Tuesday, 25 November 2014

ICT for Teaching and Learning: Let's Get Quizzical!

This is the first in a series of blogs, where I am aiming to share my findings on how technology can benefit teaching and learning in the classroom.  It is probably important at this point to state that I am not a fan of using technology for technology’s sake.  I agree that it can often be time-consuming and, with the pressures of time that all teachers face, I feel that it isn’t right to put too much time into preparing for a task if the students will get little out of it.
I feel that the two apps that I am going to mention in this blog definitely fit into the category of being low on planning time, but high in terms of the impact they can have on teaching.  Moreover: they are free!

I came across this at the recent Teachmeet for Hull and East Yorkshire (held at Malet Lambert School) and was amazed.  It’s a fantastic example of how ICT can be used without a class set of devices, as the app can be run from the teacher’s tablet or smartphone.  For this, the teacher prepares multiple choice questions before the lesson and, in response to the question, students hold up a card with a QR-type shape on it.  Each orientation of their shape (whichever way they hold it up) corresponds to an option for the answer (A, B, C or D).  The teacher then accesses the app and scans their camera around the room, allowing it to pick up the answers and generate a list of who selected which answer.
The app allows you to select an option for the ‘correct’ answer, highlighting right or wrong answers in green or red respectively.  This allowed me to quickly target students for questioning early on in the lesson, as well as identifying students who I would want to give extra support to later.  Additionally, you can use a PC to enter your class lists and, as long as you update your data on the app with wifi, the actual polling can be done without an internet connection.  This was particularly useful for me as 3G in my room is non-existent and my phone isn’t connected to the school’s wifi.
The app works better with only a few questions at a time, and I found it useful for check prior knowledge before a topic.  For example, I have used it to check students’ understanding of word class and sentence type definitions.
For more details, see www.plickers.com .  Feel free to tweet me if you need any help setting it up!

Socrative is another quiz app, although it does require a set of ipads/computers for the class.  Alternatively, students can access on their phones if you have a BYOD policy.  For socrative, you prepare a quiz (or use one of the many shared quizzes from other users) from your teacher account.  Questions can be multiple choice or have a short written answer.  Like plickers, you can select correct answers.  However, socrative offers instant feedback for students: it will tell them if their answer was correct and you can add an explanation to each question so they understand their errors.
I found this particularly useful when assessing students’ knowledge of punctuation before starting a unit on writing skills, as it meant that the next few lessons could be differentiated for each student’s needs.  This was highlighted by the detailed reports that socrative offers (an excel spreadsheet as well as an individual report for each student that they can stick into their books).
When using socrative, you need a teacher account (which is free), but students login using their teacher’s room number, and then quizzes are controlled by the teacher.  See this guide for more details on setting up: https://snapguide.com/guides/create-a-socrative-account-quiz/ 
A final feature of socrative that I’m a big fan of (as are my colleagues) is the updating answer grid you get on the teacher’s computer/device.  Here you see students’ answers populating the grid in real time.  One colleague found this particularly useful when one student decided to enter silly answers; she was able to sanction him appropriately and get him back on task immediately.

How do they compare?
Both of these apps offer a lot to assessing knowledge in the classroom, either from a quick snap shot/straw poll from plickers or from the detailed quizzes you can use through socrative.  Students love the instant feedback that they have and they both offer instant feedback that can inform questioning, as well as planning/differentiation.

Monday, 27 October 2014

PE+ Part One: Down with PEEAL!

"The most important thing I've learnt in English this year is PEEAL."
Year 7 Student

The Most Important Thing
It was the end of NQT year and I felt like I wasn't the only one who needed to reflect the year's achievements.  My Year 7 class had made a massive journey: bridging the gap between primary and secondary; learning to give a speech in front of the class; learning research skills; exploring how language is used effectively by other writers and in our own writing.  However, when I asked them each to fill out a postit to say 'the most important thing' they'd learnt in English, the majority of my students referenced PEEAL paragraphs.  For those who aren't aware, this is a variation on the popular PEE format that adds dedicated space for analysis and links.  In my school, we also use mats to help students use this structure; these give helpful sentence starters as well as a brief description of what each part of the paragraph should contain.

PEEAL and the mats we used were invaluable to me last year. It gave the students a structure to remember what to include when analysing texts, as well as ensuring that they fulfilled certain AFs in their work.  Yet the problem with structures such as this (which has been rightly pointed out by exam boards) is that they are too formulaic and restricts students from developing original analyses.  I also found that students' depth of analysis was stunted, as they would usually write one sentence for each part of the paragraph before moving onto their next point.

This point was also highlighted by our Director of English and Head of English, who highlighted the concern when they delivered training on the new KS3 curriculum last July.  Instead they proposed that we start to use less formulaic approaches for most students, the main suggestion being the idea from a recent SLDM.  This approach had the 'Point' and 'Evidence' in the centre (as they should still lead the analytical paragraph), surrounded by possible areas to develop further: word, analysis, context, impact, audience and purpose.

Creating Resources
To me, the idea seemed vague.  I realised that freedom was needed to get students to explore more original responses, but I also appreciated that students would need support in using the new concept.  To support the teaching of it, @ACCooke5 and I sat down to create a new, anti-PEEAL mat for students to use as an aid.  We agreed that the sentence starter ideas from the PEEAL mats were useful, but we also felt that students could get better responses if they were given questions to explore in each section.  This was the final product:

Teaching PE+
One of @ACCooke5 's students coined the term PE+ as the name for our new paragraph structure, which I taught in a similar way to PEEAL: through modelling.

In the first few lessons of using the new concept, I would model my own PE+ paragraph on the board, using the laminated mat and getting students to help me with answers to the questions for each section.  This allowed us to talk about how I could structure my paragraph in different ways, before we then labelled each segment to show what we had included from the mat.

When introducing the new concept, students were generally elated to be using something new that wasn't as restrictive as PEEAL.  They were told that they needed to include their point and evidence (as always) but after this, they could pick whichever areas were relevant to develop in the rest of their paragraph.  I also stated that the length of each section could vary (depending on how much there was to be said).  Additionally, for those students who still needed a structure to 'complete', I would ask for certain areas to be filled in (as befitting the AFs we were covering in that lesson).  Fairly rapidly, I noticed that students' explanations were more developed and that they were choosing how to structure their paragraph so that each idea followed on from the last.  For example, they might explore the use of devices (analysis) and their effect on the reader (audience) before going on to discuss key words (word) and then going back to the effect on the reader (audience).

Nonetheless, there were still some students who stated that they felt more confident with the PEEAL format; they had the chance to access the PEEAL mats they were used to and completed their work using this structure.  The way I see it, this was them choosing a method of support that worked better for them and this was important to them generating their responses.

Structuring an Essay and Linking Points
I was keen to use this structure with my Year 10 class the start of September, as they started to prepare for the four hour GCSE Literature controlled assessment (comparing poetry with 'Romeo and Juliet').  However, if I were to do this it would be crucial to ensure that they were making links between the poems and the play: something previously facilitated by the 'link' in PEEAL.
To help with this, I drew something from the ideas I have come across whilst exploring SOLO taxonomy: hexagons.  However, rather than linking individual ideas (one idea on each hexagon), I thought the PE+ model would convert perfectly into a hexagon shape.  Therefore, the plan for each paragraph could be created on this template:

Throughout our lessons, we would fill the boxes in the hexagon with ideas, before then writing up into individual paragraphs.

The next step was to get students making links and using these to create a flowing argument across their paragraphs.  For this, I introduced Janus-Faced sentences (which I discovered through John Tomsett's presentation at a Teachmeet last summer).  We started by completing the relevant sections of two hexagons before then finding a way to link two of the sides.  Students would then create a Janus-Faced sentence to link the two paragraphs together, which they used in their actual paragraphs.

This meant that their final plans would be a tessellation of hexagons (their homework this half term is to work on this essay plan before we start writing in the first week back).

Moreover, I have used the same idea with a Year 7 class to create a whole class essay plan based around T.S. Eliot's 'Macavity the Mystery Cat'.  Below you can see how each student filled out an individual hexagon before they linked together their ideas to create their essay plan.

If they were then to write this (which is the next step for my Year 10 class), they could simply plot a path through the hexagons, using the links to create a structure that flows and ignoring any points that go off on a tangent from the main concept.

An Ongoing Project
Obviously, this is a concept that is still being developed both my myself, @ACCooke5 and our colleagues who are now using the PE+ mat and hexagons in their own lessons.  Yet, so far, they've been successful: though the use of modelling has been key to this success.

Bearing this is mind: I'd like to make an invitation for feedback.  If you have any ideas on how to improve this, I'd be really grateful.  It might even be that you already use a similar idea and have been implementing it in a different way.  Any ideas are welcome (just tweet me at @BorisMcDonald).

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Going SOLO: My first year using the taxonomy

This is an overview of what I've done with SOLO taxonomy over the last year.  If you'd like a beginner's guide to using SOLO, I'd recommend one of the following sites:
Pam Hooke: http://pamhook.com/solo-taxonomy/
Andy Day's blogs on SOLO: http://meridianvale.wordpress.com 

"Unless you’re willing to have a go, fail miserably, and have another go, success won’t happen." Phillip Adams

SOLO-ing it out
I first came across SOLO taxonomy during my PGCE at the University of York: one of our sessions was led by a teacher at Fulford School (Jill Lavender, @JillLavs). Jill spent a morning going through the basics of SOLO taxonomy and we started to apply some of the ideas to lessons in our subject area. However, I was still a bit sceptical about how much difference it would actually make.  This, coupled with the myriad of pressures during PGCE year, led to SOLO being shelved at the back of my mind.

That being said, something about the idea stuck.  At the end of my PGCE, I was lucky enough to go and observe SOLO in action at Fulford.  This gave a little more clarity as to how it helped students to reflect on their own progress and, independently, identify the steps needed for progression.  Though this is not what drew me to SOLO.  Instead, it was the lack of levels and numbers; students did not feel limited by their NC targets and I though this was vital, especially as my NQT year would involve me teaching mixed ability classes across KS3 and KS4.

Failing Miserably
Early on in my NQT year, I decided to try using SOLO with my year 10 class.  It did not go well.

Students seemed confused by the objectives that I had attached to each SOLO level and most of the class did not understand how this was an improvement on the usual criteria they were given as learning outcomes (these were linked to the differences between GCSE bands).  I made the decision, after one lesson, to abandon SOLO for the time being.

Another Go
A few months later, I returned to the idea: this time to use with a year 8 class across a unit of work.  This time my motivation was slightly different; rather than using SOLO to get students to set their own objectives, I wanted them to use it as a method of recording progress (both across a lesson and across a unit of work).

Embedding this from the start of a unit of work was crucial.  I started by briefly explaining SOLO to the class, saying that it was a way of them recording their understanding of a topic and drawing attention to the fact that it didn't link to NC levels: I was keen to stress that a low NC target should not affect a student's ability to reach the 'extended abstract' stage.

Following this, I went back to SOLO in each lesson. We'd start by looking at the key question and students would assess which SOLO level they were at, drawing the symbol in their margin and writing a sentence to explain/prove their level of understanding.

This was especially useful in highlighting progress that they had made through flipped home-works, as students would use their knowledge from this to verify that they had already reached the multistructural or unistructural stages.

We would then refer back to the criteria throughout the lesson, and students would update the SOLO symbol in their margin (to demonstrate exactly where in the lesson they had progressed to the next level).

Having students reflect on their progress also made it easy to differentiate for the levels of understanding when doing independent tasks, as they could use their level as a basis for which activity they would choose.

The next step was to use SOLO across several lessons. In order to do this, I divided up a larger subject (writing to entertain) into separate skills.  Students then used the grid to chart their understanding of the different topics across the unit, along with the help of some bookmarks that defined each SOLO stage.

Success: Hexagons and Beyond
Now that I had worked with SOLO to assess student progress, I wanted to focus on making links through the use of hexagons.  Again, with the same class, I used the hexagons template on Pam Hooke's website (pamhooke.com) to get them to link ideas about characters, themes and language analysis whilst studying a novel. Another fantastic success was had: students were making links that they had struggled with before and using the SOLO terminology to confidently explain their progress to myself and to observers who has popped in to see what I'd been doing.

My Progress
Now, in my second year of teaching, I've trained the rest of my department in how to use SOLO and I'm using it myself in lessons across KS3 and KS4.  My colleagues who have been working with it since September are happy with the outcomes of using it and have been able to share their own uses for SOLO-based activities, such as ACCooke5 's use of hexagons (below).

I've concluded that for that crucial success, it needs to be embedded into a series of lessons; an isolated 'go' just won't deliver the results that SOLO is so popular for.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Big Questions: Avoiding Annihilation

“Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world [...] To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. The answer may annihilate the question and the questioner.”  ― Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat

Next year, we will mostly be doing...
Last year, I (along with the rest of my department) was told that we would be trialling the use of 'big questions' to lead each unit of work before it was rolled out to other departments.  At first, I was elated: I had been really keen to start developing a questioning culture in the classroom, following my drive for student independence through flipped learning and the use of SOLO taxonomy.  I was also glad for unit titles that might interest our students: Y7 Text Types is now 'Why do we write?' and the uninspiring 'War Poetry' unit has become 'Can we trust everything the war poets say?'

Then I got worried. A big question invites more answers; I was becoming aware of the need to retain a structure to the learning whilst also letting students lead the exploration of the big question itself.  One of my first thoughts was to break down the big question into smaller questions that could then form the basis of my lessons. I was confident that I could do this easily, having used key questions for each lesson through my NQT year.  However, I still wanted my students to retain that control, and then I remembered some of the various posts I'd seen on twitter telling of students coming up with their own key questions each lesson. From this, my mind was made up: the students would break down the big question into the key questions that would then form the basis of each lesson. My job would be to tailor their opportunities, allowing them to make their enquiries as well as learning the key skills needed to read and write texts.

September 2014: how do we ask questions?
It makes sense to start at the very beginning, so lesson one for each KS3 students was focused on
attacking the big question and looking at what questions we would need to ask to develop a well-informed and detailed answer.  I was keen to start off by discussing 'what makes a good question' by referring to a grid that Mike Jory (Teaching and Learning advisor for City of York Council) had introduced me to as an NQT; it had proved invaluable in improving my questioning skills and now I wanted the same for my students.

We discussed how, sometimes, question starters lower on the scale might not elicit great answers, but they can be important to inform other questions.  We then looked at how we could develop these questions further by attaching other questions to them. For example: 'What was the Wall Street crash?' became developed with 'How might this event have influenced Steinbeck?'

Students worked in groups to come up with ideas, with one student given the role of 'challenger' in order to assure quality of questions overall.  I, meanwhile, circulated and used this as a chance to probe students further by asking how questions might help answer the big question.  Overall, it was a fantastic way to see how a new class interacted with one another as well as assessing their prior knowledge of a subject.

What next?
At the end of each lesson, I used the camscanner app to create a PDF of each class' responses. This will save me carrying around all of that sugar paper as well as providing a resource that I might upload to the VLE to support any research homeworks.  I'm also keen to continue developing my students' questioning skills, using the grid (both when asking verbally and when they ask me/their peers questions through the dialogue in their books).

Many thanks to @ACCooke5 for proof-reading and generally listening to me harp on.