the work of students I know. There is no question that externally standardised tests are more objective.

So then the argument is whether or not we should test young children at all. Personally, I have no problem with testing – it gives teachers a reasonably objective snapshot of where a child is at a given point in time and provides useful data for both the child and school to use in various ways (professional conversations, reporting to parents, planning for progress etc.).  I have no qualms with my children, aged 5 and 7 being tested. But if they are to be tested then what I insist on is that the teachers don’t make a big deal out of it. We all know that the pressure is on the schools and the teachers to get the best results possible, but we are the professionals who are paid to take the pressure, not pass that pressure on to the kids who have no choice about being in that system. We teachers do have a choice, and we are the ones who should find strategies to ensure the pressure we are feeling is dealt with by us, professionally, and not passed on for these vulnerable, developing young minds to try and cope with. All the talk of high stakes and accountability needs to stay in the staffroom, not be foisted onto the children.

To my mind, (externally) test all you want. Just don’t use it to frighten the children.

The School Walk: community building at its best.

We had our school walk yesterday. It’s an event that has been occurring for decades in the school’s history, and something that really astounded and amazed me when I started working there last year. You just don’t hear about school walks happening anymore. When I was at school we did a walk when I was in year 8, but that was it. It was never run again after that year. The other local school, which I had friends at, used to do one too, but they don’t anymore.

I can see why schools are no longer willing to arrange them. They must be a health and safety nightmare for those at the top of the leadership hierarchy, and I must admit I used every opportunity yesterday to pull our Business Manager’s leg, asking him how his nerves were holding up each time I saw him. One of my former colleagues even tweeted me to say he “didn’t believe schools were still allowed to do things like that”.

So at 9.30 yesterday morning we set off marching across the Yorkshire Wolds, 500 students in high spirits, laughing, joking, and singing. Year 11 are allowed to do the walk in fancy dress, and to give them credit they had really made an effort. There were sumo wrestlers, NASA pilots, Teletubbies, and cave-girls, amongst myriad other colourful and eye-catching creations. Each house had nominated a charity that they would raise money for and the Y11s had to commit to raising a minimum amount in order to come in fancy dress. They had really gone to town.

Although we moved off in year groups, half a mile into the walk the groups were starting to mingle, as faster walkers moved up to the front and slower ones fell back. As we crossed wold after wold, skirting the local country pile, the sun beamed down, and gradually fancy-dress headwear gave way as teenage bonces began to sweat.  Five miles into the walk, we stopped at a quaint little village hall for tea and cakes (the interior walls were all painted with murals of idyllic pastoral scenes, which somehow reminded me of The Darling Buds of May). The students had donated cakes and biscuits to be sold to raise money for the Macmillan coffee morning event, and our Head of MFL was doing a roaring trade as I arrived with our NQT.

Again we formed up and moved off in groups, year 7 leading the way. Another 3 miles in we stopped for lunch at a beautiful little Wolds village that oozed a Mediaeval ambience with its large central green and houses laid out well back in a pretty square. By this time all that was left to do was gently amble the 7 miles back, gradually descending back down onto the plains of the Ouse and Humber.

By the time we arrived back at school most of us were exhausted but in great spirits. We laughed about the pain in our feet and legs and everyone agreed it was a great day. The cynical educator might worry that the students had each lost five hours of learning yesterday, equating to nearly 2,500 learning hours in total. But to my mind, the fundraising and the community spirit that an event like this creates is more than worth that sacrifice. Everyone that took part has memories of a great day, and for our students they will remember this well after they’ve left us and moved onto other phases in their lives. More schools should carry out similar events, and stop the school walk from becoming a thing of the past.