Saturday, 27 April 2013

Differentiation thirty different ways

Based on your reading of this blog, fill the gaps with the words below.

 I ________ often use _________ in my lessons. There are __________on my shelves and in _________across schools all over the country. They can be _________ to teach something or prove a point, but often, for me, they get in the way of real _____________.

 cupboards          textbooks         don’t          hundreds      handy        learning

My relationship with textbooks is like that of a messy divorce. Occasionally, we see each other, but often there is an undercurrent of hatred, even when we are being formal to each other. In the past, I have used textbooks, but the rest of the time they sit in my cupboards feeling unloved and neglected.

If I am honest, my hatred of textbooks comes from my own childhood – doesn’t it always? I remember one geography teacher who taught lessons via the form of a textbook. They didn’t jazz things up by showing a video. They didn’t spruce things up with a card sorting activity. They didn’t spice things up with a drama activity. They just made us work through the textbook from start to finish. It was that bad that, if my memory serves me right, I can still remember the author of said book: David Waugh. The lesson planning must have been great and easy. Lesson one: complete chapter one.  Lesson two: complete chapter two. Lesson three: complete chapter three. That teacher must have found teaching ‘stressful’. The work wasn’t differentiated or adapted for the audience, and what happened as a result: I got bored. I got so bored that a friend and I started writing in the textbooks (sorry, the god of teaching – I will atone for my sin). We wrote silly things like ‘go to page 21’ and ‘go to 97’. In fact, we would lead readers on a merry dance as they searched and followed these instructions and finally got to the final comment: you stupid idiot. I do think students haven’t got the imagination these days. I recall a meeting when teachers were berated for writing on a behaviour log that ‘a student had written penises on a book’. We were told that this was unacceptable. A fellow English teacher and I looked at each other and responded together: ‘Do you think they mean ‘peni’ is the acceptable way to write it down?’.   

It will be no surprise to you that I was sent out of lessons in geography. The textbook isn’t my excuse, but it was a starting point. As soon as I moved away from textbooks, I loved geography and I adored human geography in Year 12 and 13. In fact, I think I could have easily been a geography teacher, if it wasn’t for me loving books.  Anyway, back to my point: textbooks. I was taught in the 90s and I had a glut of textbooks. Tricolor books in French. Waugh’s books in Geography.  Science thankfully didn’t use any, because we spent too long burning things and the books would make the school even more flammable than it was.  My school did blow up when I was in Year 7, which is clearly another juicy blog entry for later. I am not exaggerating for comedy value; it did blow up in 1990 and a piece of it ended in a friend’s garden.

As I entered teaching, I made myself a promise. A promise to never to use textbooks for whole lessons. A promise to never rely on a textbook to do the teaching for me. Yes, they are glossy and tempting like the modern equivalent of Sirens, but I will be Jason and tie myself to the mast of my principles and not give in. I did just that until last term. I was seduced in such an underhand way.

Like many last year, I became a fan of the 'Marginal Gains' concept and I was inspired to use it by Alex Quigley’s superb blog here. The concept focuses on the smaller things and improving those and making ‘marginal gains’ in the learning, rather than focusing on big things. I am not doing it enough justice here as many before have done it in a far better way. I like the concept for its simplicity. You focus on precise things rather than focus lots of things. I no longer spin hundreds of plates and now focus on one single stitch in the tapestry of learning. My last blog proves the point really.

I started using the wheel for marginal gains in lessons. It became a great tool for charting progress and seeing what students needed to focus on.  At the start of my preparations for the creative writing assessment of GCSE English, I got students to colour in their wheel. I separated the different strands of the skills that the task demanded and asked students to colour in the skills that they were confident at using.  They could colour things in partly, fully or leave blank to show their level of skill. This became a great way for me to spot the areas needing improvement and it became a great way for students to understand where they needed to focus their efforts, when writing.

Sadly, the wheels also left me with the old conundrum: how can I teach thirty different things to thirty different students in two week’s lessons? Step up the textbooks. I hunted out every textbook in the English department. I then spent half an hour and jotted down the page numbers relating to a particular skill.  I made a PowerPoint slide with all of these on it.  A bit like this:

Semi colons    Blue 2      Blue 99

Using adverbs    Yellow 34    Green 10

Adjectives   Pink 34   Blue 23

Commas  Red 56     Blue 56

I kept to colours as it made it easier for me to type and easier for students to identify the book they needed. Therefore, if a student had a weakness in commas, for example, they knew that the red and blue textbook had something to help them.

So, I spent part of a lesson getting students to wade through some textbooks and focusing on a particular skill. They had to summarise the main points and complete the activities in the book, relating to their area of focus. I had differentiated thirty different times and it took me very little time to prepare thanks to the textbooks. It allowed me time to help a few students on a particular aspect while the rest worked things out for themselves.

To be honest, I have only done this once with a class, but I feel that it has got some potential and that is why I am sharing it with you. Thirty students doing thirty different things is likely to have more people unsure of what they need to do, but if they did it again and again they will develop the skill and, hopefully, become a bit more independent with their learning. Differentiating can be a messy business and I think this covers some part of it. It is personalised learning made easy.   

Like a divorcee, I can meet up again and really enjoy a moment with a textbook, but then I realise that we were meant to be apart. We were meant to be friends, not lovers. We should see each other occasionally, but we should never live together.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 20 April 2013

Poetry - one word, three syllables

I am in that poetry mire that I often find myself in each year, before the Year 11 exams. As students count down the weeks they have left in school, I count down the poems I have to cover for their exam. I enjoy poetry, but I am frustrated in the teaching of a named poems. Who picked them? Why did they pick them? It always feels that I am teaching someone’s preferred list of poems and not mine. The latest AQA anthology at least gives us some new poems. However, I still struggle with some of the choices and the same old few appear again. I know that poets have mortgages to pay but couldn’t we have a few more new contemporary poets and not the same few that are on the never-ending poetry tour of ‘Poetry Live’.  A new poet does appear but it always seems to be paying lip service to the others.  It is like there in an unhidden rule that there should be at least three Duffy and Armitage poems in each anthology. Part of me thinks that Duffy and Armitage are ingrained in most teachers’ brains that they will use them readily, with or without an anthology. Let’s have a wider variety of poets. Isn’t the anthology developing some teacher’s knowledge of poems as well as the students?
At the moment, I am working my way through the conflict section of the anthology. No Duffy, but one Armitage.  I am at the stage that I have two poems left: ‘Come On, Come Back’ by Stevie Smith and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred Tennyson. One poem I am looking forward to and one poem I loathe. I like Tennyson and I like Smith, but ‘Come On, Come Back’ is just ‘meh’ for me. It is beige. It is just dull. Now this is a cue for one teacher, who loves this particular poem so much that they had it read out at their wedding, to argue with me. Anyway, I have decided this year to have a light touch approach to studying the poems. Instead of slaving through every line and squeezing the poems to death, I have danced over them and focused on technical aspects or concepts and dipped into the meaning briefly. That brings me to rhythm.

If I am honest, I have always struggled with rhythm and its use in poetry. Not because I am a dad-dancer and I have no rhythm at all, but because it isn’t something that comes naturally to me, or even students. Students can spot a simile or some alliteration at fifty paces, but can they spot rhythm? No. It is mainly the problem with how poetry is taught usually. A reductive analysis based on a set of expected techniques (similes, metaphors, alliteration, and personification). Get students to look at a poem and they will look at these techniques and miss some pretty obvious things. Therefore, I wanted to crack this problem and get students talking about the rhythm in an intelligent way that stopped them from featuring spotting.

So, what did I do? Syllables. Well, more specifically three syllable words.  My Easter holiday was spent counting line by line the number of syllables in a poem – I know how to live! But, I didn’t even get to looking at stressed and unstressed syllables, as I had discovered some interesting things during the process.  

Take Simon Armitage’s ‘Out of the Blue’. His free verse poem explores the sense of desperation and helplessness a person would have being trapped in the Twin Towers.  The following are the three syllable words in the poem:

anyone / bullying / surrender / appalling / appalling / spiralling / believing / believing   

It was interesting to see that these words mostly occur in the second half of the poem.  That suggested that the first half of the poem features words that are one or two syllables long. How does that link to the poem’s meaning? The use of three word syllables could reflect the exertions of the voice or the tiredness in their actions. As the voice loses hope and energy, the words get longer and the pace slows.  Furthermore, it is interesting to see that ‘believing’ and ‘appalling’ are both words that are repeated and are three syllables long. A subtle way for the poet to draw attention to these ideas. The poem is about the shock of events (appalling) and the disbelief (believing) and it is interesting to see that these words are part of the rhythm of the poem. The rhythm of poem changes with these words. So, the question I ask students is: why does the rhythm change for this word? What is so special about this word?

What about the other poems?

·         ‘Belfast Confetti’ tends to have lines ending in three syllable words

·         ‘The Yellow Palm’ tends to have three syllable words for things that the reader are not familiar with.

·         ‘next to of course god america I’ has three syllable words that describe the ideas being attacked in the poems.  
Once I had spotted the three syllable words, I focused then on two syllable words.

Through a distant shot of a building burning


In fact I am waving, waving  


A lot of the two syllable words in Armitage’s poem are verbs. The irony of the poem is that it features many verbs, but the poem is about inaction and the inability to rescue the voice. Overall, there is an irregular rhythm in the poem that reflects the chaos and disorder in the poem.  However, there are points where there is a regular rhythm in certain lines. The pattern of lots of ones followed by several twos is common in the poem, which could reflect the initial panic of the voice  and then the fatigue that follows a rush of energy. There is also the rhythm pattern that bobs up and down. A line might start with a one but then will fluctuate between twos and ones after that. The line above shows this pattern. The constant rise and fall of hope and despair is repeated in the rhythm of the lines. Often, the lines end on a two syllable word, emphasising the lack of hope. It seems in the poem that the longer the word, the greater the sense of failure.  Or, looking it from a different perspective, it could be seen that the ones and twos reflect the irregular breathing of the voice. Short, sharp bursts followed by long, deep breaths in the smoky atmosphere as the building burns.

What about the other poems?

·         ‘Futility’ tends to have lots of two syllable words at the start of the first stanza when things are so slow

·         ‘Bayonet Charge’ tends to build up syllables in sequence.

Last, but no means least, I focused on the one syllable words.

Do you see me, my love. I am failing, flagging.

1, 1,1,1,1,1,1,1,2,2

As mentioned before, we have this pattern again or building up, but the use of one word syllables here show us direct thoughts or feelings. When faced with dying, the voice uses simplistic words to express his basic emotions. This links to Ted Hughes’ ‘Bayonet Charge’ in the following line:

King, honour, human dignity, etcetera


There is an obvious sequence here, but the one word syllable is ‘King’, which shows us the voice’s main concern and reason for fighting. It is short and direct. His main thought.  Just as much as three syllable words show us a poet's main ideas, a one syllable word can show us a voice’s direct thoughts.   


I have been guilty of getting students to read out poems and write down the number of syllables, but it hasn’t always had the most successful results. This numbers approach actually helped make the process of analysing the rhythm quicker and more effective. I now will teach them to look for the threes, then the twos and then the ones - and hopefully avoid any laughing at toilet humour. Look, I have found a lot of number twos.  

The 3-2-1 can be simplified further for students by looking at word length; however this isn’t as accurate as plotting the syllables. Nothing replaces listening to a poem and hearing the sounds, but a quick process of looking at the three syllable words first has helped me, with students to explore how rhythm is used and how patterns can be noticed in the number of syllables.

What about stressed and unstressed syllables? Well, I am stressed and when I have some time where I am unstressed I may look at those further. 
Thanks for reading, 


Saturday, 13 April 2013

History repeating itself… repeating itself - repetition in poetry

There are three reasons why I started blogging. One: curiosity. Two: so I practised what I preached to students. How can I lecture students on writing, when the only time I write something is to comment on a student’s writing? Three: to share resources, or to make sure I don’t lose resources.  Well, the following took place this week:

IT guy: Hello, Miss Curtis.  
Me: Miss?
IT guy: Sorry, I have a cold.  
Me: Mr Curtis. Yes?
IT guy: It is about your portable memory drive.
Me: Yes.
IT guy: The one you couldn’t access and were worried about.
Me: Yes. What’s wrong with it?
IT guy: It’s dead.
Me: No, no, it’s just resting.
IT guy: Look, mate, I know a dead hard drive when I see one.
Me: No, no , I know memory sticks – it’s just resting. High capacity. Holds lots of data.
IT guy:  Data has nothing to do with it. It is stone dead.
Me: No, no, no. It’s just hibernating.  It is in sleep mode.
IT guy: All right then, if it is sleeping, I will just wake it up then. (Shouting) Hello, Mr Hard Drive. Wake up! I have lots of things here for you to store.   
Me: (Makes a whirring noise) There it made a noise.
IT guy: No it didn’t. That was you making a noise.
Me: I never.
IT guy: Yes, you did!
Me: I never, never did anything...
IT guy: (yelling and hitting the drive) HELLO SCANDISK Testing! Testing! Testing! Testing! This is your nine o'clock alarm call! (He picks up drive and sticks it into the computer)Now that is a dead hard drive.
Me: No, no…. he’s just frozen.
Me: Yeah, frozen. You just made it freeze or something. Portable hard drives always freeze.
IT guy: Look. I’ve had enough of this: it is dead. I have done everything, but it is dead because of an electrical surge.
Me: Well… well…. Well, it is probably pining for a faster computer. 
IT guy: PINING for a FASTER COMPUTER ?!?!?!? What kind of talk is that? Look, why doesn’t the light flash on?
Me: It is sulking.
IT guy: Look, I took the liberty of opening the thing up and I noticed there was sellotape holding it together. 
Me: Well, I had to sellotape it. It would have got messy and make loud noises, if I didn’t. 
IT guy: NOISE. Mate this drive wouldn’t make noise if you put a million volts through it. It has died.
Me: No, it’s just pining.
IT guy: It is not pining! It has passed on! This drive is no more! It has ceased to be! It has expired and gone to meet its maker! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn't sellotaped it together it would be pushing up the daisies! Its metabolic processes are now history! It’s kicked the bucket, it’s shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible! THIS IS AN EX-HARD DRIVE
Me: Have you got any others?
IT guy: No. What about a CD?

To cut a long story short, I lost 6 months of resources this month. My hard drive died and sadly/ stupidly / annoyingly I hadn’t backed things up since September last year. Therefore, I have decided to put even more resources on the blog, so that if it happens again, I will at least have some stored online. The pain has subsided, but now I have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

Charge of the Light Brigade
The following are the resources from a lesson on repetition in poetry and more specifically ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. The resources and ideas here were used in an observed lesson, and I did very, very well – I don’t like to talk about numbers! In the lesson, I introduced the poem and explored the use of repetition in it.

They walk through the door
As students walk through the door, I play a PowerPoint of several different images and play an appropriate piece of music linked to the conflict in Afghanistan. While the music is playing, I prompt students to put down what their thoughts and feelings are towards the conflict on an A3 sheet of paper.  


The Starter
I then chose students at random to give me three words that summed up or related to the conflict.  I went round the room at collected these as a whole class. These were written on the board so we had a word bank for the rest of the lesson.  Some examples the students gave were: pointless, futile, irrelevant, unjust and noble.

At this point, I explained to the students that we are going to look at a conflict from Britain’s past; however, the conflict holds some relevance to the current conflict in Afghanistan. I then posed the following task:

Imagine you are a poet and you want to make a point about the conflict in Afghanistan. What would your message be?

Using the following words, students then wrote their messages on the outside of the box on the sheet they had started at the beginning of the lesson.

What was produced wasn’t obvious. To persuade people of the relevance of the conflict. To inform people of the frustration of the Afghanistan people.

Introducing  the poem and comparing stanzas
Now that I had the seeds of some messages, I then introduced the poem. Rather than give them the whole poem, I felt that if we focused on two stanzas it would mean that we could be more precise with our analysis. Therefore, I gave them two stanzas to compare.

First they had to spot the differences, in pairs. However, in spotting the differences they had to also explain why there may be a difference there.
Once we had made several observations, we then made connections to the conflict in Afghanistan. The ‘jaws of Death’ and ‘mouth of Hell’ jumped out for the students. Most of them said they wouldn’t want to go because of what they have heard in the news. Furthermore, some students highlighted the sense of isolation and sense of entrapment.  Also, some students spotted the change from ‘boldly’ to ‘hero’.

The structure of the poem
Then, in groups they had to explore the following image. I asked them to think about what went in the gaps. If they were writing the poem, what would they put in the other stanzas?

Repetition Time
Then, we looked at the whole poem and I informed them of the historical conflict that the poem is written about.  While reading the poem, I asked students to come up with ideas about why the poet wrote the poem. Not surprising really, but a lot of students made a direct connection to their messages about conflict.

We then got the highlighters out and highlighted every bit of repetition.  After a few minutes, we had coloured in the whole thing. I then posed the following question: Why does the poet repeat the following lines? Why also does he change it at the end of the poem?
Rode the six hundred.
Rode the six hundred.
Rode the six hundred.
Not the six hundred.
Left of six hundred.
Noble six hundred! 

All the class recognised the repetition of the ‘six hundred’ highlighted the shock of how many died, but we got some interesting answers when it varied from the set repetition.  

I then explained to the class that:

Repetition is used for a number of reasons. All of them standout, sadly.
We repeat things to teach people:

Lee make sure your top button is done up!

We repeat things to convince people of something:
David: "I did do the homework. I did".

We repeat things to reassure:
That is really neat work. Really neat.

All of this was to stop the predictable ‘it stands out’ phrase.


Going deeper

I then gave the students this to students. They had to match up the possible reasons for the use of repetition. I also suggested that they could come up with their own if they had some ideas of their own.  
[a] The repetition of the phrase ‘half a league’ …
[b] The repetition of the number ‘six hundred’…
[c] The repetition of the word ‘cannon’…
[d] The repetition of the phrase ‘into the’…
[e] The repetition of the phrase ‘theirs not’ …
[f] The repetition of the verb ‘flash’d’…
[g] The repetition of the word ‘honour’…
[h] The repetition of the phrase ‘storm’d at with shot and shell’ …

…reflects the sound of the horses’ hooves. 
….reminds the reader of how many people this conflict affected and how that number changes at the end.
… highlights how trapped the soldiers were.
… shows us how loyal the soldiers were and how they didn’t question the orders given.
….shows us how far they have had to travel and deep into battle they went. 
...reflects the chaos of the battle and how things were happening too fast.
…shows how the reader must respect what the soldiers fought and died for.
…highlights how the fighting was constant and there was no peace or time for pausing.

Writing it down (Plenary)
So they had a grasp of the concept of repetition and how writers use repetition.  They could quite clearly articulate their ideas verbally. It was now time to focus on their writing. The group I did this lesson with was a C/D group.  I showed the following slide on the board and we picked apart the two bits of analysis.  


As a group they came up with the following points:
  • Must refer to the reader and how they think or feel
  • Must say what the writer used the technique
  • Must use a quote
  • Must link ideas to the message of the poem – what the poet wants us to learn / think / feel

Task: Write an explanation of how a writer has used repetition in 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'.

Finally, on their own students wrote a paragraph about repetition in the poem, using what they have learnt. These were then the focus for next lesson, where we assessed the analysis and added an extra technique to the analysis.

Overall, I think the lesson worked because I was teaching in a precise manner. I wasn’t going to town on everything, but focusing on a few specific things. It was a very student-led lesson. The students were coming up with the ideas and I was just fuelling their interest. But, by the end of it students had a better grasp of repetition and its complex use in poetry.

And finally
I had to repeat the idea of losing all that work in my head. Finally, it did sink in only after lots and lots of repetition.

Thanks for reading,

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Blogsync 4: Progress - It's all about STEPS

Progress is the new swear word in schools. It is used frequently to describe everything. Often, you will hear phrases like 'this is progress' or 'I progressing happy', or even 'Oh progress'. It may sound like it means something positive; however, it means the opposite. Worse still, some teachers are spouting 'PROGRESS! PROGRESS! PROGRESS' like some Dalek determined to rule the Universe.

This is entry of this month’s blogsync entitled ‘Progress in my classroom? How it is made and how do I know it?'. Check out here to see more entries. I have decided to use the band STEPS as the inspiration for the blog. And, in particular,  one line:

Wanna make you mine better get in line
Because that is what is happening in education. We are too obsessed with the numbers 5,6,7 and 8. And students have to get in line.

I find this idea of progress a very puzzling and confusing concept. For me, progress is about the steps to improving and going up those steps. I have progressed from a C to a B. It seems on one level that ‘progressing’ has replaced the verb ‘learning’ completely in schools. It is not what they have learnt. It is all about what they have improved on. How much have they progressed?  I worry for the good, old plenary. No long will students be asked: ‘What have you learnt today?’. They will be asked how much progress they have made in a lesson. Lots. Some. None.  Progress and learning are linked, but they are separate things at times. The learning supports the progress. Not the other way round. The progress, in my eyes, does not support learning; it is the result of the learning and too much focus on it distorts the learning. On another level, our expectations of progress has become distorted. We are expecting all progress to be exponential and continually improve in every minute or hour in a day.

I do have a big issue with this idea of progress. Not because I am ‘a leftie’ and I prefer students to learn things in a more organic way, but because I think we are looking for ‘fool’s gold’. Our obsession with students making progress could do more harm than good. Our point of comparison is weak. In one lesson, a teacher could be teaching students some facts. In another lesson, a different teacher is teaching how a student can shade a piece of art to reflect the natural lighting of an object. Are the levels of progress the same in both lessons? Will there be more progress in the fact based lesson? Or, will the rate of progress be at a different pace with students and their shading as it is developing a skill?   Progress varies from subject to subject, lesson to lesson and task to task. There should be a clear measurement for progress in lessons as, after all, it is a measurement of how good a lesson is. Is there more progress in the fact based lesson because students can do more than the art students at the end of the lesson? Or, is the progress in the art lesson of a better quality because it is refining an existing skill? Knowledge vs skills, again.  There is learning in both, but the nature of one subject makes progress transparent and the other not so clear. Furthermore, what about subjects like English that are recursive? How easy is it for students to make visible progress in something they have done before? It is easy to show progress, when it is something new, isn't. Yesterday they couldn't. Today they can.

Underlying all this discussion is learning. We shouldn't be focusing on the progress in a lesson, but we should be concentrating on the learning - after that it is what teachers are about. I help students to learn. The progress a student makes is a result of teaching and the student's learning.
To make things worse, this progress has to be boiled down to twenty minutes of observation. There must be some element of progress in those twenty minutes or you are not teaching the students correctly. Oh, and it has to be rapid. How can I show progress in twenty minutes? This twenty minute focus is meaning that we are focusing on short, superficial learning rather than deep, long-lasting learning. The learning is going back to this ‘fast-food consumerist’ culture we are fostering. The learning has to be quick. The learning has to be visible.  The learning has to rely on the consumer being satisfied.

I have learnt several things over the years and each time I have learnt something, whether it is Spanish or how to scuba dive, it has been slow. It has also been repetitive.  My scuba divining lesson did not involve a quick starter about the use of an oxygen task. I was not then thrown into the ocean. The instructor did not then measure my progress by checking if I was alive or not. In truth, real learning can vary. You might pick something up quickly like the colours in French. Or, it might take you several lessons to understand something like quadratic equations – it did for me at school. Yet, this constraint of a 20 minute of lessons is constricting us and focusing us to reduce the teaching so that students can make visible progress.

Description of classroom action

So, how can we show progress in a lesson? Or, more importantly, how do I show progress in a lesson?

Doing it wrong
Get students to start the lesson completing a task, knowing that they will do it badly. Then, spend the next 10 minutes teaching students how to improve. Finally, they redo the original task. The new version will be better than the first and you can clearly say that there has been progress made. This can be restructured to focus on prior knowledge and then retest them.  In the words of STEPS, 'One for sorrow and two for joy.' Redoing things shows students going up the steps.

My exercise books are exhibit 1.A in the metaphorical trial of my teaching abilities. It is the source of progress. If I was an Ofsted Inspector,  I would look at the books, because I’d know that what the buffoon(me) is doing in the class might not always be what they normally do. The books would tell the full story. It would say if the teacher is obsessed with worksheets, grammar tasks, peer marking or film reviews – I hate ‘film reviews’. A quick glance says it all. If Ofsted want to look at progress, then the books are the key to this.  Two basic principles must be applied to this idea:


1.       Work in the book now should be better than work at the start of the book.

2.       There must be some clear progress between marked pieces of work. There must not be repeated targets.

Reflection on effect 

What does this all mean for me and my marking? Well, any time I mark a piece of work in a student’s exercise book I look at their previous target or advice. At that point, I draw a smiley face or a sad face and I write progress or no progress. Then, when I write their new comment, I make sure that I acknowledge what they have done before. I am impressed with how you followed my advice and varied the length of your sentences, Martin. By doing this, I am feeding the progress into what I do. It isn’t all about levels; it’s about making sure I don’t repeat the same targets again and again. I am showing the progress in my marking. I am showing the steps up to the next stage.  Therefore, each piece of work in their books is about the student’s progress and shows how they are slowly getting better. I am moving away from the correct or wrong approach to work and moving towards meaningful feedback.   

My last blog argued how one sixty minute block is not a true reflection of the learning in a classroom. Twenty minutes is not enough. That’s why the books are so important, in my eyes. Progress isn’t a twenty minute thing. It is an on-going thing. You can learn something in twenty minutes, but that could or could not help you to progress. Progress is the bigger picture on the learning. Learning is judged in lessons. Ofsted judge the learning in the lessons and progress through the books and data. That is why our exercise books are important to showing students the steps to progress.

If all fails, I might have to adopt some of the following to make sure that there is clear and rapid progress in lessons. Warning: these have not basis for sound pedagogical learning and they will lead to 'Tragedy' if used. Just a bit of fun.   
·         Teach a list of facts.

·         Teach students an obscure literary term, so they can at least name it after 20 minutes.

·         Read a bit of a book they don’t know. Well, they didn’t know who the characters were before.

·         Train them to write inaccurately and terribly at the start of every lesson, so that they know that after 20 minutes they have to write it better. Then, at the end of the lesson they have to write even better than that. 

·         Don’t put any effort into their work, unless I say so. Then when I mention the phrase ‘This will show me your progress’ that is when they show me their best efforts.

·         Get them to pretend they don’t know a technique, so when it comes to looking at the work it looks like they have made outstanding progress.

Thanks for reading and check out my other blog on progress here. Please feel free to comment if you think this is a load of old progress and think I should progress off.


P.S. A big thanks to Helene for her opinions about the blog. Her blog can be found here.


Saturday, 6 April 2013

Observations, Burgers and Mystery Shoppers

Why is it most of my teaching is based on one hour’s worth of observation?

Aside from the endless reams of data, my teaching is judged successful or unsuccessful based on a miserly sixty minutes worth of sheet ticking and pensive, thoughtful looks from an observer. It is the career equivalent of having a driving test every year. You know you can drive, but you must have a test every year to see if haven’t forgotten how to do it. This is how teaching is. If you are lucky, it happens once a year. If you are unlucky, it happens a few times a year. If you are really unlucky, Ofsted will do it.  On my driving test, I stalled the car three times, because of the pressure of the make or break moment.

We try to plan outstanding lessons; it just doesn’t always coincide with the one time you are being observed. Often our teaching is judged on one snapshot : a single hour in several months’ worth of lessons. It can be a simple case of hit or miss. And when it is a miss, we feel it most.

The preparations for an observed lesson are often military in its scope. Minutes are planned in fine detail. Resources are prepared, cut, colour-coordinated and alphabetised. You might even have scented candles prepared, just to get the ambiance just right for learning – jasmine is a personal favourite! Lessons are trialled and retrialled with the hope of finding that one weak point. Students are surveyed to find out the engagement level of the materials. Even at 11 pm at night, you still make those changes, because you worry that you might have under planned the whole lesson. The mantra is repeated several times during the whole planning process: you can never have too much. Finally, you have the printed list from a friend of a friend and you check to see if you have included every buzz word under the sun that Ofsted like with the hope of attaining greatness.  

Then, the day of the observation comes. The class don’t all arrive on time. You panic and fret. You look worryingly at the observer and notice they are already writing something down. Better start the lesson. It goes well, but you feel the pressure and you notice that you are speaking twice the normal speed of a human being.  You rush around the room, while the students are on task, hoping that the observer notices that the people you go to are the ones highlighted as your focus group. Then, you notice that the observer is talking to one of the students. You causally look to see if you can lip-read their words. Nothing.   You can always interrogate that student afterwards. Next comes your feedback of the task. You know this could be the make or break moment. There’s one of those awkward moments when people don’t respond or there is the general lack of understanding.  Cue silence. Lots of silence. So much silence that you can hear the sands of time falling grain by grain. Generally, at this point, I think: sod it. Then, I act as I normally do, thinking that I failed it already, so I may as well be myself.

It is so artificial. The 60 minute observation is a performance.  It is a show. It is your debut night. The performance isn’t an accurate view of teaching. If you know you are being observed for an hour, then every action of that lesson is planned. It may be the one occasion to show off, but it is also the one occasion to see if you are the square peg that doesn’t fit in the round hole. Are we focusing on the learning? Or, are we focusing on the teacher?

If we are focusing on 60 minutes, we are looking at the learning in that lesson, right? We are more bothered about what the teacher is doing, than the learning. If we were to have three 20 minute observations, then the focus would be on the learning. What are these students learning? How are they progressing? After all, most observations by Ofsted are 20 minutes long.  I think you could sit in a classroom for 20 minutes and judge the ‘learning’ of that lesson. Note I say ‘learning’ rather than ‘teaching’.  Are they learning? Are they engaged? Are they making progress? You would have enough from that, which would make the other 40 minutes surplus to requirements.  Then, you can focus on learning over time – the real issue. A flash in the pan lesson is fine, but where is the deep seated learning? I agree that the emphasis should be on learning, rather than teaching. If the emphasis was on teaching, then we would have the issue of teaching to a preferred style of teaching?

Personally, I want my teaching to be judged over time, not because of one isolated block of 60 minutes long. We have all had the lesson where it has gone wrong. You may have pitched it too high. You might have pitched it too low. Perhaps, the class were really late for some reason. Maybe, there was a fight before the lesson. Possibly, there’s a bit of salacious gossip being spread around school and it just so happens to correspond with your lesson. It can all happen to us and it does happen in the normal progress of lessons. Rarely do things go to plan.

I once had a lesson observation where I was disturbed 8 times. The observer’s phone went off. A student came with a message for the observer. A student came with a message for a student in the class. Another student came with a collection for a teacher leaving. That wasn’t a normal lesson, yet it was one that I was being judged on.  All these things affected the lesson that I was being judged on. If they came to the next two lessons with the class, they would have seen a normal lesson and seen the student learn a lot.  

Before people go mad at me for saying this, listen: if we have this culture of seeing real lessons, then our expectations will be less on perfection and more on the learning. Twenty minutes here and there could be more effective than one performance that has to be pitch-perfect. I get nervous. A bum-note in 20 minutes of lesson can be redeemed with a harmonious tune in the next lesson.

On the other side of the argument, are we now focusing too much on the ‘consumer’ rather than the product? Are we focusing more on how satisfied the consumer (the student) is and less on the teaching?  Are Ofsted taking on the role of the mystery shopper?  Do they walk into an establishment and expect certain phrases from the students and they expect the teacher to say at the end, ‘Have a nice day’?

Learning is messy, imperfect and certainly not a straight line.  It is boring and fun. It is easy and hard. It is quick and slow. It is a lot of things at once. It is complex. That is why it is such a problem when people observe, because it can be an artificial thing. We might be having a plenary every twenty minutes to show progress, or we might be crowbarring in a strategy that is the latest thing. These things might not fit into the natural layout of that particular lesson, but we feel the need to put these things in, because we are being observed.

I have a growing concern for the consumerism of education. Should we really be questioning the students like a mystery shopper, when Zeus in the Olympus of education doesn’t know what real learning is? Students can be part of the talk, but are they really the most reliable source of information in a classroom. It is like asking a customer of Burger King about the hygiene in the kitchens, yet the customer doesn’t even step into the kitchen.  They might see a bit of it behind the counter, but they don’t know what really goes on in there. They eat the product, but they don’t know all the different components that go into making that burger.  

The mystery shopper needs to see the burgers being made, or the teacher teaching. However, will one 60 minute observation really show them the true picture? They will see the burger prepared correctly for the whole of that period of time, but is it consistent? The mystery shopper needs to visit again and again to see that it is consistent and that the people in the shop are not just preparing the burgers correctly when being observed.

Thanks for reading and have a nice day.  Would you like fries with that?

Xris 32