Monday, 29 October 2018

Faster Reading: A Trial Run

Previously, my approach to a text read in lessons has been to interleave the reading of a text with analytical lessons focused on developing reading skills.  The aim of this would be that students practised their analysis writing skills as we explored a text.  However, I found that I have been more and more worried with the lack of retention when it came to the overall plot and key events (despite regular quizzing).

This led me to the concept of ‘Faster Reading’, where students read two novels back-to-back (focusing on plot rather than detailed analysis) before going back to analyse key extracts once they have a clear understanding of the plot as a whole.  The idea is that it allows students to focus on knowing the plot well rather than the ‘read a section, analyse a section’ approach that I had used previously.

With so much focus on remembering a plot for the GCSE Literature exams, I was keen to trial some of the principles with my Year 10 class this term (reading ‘A Christmas Carol’) and I have been surprised so far with the positive impact it’s had on their retention of key events.

The Process
Teaching a mixed attainment group, I was keen to ensure that students were still able to access higher levels of thinking whilst we read, so I chose to get students to make notes as we read (training them in the Cornell method as we did so).  For this, students had differentiated questions to address in their notes, focusing on comprehension questions at the lower end and a sustained focus on considering Dickens’ polemic message for top-end students.

I was also careful not to overload students with too much time spent reading, so most lessons followed the structure below, with about 20 minutes of each lesson spent reading the text.

Typical structure:
  1. Retrieval task through five questions on previous events (focusing on events that were significant to the events of that lesson’s chapter).
  2. Reading of the text, with breaks to add to notes (using the Cornell method) and to discuss some key moments/vocabulary in the text through whole-class discussion.
  3. Task to reflect on aspects of a key character or theme from that day’s reading- this could be as simple as sketching a character and labelling with adjectives to describe them, or writing a comparison to how they were presented earlier in the text.
  4. Students write (in their Cornell grid) a short summary of the events from the section we read that day.

In terms of time, this meant that the reading of the novella was condensed considerably, spread over 16 lessons instead of 35.  The remaining lessons, then, involve going back over key extracts and conducting a detailed analysis, including links to other events across the whole text.

My Findings
As we read the text, I was pleasantly surprised when students were able to make links to previous events- sometimes coming up with ideas that I had not considered myself.  This, perhaps, could be a result of reading the text in a shorter period of time: the previous chapters were fresher in their minds and, therefore, allowed them to access this information more readily.

I have also found that, in the subsequent analysis lessons, students were being more creative with their interpretations and have been much more confident with the analysis of Dickens’ methods as they can draw on other areas of the text to further support ideas.

However, the result I am most impressed with is my students’ ability to recall quotations and events with ease and confidence in discussion tasks.  This was particularly evident in a recent lesson where they were used for an interview lesson.  Here it was intriguing to see what they were able to recall without my direction or scaffolding- again reinforcing how confident they feel compared to previous tasks.

It is important to note that my approach could not be considered rigorous, as there are a number of other variables that could have generated my findings, including a different mix of students and also the introduction of Cornell notes and training in self-testing for students to complete at home.  That being said, I am looking forward to coming back to the text in Year 11 to see if the students recall more a year later in comparison to previous year groups.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Diversity: Check

It’s been a hectic year in many respects for me: moving to lead a department in a new school and moving to a different (and very picturesque) area of Yorkshire has meant that blogging has taken a bit of a back seat.  However, being sat here facing the remaining six hours of a sweaty train ride home after #TENC18 leaves me wondering about the curriculum I put in place in September.

Before I starting leading my current  department in September, I already had some clear ideas in mind about the texts taught at KS3, as it needed some clear updating.  After consulting my new team, we decided on Prince of Mist for Y8 and Trash for Y7.  Both texts aren’t set in England, both texts offer a multitude of opportunities to engage students in both reading and writing.  Yet something still hasn’t sat quite right and a recent discussion with other subjects leaders near me made me realise: my department’s curriculum lacks diversity, someone that is vital in the ‘hidden curriculum’ (a term borrowed from Hywel Roberts) when our intake reflects where we live: predominantly white and middle-class.  This was highlighted in a recent A Level Literature lesson on post-colonial theory when my students struggled to name writers who weren’t white and - in most cases - dead.

With this in mind, I was delighted to see that @benniekara was leading a session on diversity in the curriculum at #TENC18. I went in, hoping to walk away with a reading list of BAME writers so that I could tick the box of diversity and feel like I was giving students a more balanced diet.  How wrong I was.

Here are my main findings from @benniekara ‘s session:
  • Diversity isn’t about ticking boxes; it’s about the links between the boxes and how they reflect society
  • Diversity isn’t about a checklist BAME writers; it’s about all of the different ‘labels’ we use in society and understanding how representation of different groups has developed over time
  • Diversity isn’t about re-writing the curriculum; it’s about using the curriculum to introduce a wider understanding through set texts, but also extracts (fiction and non-fiction) to develop a critical understanding of the questions surrounding race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion and social class
So, although I will be looking at ways to introduce a broader diet of writers to my students, I’m also going to think about how I can teach students about the development of literature from different angles- especially at KS4.  Planning a new scheme of diverse extracts for Year 10 Language seems like the perfect opportunity for this.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Which film will we be watching, Sir?

It's here again: the portion of the year reserved for the age-old debate of whether to watch a DVD in the final week of term. Not so long ago, as a student, I can easily imagine how my teachers would have fought it out to book the hallowed TV trolley to stick on a film at the end of the year to get an hour of peace and quiet while their class caught up on sleep in front of whatever classic the teacher had available. I have a clear memory of this in my Year 9 Physics lesson, watching the first hour of Shrek and wondering why we had to waste time watching a film that bored me even more than the usual drivel (apologies to all Physics teachers- my Year 9 self had yet to realise that it wasn't the subject that was issue, but a teacher whose dulcet tones often had the most enthusiastic of us with heads on our desks within the first five minutes).

Now we are in the bright age of computers with DVD drives and (if you choose to risk it)
streaming, film ‘lessons’ are readily available to all.

Please don't mistake these opening comments for a condemnation of film/TV in the classroom: they aren't. There are a plethora of times when showing students films or clips can be vital to their learning. For example: I rarely teach a Shakespeare text without using a Globe version to help students analyse dramatic method and consider how they can stage their own adaptations. However, putting students to sleep in a dark room in front of the latest age-appropriate blockbuster is not the way to engage them in the countdown to the holidays.

Instead, for my last week of lessons, I'm going to get them to apply what they've learnt to new contexts and also to consolidate some knowledge before the inevitable forgetting period that occurs when they jet off to Lanzarote, New York or Bognor Regis.

Year 7 are going to be debating to what extent it’s morally acceptable to use war to create entertainment by comparing their study of Sherriff’s presentation of the trenches with the presentation of the same conditions in some short clips from ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’.

Year 8 have been looking at how poets use their medium to reflect on culture and heritage. So, inspired by a colleague, they’ll be using the poems we’ve explored to create a poetry mash-up to consider how poetry can also be used to reflect the multi-cultural society we live in.

Year 9 will be taking their knowledge of how writers use language and structure to impact an audience outside of conventional literature texts to see how and why song-writers apply the same techniques.

Year 10 are going to be consolidating their extended knowledge of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by creating their own knowledge organisers to collate the gems of learning from our study of Petrarchan lovers, tragic concepts and alternative readings of the text.

My question to you is: how will your classes be making the most of their final moments before the summer? Tweet with #nofilmlessonshere to share and collaborate!

Friday, 21 April 2017

Wrapping up the Mock Process

With the exam season looming (and the results of new GCSEs looking less predictable than the country's future government), I've been reflecting on how my students have been prepared for a new specification where their two GCSE grades for English rest on four exams. Mocks and exam practise have played a large part in this.

In terms of the process of mocks overall, they're clearly nothing new. Even with the old specification, students would have the dry-runs of exam day- with most schools scheduling mock 'seasons' to help students feel more used to the panic. But how much use are mock exams? What do the students get from these apart from more panic ahead of the final exams? And how can we make the process more beneficial?

When I read Alex Quigley's (@huntingenglish) 'The Confident Teacher' earlier this year, I found an idea that would help with the questions above: the mock wrapper. Essentially, this is a self-evaluation that students fill in at three stages in the mock process: just before they sit the mock, the lesson after the mock and when they get their feedback. Overall, it aims to help students see that sitting a mock exam is more than just practising exam timings- if we help them to reflect effectively then it is a chance for them to prepare more effectively.

When trialling this with my current Year 11 class, I started by putting together a document that would ask questions to prompt students to evaluate their preparation and performance overall. You can see some examples below, though the template is also available to download here.

The Process
Firstly, I found the comments students added useful when I was marking their mock papers. It allowed me to support students in their revision by giving further support. For some this involved notes on their wrapper; for others it might mean a verbal conversation in class. It also allowed me to see who had been listening to the top tips I'd given them for revision. For example, the fact that so many were focusing their revision on revising quotations for an exam where it was more important that they know the text more holistically made me consider how I'd get them to realise this in future lessons (before they wasted more time on revising areas that weren't needed). Likewise, it also informed my teaching in terms of considering how to teach them revision skills: though this has always been something I've tried to embed into lessons, the feedback on these forms meant that I could plan future revision-based lessons to be more effective for these specific students.

It also let me know where they thought their weaknesses were after they'd completed the mock- which could then inform the written feedback I gave for the mock. It might be that I'd direct them to a model we'd used in previous lessons to help them work on the area they lacked confidence in, or I might note how they'd actually done well in an area they thought would need improvement- therefore helping them to recognise their own successes.

The final section students filled in as they responded to their feedback, so I had to ensure that the mocks were stuck into books to allow me to look at these and use my findings to inform my teaching. This allowed me to check their understanding of my feedback, along with responses to questions that I'd written on their mocks, as well as letting me check to see if they were confident on how to then improve their revision processes and future responses- meaning that I could again have verbal conversations with any students who I felt needed more support.

My Findings
I found the wrappers to be effective in helping both myself and my students to reflect more effectively on the whole mock process- meaning that they could use it to improve their revision and I could use it to make the precious few lessons left more tailored to my students' needs.

However, it does need to be said that students have to be told that they need to be honest- otherwise some students are bound to see this as an opportunity to impress by writing a hyperbolic account of the gargantuan mound of revision they've completed in order to be ready for the mock. There was also the danger of the middle rating (3/5) when I asked them to rank their feelings/confidence- so much so that I might consider using phrases that mean less students 'play it safe' by picking a rating that sits on the fence.

Overall, I thought that using this strategy (again, thanks to Alex Quigley for suggesting it in his book- no plug intended) definitely made the mock process more meaningful than a chance to practise sitting still for more than an hour.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Dear Miss Bigg,

Dear Miss Bigg,

Firstly I apologise for the formal address- perhaps you would prefer Jody? Though I also think I heard that you've married- perhaps you aren't even Miss Bigg (in either case- you will always be Miss Bigg to me). I've been meaning to write this for a while- every time I read one of the articles in the TES where celebrities share their thoughts on heir favourite teachers, my thoughts go to the main reason that I decided to go into this insane (though also insanely wondrous) profession.

It all goes back to my Year 8 English lessons. It had been a rough year for staff turnover when it came to our class: we had had several teachers across the year and I remember that the mixture started with an eccentric, and bald, gentleman who taught us that irony was him going to get a haircut. Then I remember a couple of others- well I say remember them, I remember that there were others before you started as a head of department at our school. In those first lessons I remember really enjoying English (specifically literature) for the first time: I still have the collection of poetry you had us write for (and my students are always shocked when they pick it up to read and see me name next to a poem by my teenage self).

The next time I had you was for GCSE. There I remember you helping me to enjoy Shakespeare, developing my thirst for more texts outside of the classroom and leading to my study of Literature at A Level. The best thing about A level was your obvious enthusiasm for the texts you taught: if anything it is this that I keep hoping to emulate in my own lessons now. Studying Carter's 'Nights at the Circus' and Blake's poetry was challenging but your enthusiasm helped me develop my own (I cannot help but think of this when my Year 13 students beg me to read Blake's poetry aloud- I'm hoping that this means that they're enjoying it as much as I am).

However, none of this was the thing that made me decide that I wanted to teach English for a profession: this came when I got to help out in your classes during my free lessons in sixth form. Here I saw you working with a (mostly male) bottom set of Year 9s, engaging them in Shakespeare through having them act out the banquet scene with a real banquet and getting them involved in the complex issues of 'Of Mice and Men'. Supporting that class got me hooked.

Despite being unsure of that choice at the end of university- leading to considering event management and settling for retail management before realising that it made me miserable- I'm now a teacher of English and also a subject leader up in Yorkshire (a bit of a trek from Essex). I suppose that really I wanted to thank you. Yes, this job is hard; yes, the changes that come from various directions present a struggle that is often uphill. But I'm still hooked and happy- I'm convinced that this is the best job in the world. Everyday I work, I get to work with topics and texts that I enjoy- and I hope that means I'm getting my students just as enthusiastic as you got that bottom set Year 9 class back in Essex.

Yours faithfully,


Friday, 24 February 2017

Hope in the Face of Fear: Reflections on Joining The Chartered College

I've always been an advocate of continuing to develop myself, both in terms of my subject knowledge and also my pedagogy. This has meant that I make a point of using Twitter, TeachMeets and other forms of collaboration in order to keep myself learning. I feel that the Chartered College is already proving to be a body that can push this even further- and here are my reasons why.

I have definitely met colleagues who don't see the value in collaborating across the profession. It scares me that they see teaching strategies and resources as something to be jealously guarded, for fear that someone will become better than them.

The celebratory atmospheres at the TeachMeets I've attended, together with the (mostly) positive sharing between colleagues on Twitter is combatting this- but what about those who can't attend events because of other commitments? What about the vast number of teachers not using social media for CPD? Some would argue that it's the responsibility of the school to provide for their staff- but I know that there are schools out there who see themselves as being within a bubble, where staff are scared to admit that they are sharing ideas and networking outside of the school. Where there is a fear that schools will see this collaboration is a threat.

The College has a chance to overcome this fear. It is my hope that it will live up to expectations by showing this collaboration for what it is: a professional commitment to learn from others and, therefore, give the students we teach a better deal.

Evidence-based Practise
John Tomsett's slot on Saturday definitely struck a chord with me. What he said was reflected in a discussion I'd been part of at The College's regional event in York a few days earlier- and also in the wide range of comments that teachers share on twitter regularly. There are schools who grab a strategy because a member of SLT saw it as a quick fix. There are schools who change their marking policies more often than Lady Gaga changes her outfit- in the fear that something that isn't fashionable isn't effective. Schools need to base their policies in what really works and teachers need to be able to research and evaluate without the fear of criticism if something new doesn't work.

With The College's proposal for an accessible hub of research, individual teachers will be able to easily evaluate research themselves as well as being given practical examples of how the strategies work- making it quicker for them to evaluate what would work in their classroom. Moreover, teachers will be able to contribute their own research. Many already do this through blogs and social media- though we deserve something that gives us a means to see what has value, a professional forum that is nationally recognised.

Lastly, I want to recognise the voice that this organisation offers us. Though there has been criticism for The College representing a minority of those with nothing but hopeful intentions, I cannot help but think of the quotation, "Hope is the only thing stronger than fear." You might think this statement from 'The Hunger Games' a little sentimental and sappy, but I cannot help but see an element of truth in it.

We are a profession overcome by fear. The fear of bad exam results. The fear of an inspection judgement. The fear that we are not good enough. The hopes that Dame Alison Peacock is presenting us with are a start to overcoming these fears- and working together to speak (or even sing) with a collective voice lends us the professional strength and integrity that we deserve.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Whittling Down My Workload

First, a word of caution- there is nothing particularly impressive or really revolutionary here.  In essence, I just wanted to blog about how, since becoming a middle leader in the summer, my workload has changed and how I've managed those changes.  Making the transition to a middle leader involved changing many of the ways that I worked- including a distinct lack of activity on my blog and twitter account.  These are the main ways I started to get back some of that time.

1. Protected Time for Email Management
Before I become a subject leader, I aimed to deal with emails swiftly and effectively.  I could easily rattle through the couple of emails that had made their way into my inbox during the first five minutes before school, at break or at lunchtime.  I kept my inbox empty, with folders to file away anything that I might want to refer to later and a trip to the deleted items folder for anything that I'd only need to see the once.

That was how I started to tackle emails in my new post.

I quickly found that dealing with queries was not going to be as sleek as before- often emails could involve finding out more information before replying: parent queries to follow up came from students I didn't teach; I needed to spend time looking through a busier diary before I could get back to someone with a date for a meeting.  And then there was the increased quantity of emails itself. I had to adapt.

I decided to create protected time to go through emails.  This is mostly a 45 minute window before school, which also allows for arranging the resources for any cover, along with 15 minute slots at break, lunch or in my PPA.  This, along with a process of flagging or filing emails as I read them, made a massive difference.

2. PPA Plans
Thanks to the honesty of another middle leader when I was applying, I was never under the illusion that a couple of hours taken from teaching would give me more time to do marking during the school day.  It means less: much less.

I made the plan early on to use time during the school day to focus on my new duties as a middle leader.  This means that time is protected to carry out learning walks in the department (by far my favourite part of the role); meet with staff for support or a catch-up; or work on the other new jobs I've taken on.

Obviously, this also means a change in how I plan my lessons- which brings me onto my next tip.

3. Planning For The Week
With all of the last-minute things that pop-up across the working week, having protected time to plan lessons at school was the easiest thing to move.  To be fair, this was something that I'd already started doing beforehand- mostly because I felt that I was chasing my tail sorting resources  if I left it too late.  So now, I plan all my lessons for a week on the Sunday morning before it starts.

It has to be said that a culture of sharing planning (within my department and on Twitter) makes this a lot easier.  For KS3 classes, it is easy to adapt and edit existing resources- this has made it easier to create my own resources for the new GCSE and A Level specifications as I've had more time to do so.

Planning everything on a Sunday also means that I can get my repro sorted early doors on a Monday- it's usually my first job of the week.  Yes, there is the odd occasion when I need to change the existing plan mid-week (especially when I find that a certain concept/skill needs extra work), but- again- the culture of sharing makes a huge difference here.

4. Manage the Marking
To give a little context, my school has a policy that students get feedback once a fortnight in Years 7-11 and once a week in Year 11.  I have no problem with this.  Yes, it can be onerous and I definitely had points where I felt I was drowning when I started there as an NQT.  What made the difference was advice I had on planning my marking and how I approached it pedagogically.

To start with, I plan my marking schedule over a half term.  This allows for no marking on progress evenings/open evenings without falling behind.  I mark a set of books each night, with KS5 books being spread out as require (with only 7 in a class, this is simple enough to do).  I also plan in 'blank' nights to give myself extra flexibility- as the plan is digital (see below), there is nothing to stop me changing it to fit my needs throughout the term.  It also means I can 'check off' my marking as I go- changing the black squares to green to show when I've marked.  As a compulsive list-maker, checking these off is definitely satisfying.  Most of all, this has helped me to protect time at weekends.  After a month of not marking at weekends in December (or over the Christmas break), I'm determined to reduce weekend marking as much as possible in the new year.

Template available to download here

The place I give marking in my students' learning has also been important in helping me manage the workload.  I use my marking schedule to plan when I'll set tasks that students will benefit from quality feedback on.  Likewise, I make changes to my marking schedule if I feel a class needs a different piece of work marked and move things around to make this work.

In other aspects of my planning, I make the most of activities that reduce the amount of 'marking for its own sake'.  This means making use of collaborative learning activities on sugar paper or A3 (which has a combination of other benefits to students' learning), planning in oral assessment of students' presentations/debate contributions and giving feedback in lesson time- which can be verbal, on a post-it or noted in a student's margin for them to refer back to.  Needless to say, peer/self assessment is also a valuable tool, as it can also help students to understand what they are being assessed on more clearly (especially for exam classes).

I'm hoping some of these tips will be useful for others- certainly they have made a massive difference to me, in managing my workload comfortably and creating a healthier work-life balance.