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.