‘Had we but world enough, and time…’

The OverPromise

Debate Club. Reading Club. Parent meeting. Parent phone call. Mock exam small group support. Middle leader meeting. CPD training. Department meeting. Teach. Mark. Plan. A week like any other.

Perhaps one of the problems of the teaching profession is a tendency to over promise, for both others and ourselves. We want to do more than we are capable of. Teachers are usually, by their nature, committed to making a difference. Not super, not heroes, but pretty serious about the job they do.  The world of school can read like a series of Matrix codes floating above the heads of every individual. We know how to make a difference, we can crack the code, but we are always in conflict with reality – facing a lack of real time and human resources. Even that doesn’t stop our engrained desire to solve, fix and make good with the world.  And that is often where many problems begin.

We tell the anxious Y11 student we can mark that quickly. We tell ourselves that we can run off a scheme of work whilst sipping a latte and munching on a Danish pastry, and be done in time for lunch (actually, some of #teamenglish can). We tell ourselves we can do it all, but we can’t.

Sometimes, others over-promise for us, A fairly innocuous pledge to support a child, in a meeting between a leader and a parent, can equate to hours of work over time for the classroom teacher; time that unfortunately, does not exist.

Likewise, systems can over promise on what they can deliver. Designed to evidence what we do, they are invariably cumbersome and fraught with problems. Perhaps, when the focus is too firmly fixed on the promise of the solution, it is easy to lose sight of actual process teachers will have to go through to get there.  Evidence favours things that are swift, neat and linear. But as many English teachers would agree – swift, neat and linear are concepts that don’t always sit well with the progress of something like writing.

Expectations from institutions and the government continue to move steadily skywards, set against the backdrop of teacher shortages and a financial squeeze. Given that I’m more Mini-me than Morpheus, I have no power to challenge the over-promises made by governments on my behalf. However, I can keep my own in check:

No, I can’t run a third club this week, even though you are wonderful students and I’m sure it would be fun. Sorry.

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It’s all about people.

There have been many posts over the years about stepping up to Middle Leadership along with much helpful advice. Two posts really stick out to me and seem to have left a residue of thought, even after a year –  Marks Roberts’ How to be a Head of Faculty and Freya Odell Moving From Inadequate to Good.

I’m sure there will be many new HoDs and HoFs taking time this week to simply ‘breathe and be’ after a whirlwind term. Some may feel overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility. It’s easy to be your own, most critical, least supportive friend, but nothing was ever solved through harsh self-castigation. Your time is far more productively spent assessing your priorities. Are the students, are your team, front and centre of everything you do?

I’ve always felt that any level of leadership, from the head to the classroom teacher, is about enabling and supporting those in your remit (staff or students) to do their job, so that they may shine. I am amazed that the lessons we have learned about managing students are almost completely forgotten when it comes to managing staff. Supporting students does not mean that we excuse poor work or are inconsistent; it means that we apply our high expectations to all and make it achievable. Adults are like little people, just bigger.

When I first became Head of Faculty a year ago, I was bursting with strategy and vision. I could easily have had my strategy eat colleagues for breakfast and blinded those around me with my incredible laser-like sight, but I was also in the fortunate position of being promoted from amongst my colleagues. The department was made of up friends; people I had been through, and seen through, difficult times. I had a keen awareness of my responsibility to them as well as the students in my care.

If anyone had told me how much a HoF/HoD role is about the staff, I would not have believed them had I not lived it for the past year. It’s easy to forget that staff, like students, are not fixed constants. They grow, they develop, they move forwards. Whatever the experience of the team, a belief in (and support of) everyone, to work towards excellence, both collectively and individually, is vital.

Every time I see something amazing on twitter, every new policy that seems to be the best thing ever, I need to pause and ask myself: what impact will this have on the staff and students? Will this enable staff to do their job better, more efficiently and effectively? Or is it new for the sake of ‘new’? It’s easy to look at other departments and feel a sense panic and urgency that you’re not doing it like everyone else.  Indeed, this remnant of our evolution is pretty useful, safeguarding our survival, but you also need to work with your context, your teachers and, of course, your students. The wisdom of twitter leaves me in awe, but I’m not doing what I do for twitter.

So, how do we keep students front and centre of everything we do? Simple: frame every conversation around them. Make sure the key to all your vision and strategy is benefit, in real terms, to the students. Be transparent about what is preventing students from experiencing the success that they should. Where there are issues within the department, be brave and name them – low expectations? subject knowledge or approaches? lesson planning? marking and feedback? Expose the gaps that you have inherited, or that have been allowed to fester, and work together to fill them. As the wonderful Mary Myatt says in ‘High Challenge, Low Threat’, no one wants to come to work to do a bad job.

My advice to anyone trying to take stock before the bell rings for the next round, is this: it’s all about taking care of the people in your remit.  Keep them front and centre and you won’t go far wrong.

Learning Questions & Demystifying Writing

Last year I embarked on a fairly-ish risky, solo adventure. I abandoned all Learning Objectives in favour of allowing a Question to take the driving seat. My colleagues eyed me with something akin to horror and pity: that maybe the new HoD really was the wrong side of eccentric.

I didn’t ask any of the team to do as I did, but did spend some time explaining what I was doing and why. I intuitively felt (and observed in lessons) that Learning Objectives unnecessarily confused the relationship between activity and learning, and seemed focused on what students would do, rather than what students would learn. Objectives are action-led, end-goals and often don’t happily lend themselves to verbs such as ‘understand’ ‘explore’ ‘learn’. These terms are difficult to qualify and almost impossible show in a single lesson.

Not only have Learning Questions clarified my planning (cutting any extraneous material from the lesson), they also seem to have clarified and demystified writing for my students, especially for those with the lowest confidence. As I am now a year into using them, I make them as simple as possible. They usually look like this:

  1. What does Macbeth and Banquo’s reaction reveal in this scene?
  2. How does Stevenson create a Gothic atmosphere in the extract?
  3. How does Shakespeare present love in this scene?
  4. What does Lanyon’s reaction reveal about science in the Victorian era?
  5. What techniques does Wiglaf use to persuade the men to fight the dragon?
  6. What impression does Priestley create of Sheila during her interview?

If the focus is sharper, more specific, or leading in any way (arguably, as 4 & 5 are), I found that students had difficulty transferring their knowledge of an extract from one question to another, even though they had understood and applied their content knowledge to a similar question only a few days before. Students had responded confidently to the question ‘How does Shakespeare demonstrate Macbeth’s turmoil in this soliloquy?’ in class, but when given the same extract and a more general question ‘How does Shakespeare convey Macbeth’s state of mind in this soliloquy?” students didn’t confidently make the leap between the two.  Experience taught me that  ‘tight but loose’ (Allison and Tharby, 2015) LQs seemed to make content knowledge more accessible.

The use of a LQ in place of an objective creates an underlying culture of developing responses, using the tools of the lesson (the key words, the content, the scaffold) to answer and give an opinion. After all, questions seek solutions. Even those students with the lowest confidence can write a response to the question. Asking a student to answer the LQ verbally and then transfer their ideas to the page could be the difference between a U and a grade 2 for some students. To build confidence for all, students hear me frequently return to the question, asking and answering, with lots of modelled teacher talk, and as a class, we piece together our response.

For structure over extended writing, students echo the words from the Learning Question to start each paragraph. In an extract-based exam task, students logically work through the text from top to bottom looking for answers to the LQ in each section of an extract (top/middle/bottom as a very crude guide).

Not every lesson needs a LQ where the end product is writing.  Some LQs take 2-3 lessons to be answered fully; some merit a full essay response; some a modelled exemplar copied from the board and some bullet point notes agreed as a class.

I’m sure there is plenty of refining to be done and scope for research into the transfer of information from one LQ to another, as well as whether content knowledge is more securely acquired from LQs. Having surveyed students across Y10 and Y11, the overwhelming response was positively in favour of LQs over LOs. Students reported that they have a much clearer understanding of the lesson focus and the learning that has taken place.

From my perspective, I like that students are thinking in terms of questions and answers, that there is an ongoing sense of learning as purposeful. I also like that over the course of 2 years, students will have come across hundreds of questions and considered how they frame a response, over and over again. When it comes to end exams, answering questions should be in their DNA. Finally, I now have students ask me in lesson, in all earnestness, ‘Did we finish the answer that question yet, Miss?’ . I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a student ask me ‘Did we complete that Learning Objective, Miss?’ . Ever.

 

Helpful Homework

I am committed to helping my team reduce their marking burden, not least for their wellbeing, but also from a dogged determination to strip back anything that does not help students make progress.

Homework has been a contentious issue for our department, and I’m sure many others. The increase in writing and marking for 4 essay-heavy exams has meant teachers have had little time for more than a cursory glance at written homework tasks. We are in the process of embedding whole class feedback next year, but I certainly didn’t want book marking to be replaced with homework marking. However, there seems to be solid evidence that ‘the impact of homework on learning is consistently positive (leading to on average five months’ additional progress)’ (source: EEF ). The caveat being that this is highly dependent on the type of homework and how it fits into the SoW.

In the most effective examples homework was an integral part of learning, rather than an add-on. To maximise impact, it is also appears to be important that students are provided with high quality feedback on their work”

It seems important then that tasks are relevant and that if they require feedback, this is more than a cursory glance.

Homework booklets will address Vocabulary, Grammar and Reading in KS3 and Vocabulary, Content Knowledge & Reading in KS4. Each booklet has the same structure and rotation of tasks to develop a sense of routine. One thing we need to foster in our cohort is habit – the importance of doing similar things over and over again.

Slide01

The readings are a mix of fiction and non-fiction, with a series of short answer questions or short written responses that can be peer marked, and easily checked by teachers. I want students to see reading as something so fundamental to their learning that it invades every element of our subject.  We are lucky enough to have reading embedded in our tutor time once a week and the majority of students read now, with great focus and concentration. For the remaining, reluctant readers the booklet provides an opportunity for buddy reading, tutor assisted intervention or even whole class reading.

The extracts are closely linked to the unit texts and inspired by a range of sources seen on Twitter – Doug Lemov (@Doug_Lemov), Rob Ward (@RobWard79) and Eleanor Mears (@EnglishEffects) to name a few. They include key unit vocabulary in context as well as critical discussions of the themes or big ideas in the texts. A better grasp of big ideas and themes was a key recommendation in the AQA GCSE English Literature examiner report. As a result, rather than skimming over the content, students will have the opportunity to reflect on these themes through a variety of forms (novel, non-fiction article and discussion/debate) and over a period of time.

Access some of the extracts here: These will be added to over time.

 

 

Dread the Unseen

Unseen poetry is something that, as a department we would say, we didn’t do enough of.

We added it in, like a condiment on the side, in between the main servings of Jekyll and Macbeth. We trusted that everything known about Heaney, Duffy, Byron, Shelley et al. would morph into any poem, anywhere, any table, any chair.

Next year, we can do better. We do not give students anything like enough exposure to unseen poems. We have rightly adopted a depth over breadth approach to texts, but without allowing access to more poetry, there will always be a fear of the unknown.

So, as part of our of our extended writing programme, I want students from Y7 – 11 to experience unseen poetry, building confidence and voice. I’ve put together a poetry anthology, which we’ll give to students as a booklet.

Slide1.jpg

The main ideas behind it are labelled above. Essentially, it was put together with the following in mind:

  1. To be a physical resource, available in the classroom, useful for class teachers, cover teachers and avoid the need for last minute photocopying.
  2. To double up as a help guide, fostering a sense of independence and resourcefulness.
  3. To activate schema in the first stage, in a similar way to the unseen GCSE questions. Positioning the reader through a written (and visual) prompt so that existing knowledge of the topic is drawn upon, will aid understanding.
  4. To insist on a paired reading of the poem, challenging students to think about rhythm and rhyme, when they are powerless to resist! Reading poetry forces these things upon the speaker and demands their attention.
  5. To provide bridging questions that can support and scaffold, modelling how to notice what to notice.
  6. To include an opportunity for silent, extended writing.
  7. To provide a range of poems that deal with different types of voices, types of people, types of relationships, types of situations, types of environments. It was not intended to be  balanced by gender, race or era, but by a range of different experiences. As unseen poems, it’s also important to choose poems of a reasonable length and without obscure and implicit contextual depth. For that reason, past exam papers, Poetry By Heart and the Cambridge University Poetry & Memory Project  shared by Daisy Christodoulou were fantastic sources of inspiration.
  8. Finally, to challenge students. The final 5 are more suited for KS4. The last poem, by Simon Armitage, has a reference to an anatomical part, that is best not shared with Y7, but Y11 could probably benefit from thinking about the richness of language and the poet’s prerogative to vividly depict the world.

Enjoy!

https://www.dropbox.com/s/g34zh0tpmuqft8r/Unseen%20200%20word%20collection.pptx?dl=0

 

 

200 Word Challenge: Non-fiction

 

If the 200 Word Challenge isn’t a proper-set-in-stone-teaching-thing yet, then everyone needs to get their skates on and catch up.

Chris Curtis @Xris32) ,  father of the 200 word challenge, here and here , has lit the equivalent of an Olympic torch, that just keeps going. Not only is it rooted in very sound pedagogy, demanding regular, silent, extended writing, it is also a workload gift, placing the expectation of hard work rightly at the feet of the student and not the teacher.

Other proponents of the 200 word challenge that have to be mentioned include @heymrshallan and @Matthew_Lynch44 , who have generously shared their hard work.

In September we will be running the weekly 200 word challenge across the department. When collecting resources for this, I wanted to adapt them slightly, after reading Andy Tharby’s (@atharby) excellent ‘Making Every English Lesson Count’. In the chapter Challenging Writing , Tharby states that in his early years as an English teacher, when preparing for speech writing, he and his students would spend a great deal of time identifying rhetorical devices, explaining rhetorical devices, and then writing their own rhetorical devices. The result, he argues, was often ‘shallow and poorly argued‘.  He has since adapted his approach to include a great deal more explicit content of the topic, building knowledge first. The result: ‘developed arguments and well-researched evidence.’ This surface-level style of writing is also discussed by Dave Grimmett @daveg5478) in his post about ineffective analysis, here ; the dangers of all style & no substance.

In order to ensure that the 200 word challenge doesn’t become ‘surface’ writing, particularly for our less able students, AND keep the vital ‘unseen’ element, I decided to add some factual, context to each task. There is a great deal of assumption in English exam tasks about what is ‘general, shared knowledge’. We owe it to students to make sure we are actively sharing the world with them, and not making snap judgements about what they know/understand.

On each slide, students are given 5 facts that they can choose to use either for or against the topic. I am hoping they will become masters of ‘spin’ and I look forward to see how inventive they will become at using the information to their advantage.  They will need to practise this, I imagine, and I hope to add opportunities for oracy e.g. pair work arguing for and against the same statement. Chris also wrote this excellent post on vocabulary recently on linking words together according to groups and meaning. As vocabulary is another priority for my department this year, I have used 5 related words for each topic, borrowed from Chris’ wonderful word lists.

I will share the full PPT when complete, below are 5 of the slides. I hope it is less reinventing of the wheel, and more standing on the shoulders of giants – adding to the amazing bank of @Team_English1 resources, rather than muddying the waters!

Slide3Slide2Slide1Slide5Slide4

A Route to Readability Part 1

Having only been an English HoD for a year, I escaped the trauma of making judgements about the placement of students into GCSE tiers. A reflective over-thinker (who, I’ve been told, would take an hour to walk along a street as a toddler), I was spared the task of playing out scenarios in my head such as ‘… on a good day, with the wind blowing in the right direction, with a good text, and nice questions, John could get a C…’ We have a tendency to focus on what students can do, rather than what they do, consistently, do.

Cue the great GCSE reform and the entrance of the single tier and the accompanying relief at having one less thing to think about.  The updated information from Ofqual (March 2017) about GCSE reform states very clearly that ‘Exams can only be split into ‘foundation tier’ and ‘higher tier’ if one exam paper does not give all students the opportunity to show their knowledge and abilities.’ So, in a single tier English GCSE, it should follow that all students have this opportunity.

The single tier means that in a comprehensive school those who are within a fingertip of 8s & 9s are reading and responding to the same text as those who have an EOY11 FFT of 1 or 2. Whilst there have been reservations about single tier in English, as discussed in The Guardian GCSE Reform: Can one exam work for pupils of all abilities?  and in this 2013 document by Tim Oates, Tiering in GCSE , I am a supporter. I don’t want be the one to cap or jeopardise a student’s ability to to reach their potential. In my school, our new mixed ability groupings exemplify this core belief that there should be no ceiling on student progress and allow students wriggle room to grow, mature & develop between Y10 & Y11.

Taking away the tier and the sets does not mean, however, that the issue of accessibility has disappeared along with it.  Carrying out a Flesch-Kincaid readability grade level and reading ease test on the new AQA specification GCSEs (Specimen, SAMS & June 17 exam) highlights exactly what ‘opportunities for… all‘ really means. Overall, reading grade level ages range from 2.9 (Lang P1 SAMS 3) to 12 (Lang P1 Specimen, Lang P2 Specimen, Lang P2 SAMS 2). The average reading ease scores range from 92.4 – accessible and easy (Lang P1 SAMS 3) to 49.9 – college level reading, very difficult to access (Lang P2 SAMS 2). The complete table is at the end of this post, which may be useful when choosing texts to support or challenge your students.

In summary, averaging out the texts used by AQA in Lang P1 & 2 students are required to have a reading age of a Y9 student (with a RA of around 14.0). Any students below this may struggle to access the paper fully to formulate their response. In 5 Things every new (secondary) teacher should know about reading , David Didau quotes ED Hirsch Jr, who argues that “if decoding does not happen quickly, the decoded material will be forgotten before it is understood”. Add to this unfamiliar material, time pressure, poor grammatical control, poor handwriting and anxiety, and we have a recipe for disaster where students with lower reading ages are concerned.

To really understand the landscape of our cohort we began, at the end of term, a process of literacy profiling. Below are two examples from students, one in Y7 moving into Y8 in September, the other in Y10, moving into Y11. The profile captures an attitude to reading, a handwriting sample, evidence of grammatical control and will have the reading age (RA) and spelling age (SA) score added to the sheet. Every child from Y8-11 will be profiled in this way. It is relatively quick and is throwing up some interesting patterns, and anomalies among students. For example, a female student, X, in my class is incredibly hard working and a model student. On paper, it seems as if she should often achieve higher grades than she frequently does. After testing, she is shown to have a RA far below her chronological age and her reading statement describes exactly how hard she has to work to read effectively. I wonder if this has been picked up by any of her teachers before?

Literacy profilingThe profiles will be stored centrally and be accessible to all English teachers. The main and most important patterns will be shared with all staff. With this information, we will  run interventions according to need, using a variety of resources e.g.. Sarah Barker’s excellent approach to addressing handwriting. We will focus on a few key groups to track progress and evaluate.

It will also bring about greater collaboration between English, Inclusion and the Library, a multi-agency approach, if you like. The last thing I want to do is duplicate the good work being done elsewhere. However, the stakes have been raised in English, and across all subjects. It is very much our problem and we need to know what we are dealing with. In the 2013 Ofsted paper ‘Moving English Forward’  the introduction makes the bold and (I think) accurate statement that ‘there can be no more important subject than English in the school curriculum… Literacy skills are also crucial to pupils’ learning in other subjects across the curriculum.’

I know I will sleep much better at night having a realistic bottom-line understanding of our students (exactly how many students in Y11 are below the required RA for the material?)  rather than running through those ‘on a good day, with the wind blowing in the right direction…’ scenarios.

Reading Ages AQA

Reading Age scores of AQA papers.

 

Further Reading & Sources:

The Guardian,  GCSE Reform: Can one exam work for pupils of all abilities? 

Tiering in GCSE by Tim Oates

David Didau Learning Spy: 5 Things every (new) secondary teacher should know about reading

NASEN Supporting reading & literacy in Secondary Schools

Ofsted, Moving English Forward April 2013

Sarah Barker: The Stable Oyster @ladybarkbark Building Automaticity in Handwriting