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,

Richard

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.

Collaboration
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.

Hope
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.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Teaching Poetry: Strategies I've Stolen

When it comes to teaching poetry, it is pretty much guaranteed that the majority of faces in your class will drop with disappointment.  The reasons can vary, though often it comes down a lack of confidence.

When I recently started tackling the new unseen poetry skills needed for the new AQA specification, I asked students to write their worries on a post-it.  Their responses were interesting; as they'd studied the anthology's 'Power and Conflict' collection in Year 9, most were happy that they could spot what methods the writer used in a poem.  However, they were still worried about what- in my opinion- is the most important part of studying poetry: why it is written.

Due to this, I decided that I needed to ensure that everything we did towards preparing for the unseen poetry exam should focus on moving away from the danger-zone of 'feature spotting'.  Instead, we've focused on building our own interpretations, and then using the writer's methods as supporting evidence rather than the main point.

With this in mind, here are a few of the strategies I've used (most of which have been lovingly 'borrowed' from wonderful and talented colleagues).

Using Art To Explore Poetry
Exploring the abstract meanings behind works of art has proven a useful way of opening students' minds to figurative meanings, so that they don't take poetic texts literally.  I've done this through quick starters on whiteboards (see below), as well as through a forum-based homework where students answer a question set by a previous student before posting a question for the next student.


Symbolism Through Emojis
It is surprising how much students are using symbolism in their own lives when they construct messages with emojis.  I've been building this into poetry, by using them in plenaries, to explain how a poet is feeling.  Likewise, emojis could be used to investigate structure and changes in tone throughout a poem.


Creating Personal Responses
Many students find it easier to verbalise their responses than to write them.  I gave my students the chance to demonstrate this by letting them choose their own poem and building their own interpretation, supported by analysis of key features.  Students then created a short presentation to convey their response, along with an exam question that might be given for their poem (thus building a good supply of practice questions too).  My students were also assessed on AO1 and AO2, with my feedback and peer feedback recorded for them to stick in their book and respond to.

Writing Poetry
As I am trialling Google Classroom with my Year 10 class, the next thing I want to do is for them to create their own collaborative poetry through a homework task.  Each student will create their own stanza, written from the viewpoint of a student being taught about poetry.  I'm hoping that this will provide an insight into their (hopefully growing) confidence about poetry along with giving them a chance to play with language themselves.  Afterwards, we'll be able to create a class response to the poem.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

My Top iPad Apps

Inspired by a recent post from @ICTEvangelist, I've decided to collate a list of my top iPad apps for the classroom that I've used since getting the device two years ago.  I've tried to focus on the free apps (with a couple of exceptions), which I hope will be useful for teachers who are borrowing an iPad from their school.  Many of these came from various tweets and blogs, and I apologise for not crediting everyone. However, most of them come from @ICTEvangelist, through his blog but also his session at Northern Rocks 2015 (so: thanks, Mark!).



Free Apps

Evernote by Evernote
This is a fantastic app for taking notes and organising them with tags, making it much easier to find old notes on a certain topic.  Though I appreciate that many would rather stick to a traditional notebook, this has the advantage of being able to add photos, videos and websites to the notes; it even includes a document scanner.

Nearpod by Nearpod LLC
This app is great for use with a set of student devices (either through a BYOD scheme or through a set available in school). It allows you to display slides on their device, as well as embedding activities such as quizzes, short answer questions and annotation activities.

Post-it® Plus by 3M Company
I don't think I've yet met a teacher who didn't use Post-its on a regular basis.  The free app takes pictures of the chaotic mess of sticky notes students leave on your board and create a digital version that's easy to save and refer back to.  I often email these out to students as a record of revision tasks.

Socrative Teacher/Student by Socrative, Inc
Socrative is a fantastic quiz app, especially as you can use it through a browser if you/students don't have a device with the apps to hand.  As it allows both short answer and multiple choice formats, it works for a number of subjects and collates the student responses either as an Excel spreadsheet (ideal to add to a mark book) or as a page for each student to stick into their books.

Simple yet effective, MOLDIV creates collages of pictures from the images in your photo library.  It works for a number of activities in the classroom, though my favourite has to be getting students to find four pictures that relate, in an abstract way, to a character/theme/topic.

ThingLink by Thinglink
Another fairly simple app at heart- ThingLink lets you make an image interactive by annotating with little red dots that bring up text, video or hyperlinks.  I've app smashed this with MOLDIV in the past, with students annotating each image with an explanation of their choice.

iMovie by Apple
The trailer creator is probably the quickest tool to use with iMovie: I've had students creating their own trailers to sum up their learning, though I've also used it to edit together video clips of trench warfare.  By using iMovie to add text over the top of this and add some haunting audio, it made for a more engaging introduction to the context of war poetry.

Padlet by Wallwisher, Inc.
I was first introduced to Padlet as a website (then called wallwisher) in my PGCE year.  Since then, they have added lots of improvements to help you create an interactive notice-board where students can post text, images, videos or hyperlinks. I often use this for homework activities, as students can access the padlet on any device with an internet browser.

Plickers by Plickers Inc.
Although technically an app for smart phones, Plickers works on iPads too and was presented by a colleague at Teachmeet for Hull and East Yorkshire. It allows students to answer multiple choice questions using individualised codes (meaning that students can't see what anyone else has answered). This is great for those educators who only have one device in the classroom.

LEGO® Movie Maker by LEGO Systems, Inc
Although it was designed to create stop-motion movies with Lego figures, this app is great for creating stop motion with any medium.  I've had students create movies to sum up learning using plasticine, newspaper cutouts and cuddly toys, as well as the traditional pen and paper. You could even put the videos on YouTube, so that students are producing for a worldwide audience.

Apps that cost
 I couldn't resist adding these onto the list, especially as some of them are reasonably priced.  However, where possible I've added some alternatives that are free/cheaper.

Explain Everything™ Interactive Whiteboard by Explain Everything sp. z o.o.
A great tool for creating instruction videos. I've used this to create flipped learning videos with a number of classes, though I've also had it installed on a set at school for students to create their own videos.  In the app, you can annotate, animate and add pictures, videos and audio narration to an instructional video.  If you're after an alternative, try Puppet Edu too (https://appsto.re/gb/afy90.i).

This is an eBook creator that allows you to put video, hyperlinks, images and text together to form an interactive eBook on a certain topic.  Though I know of many teachers who have used apps like this to create instructional eBooks for students, I have also had students creating their own revision guides or class newspapers: as the projects can be easily merged together, it is easy to collaborate on a resource that everyone can share. 

Notability by Ginger Labs
I came across this app thanks to a discussion on Twitter with @ICTEvangelist and @lanclassrach. After finding out that another app was going, I needed an app that would allow me to take pictures of student work and then highlight and annotate it on the iPad (to be projected on the board).  The outcome for me was Notability, that offers this along with other functions.  However, Annotate (https://appsto.re/gb/UKxt7.i) and Paper by 53 (https://appsto.re/gb/KfqkE.i) offer similar functions and are also free.

iDoceo - teacher's assistant by Bert Sanchis
iDoceo is a great replacement for my teacher planner, as it offers the same features (like lesson planning space and mark books for my classes) with other features, such as a student summary page (which is ideal for parents' evenings); seating plans; random name picker; and space to upload resources for each class (such as pictures of student work). Though it is a bit more expensive than the average app, it soon pays for itself when you no longer need to buy a paper planner each year.


Thursday, 31 December 2015

Two Stars and a Wish... For Better Feedback: Part 3

In this post, I want to take some time to consider the importance of peer feedback for exam classes.  I think that it's important that, when planning peer/self assessment activities, we (as teachers) consider what we want students to gain from the activity. When it boils down to it, there are a few possible options: if they mark their own work then you can spend more time planning; you need a plenary task and this should be fairly simple; you want them to see models of work produced by other students; or you want them to have a greater understanding of how they're being assessed. For me, it's always the latter.

For exam classes, I often liken the exam to an elaborate tap dance: you have a short amount of time to demonstrate a variety of steps and the smallest mistake can cost you your grade.  Just like with the tap dance, practice is key, as is understanding precisely what the examiners wish to see.  It's true that you can also use other analogies for this but the essence of it is simple: the more students understand what's being assessed, the easier they will find it to produce this in exam conditions.


I've tried a number of ways of getting students to get to grips with mark schemes; often this means creating an 'understandable English' version that cuts through all of the vague examiner terminology that litters mark schemes in my subject.  I find that this is best done with students, rather than giving them a diluted version straight off.  After this, I then use various tools to ensure self/peer assessment is productive.

First and foremost is the checklist.  This works well when assessing writing skills, as students need to apply certain skills to 'check off' the examiner's list.  However, it's clear that these need to be differentiated.  As I teach mixed ability at KS4, I will often use this as a chance to stretch key students by giving them the checklist for the next band up, or giving them a choice between that of their target grade and the next one up.  This then gives students a clear set of criteria to check their work for.

Another tool that works well, especially for reading skills, is the 'humble highlighter' that I looks at in a previous post (http://goo.gl/fmL2Hw).  This means that students can identify where they've used certain skills, using steps as in the slide below.


It is also useful to model assessment to students, as effective training will help them develop a successful approach to assessing their own work.  As part of this, I often given them a selection of strengths/targets that they might look to apply for different grades, which they can use if they are struggling with the mark scheme criteria.

Another place that students can look for suitable strengths and targets is in my own marking: they can use this to identify if the piece of work has met past targets, or if it needs to develop further.  I've found the use of 'writing sprints' beneficial for this (an idea that was recently suggested by a colleague). In this students write in five minute chunks.  At the start of each 'sprint' they set themselves a single target for that five minutes.  At the end, they annotate where they've met the target and set themselves another target for the next paragraph.  This constant approach to reflect also encourages them to proof read as they go along in the exam, rather than leaving until the end when they could risk running out of time.


The final tool that I used to help develop student-led assessment is me.  By reading their feedback as I mark their books, I can check their understanding of the mark scheme.  One example is the use of 'ambitious' vocabulary: I recently marked a book where a student had said that they'd met their target of using it through their use of words such as 'however' or 'definitely'. Whilst the student had improve the range of vocabulary used, it was clear that these choices would not be ambitious enough for the exams.  Checking their self assessment then allowed me to leave some questions for them about what ambitious vocabulary is, making links to some of the bonus spellings I'd given in a recent spelling test as examples.

Overall, I feel that this understanding of how to assess helps students in two ways.  Primarily, it means that they understand what examiners are looking for and, as a consequence, helps them to display these skills under exam conditions.  However, it also works to develop their independent revision skills, meaning that they now have a way of reflecting on their progress when doing their own revision outside of the classroom.

Image credits:

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Two Stars and a Wish... for Better Feedback: Part 2

In my last post, I reflected on how I had used highlighters as a tool for self and peer assessment. These are a great tool for getting students to highlight where specific skills have been applied but with that application of peer assessment, there is still a crucial barrier to effective peer assessment: untrained students.  This can be a particular problem if your students are always swapping work with the same person as, if their peer assessor is giving poor targets, then they will consistently get a bad deal in comparison to others students; this can be especially problematic in lower sets or mixed ability classes.

In order to give every student more 'bang for their buck', I've taken to using gallery feedback when students peer assess extended pieces of writing.  However, I've adapted the method that I've shamelessly stolen from others on Twitter to support students in covering a wider range of skills for feedback, whilst keeping the great opportunities that it offers to students (in terms of reading other students' work as models and also in the engagement with mark schemes that it provides).

I also want to stress how I feel about allowing students to talk during this process; some teachers I know of have encouraged students to complete gallery feedback in silence, though I feel that (if feedback is to be effective) students should have the opportunity to discuss the targets they're giving.  Additionally, I also believe that making the task an unstructured 'wander around the room' could be problematic- as it leaves students open to gather for a chat with friends as well as stopping each child from getting the same feedback coverage.

My approach, then, has always been fairly systematic: students start the feedback with several postits (one for each stage of the feedback) that they write their names on.  The naming gives a degree of accountability as well as enabling students to follow up on any targets that they want further clarification on.  After this, students then move one seat over and assess the first piece of work for a specific skill (range of vocabulary, for example), highlighting and annotating where the writing demonstrates these skills and using the postit to write a strength and a target that is left with the piece of work.

Of course, this could get very tedious and it would also be ineffective to keep the same assessment criteria when students move on to the next piece of work, as there is little value to the task if the student ends up with several postits with the same feedback.  It is for this reason that I change the criteria each time that students move to the next seat- thus allowing them to assess a range of skills as well as ensuring that each student gets different areas to work on.

Often this will take a full lesson to do thoroughly, as I often ask students to share the strengths and targets that they are giving along the way to model this process for others.  It also means that, in the second part of the lesson, I can give students a chance to choose which target(s) they wish to work on by redrafting a section of their work and then self assessing their progress at the end of the lesson.

I've found that this is particularly good when preparing students for assessments/exams (through both KS3 and KS4), as it clearly demonstrates how they are eventually assessed on a number of skills through one task.  On top of this, it allows them to see other examples as models (something that I encourage by getting them to reflect on what they have learnt from reading the other examples before they generate their redraft).

If you have tried anything similar, please let me know your thoughts by commenting or tweeting me (@borismcdonald). I'm also going to be tweeting some examples of this feedback in the following week.