Sunday, 27 November 2016

Tell me why I love Fridays

I don’t always write about it often, but I am a Head of Department and every so often I feel the need to share something that has worked for us. Last year, I was really concerned about work load. A new GCSE brought new problems and new issues. I remember my first driving lesson: it was a sweaty affair. I worked much harder in that first hour lesson than at any other time during my lessons. Your brain is constantly thinking. You are constantly moving. The new GCSE have brought a new workload. More planning. More resources to find. More resources to make. More effort on marking because it is all new.
I decided to make a change. A significant change. I decided that we would get all year groups, apart from Year 11 for obvious reasons, to do some old school composition. Every year group would do the same task on the same day. We would all do the same thing and treat it in the same way.

Example:
Persuade teachers that you are the best student in the school.
 Students had to include the following things:

       A link to a historical event

       A line from a famous song

       A quote from a well-known speech

       A simile 

       A fact
They also needed to include the following word somewhere.

Indisputable  - it is true and nobody can argue with the fact

Mrs Jones’s cooking is indisputably good.
We call the whole thing the 200 Word Challenge. We tell students to write for 25 minutes and they need to write only 200 words. I spend the 25 minutes moving around the class marking and advising students.

For the second half of the lesson, students peer assess the work using this format:

Peer Assessment
[1]Highlight and label the following
A link to a historical event
A line from a famous song
A quote from a well-known speech
A simile 
A fact

[2] Circle any errors.
[3] Write down what they need to do to improve the content / structure / writing.
[4] Sign and date it.

Finally, I get students to respond to the peer assessment with this:

Correct each circled mistake and write a quick explanation of the mistake – spelling / I missed a letter / I forgot a comma 
And, in the last few minutes, I read out some of the best examples to the class. I read them rather than getting the students reading them so I can place gusto and drama in the reading. If there is a really good one, I share with the next class so it can inspire and direct them.

I then repeat this for every lesson on a Friday. My Friday planning is done months in advance. Each week has been prepared. For the rest of the year I do not have to worry about planning on a Friday. The department doesn’t need to plan or prepare work for lessons on a Friday. I don’t need to worry about cover work. A simple PowerPoint is all a cover teacher needs. In fact, with this one approach I have reduced planning and preparation down by a fifth. The department tends to relax by Thursday as we have Friday sorted.
We have done this for a second term and it is surprising to think of the results. Each student has completed over twelve separate writing tasks and each one has a different purpose, audience and content. They have argued which is the best colour. They have continued on from a line in ‘Great Expectations’. They have written the opening to story. They have write a new report. They have written a comical how to guide.

Their books are full of writing. Lots of writing. Their books are also tell a story. They tell the story of how they are getting better. Take our Year 7s. The students in Year 7 tended to turn everything into a story. Week by week, they’d all transform their writing into a story. I have had head teacher speeches written as part of a novel. After a term they got it.  This week, I had one boy in a middle set produce this as an opening to his writing persuading teachers he is the best student in the school:

In the beginning there was nothing just darkness. Then the galaxy was created. Tiny molecules came together and created life. Living things evolved and now there’s me, the best student. Other students should stop trying to be the best because I am. They should let it go, turn away and slam the door. I don’t care what they are going to say. Let me rein on. Mathematical problems never bothered me anyway.

My knowledge will have students falling to their knees like slaves forced to build pyramids, for it is one small step for me and a giant leap for common student kind. Here’s just a fact to show you how smart I am. Fasten your seatbelts. If you fall off a 40ft cliff, you die. I know, mind blown.

I have numerous examples like this. I had a great description by a boy who described my classroom as some kind of Gradgrind copy. Another boy, wrote a poem about the forgotten soldiers, when the rest of the class wrote a story about someone being forgotten. It has been a delight for me to see students rise to the challenge across all levels of ability.
Now, here’s the thing: the students love it. They love the unpredictable nature of the task. They love the routine. They love the freedom of the writing. Yes, I have had one or two students have a mental block with a task, but usually they come back with renewed vigour the following week. They love it. The teachers love it. I think we have suffered ‘connection’ issues in English. We have felt that everything has to be connected. If students write, it is usually writing something connected to the main topic. You are studying ‘A Christmas Carol’ so the students will write a carol, a Christmas card, a description of life in the Cratchit house, a ghost story and so on. Four hours a week on the same topic for seven weeks can make lessons particularly beige. More of the same thing.

Another interesting aspect is about the response from the different genders. Both have liked for particular reasons. Girls seem to like for the creative writing element; boys, however, have liked it for the lack of rules. Yep, you heard me right. There seems to be a lot of theory about boys needing structure and clear routines. In fact, all the examples from students above are from boys. They have responded really well to composition tasks. Why? Maybe, because the way we have written things in lessons has been a little bit ‘female’. We tend to spend five weeks preparing for writing. We might spend a week planning. A week looking at how others write. A week looking at techniques. A week drafting. A week writing. Maybe, a more masculine approach of writing is doing it off the cuff, in the moment and doing it now.

When I think about how I write, I notice that I write very quickly and with very little preparation. I might have a thought or idea in the week, but that’s all the planning and drafting I do. What do you mean ‘you can tell’? I don’t agonise over things – maybe I should. I sit down and write. In a way, the exam system promotes this ‘masculine’ way of approaching writing. The coursework promotes the ‘feminine’ way of writing, slow, steady and thoughtful. You’ll note I am using inverted commas when referring to the gender, because there will be one person who will say I am female and I use the masculine approach to writing. Plus, I am also hesitant to fully commit to such a generalisation as it being a clear and concrete trait.

We know we have a problems with boys, but I think in part how the work has been structured could have, in part, created this problem. Boys are usually impulsive, yet we have structured work and writing to work against this impulsiveness. Instead of getting boys to get an idea written down, we have asked the boys to hold that thought for a bit longer… and a bit longer… a bit more longer… a bit more… now get it down. Is there any wonder that boys have struggled in school when they have work cognitively and behaviourally in different ways? It is like asking Usain Bolt to race people in a mobility scooter and he has to ride in one too. The frustration. The anger. The resentment that must create.  We are asking boys who want to do it now to go up on a mountain and sit and ponder the meaning of life. Remember ‘Karate Kid’. Education has been asking boys to ‘wax on and wax off’ and paint the fence, when they just want to jump over the fence and go kick a football with their friends.

Look at all the rubbish we have had to deal with lesson observations. We have been asked in the past to make things more active for students, because boys like active stuff. We have been told to put quizzes into lessons, because we know boys like competitions. What if it is simpler than that? How boys think.

In my department, the boys are writing more than they ever have done before and they are enjoying it. The weekly writing task will lead to another assessment in the year. We are going to ask students to turn their best 200 word writing task into an assessment later in the year. They’ll have a range of examples to pick from. We will do that other kind of writing – the slow and methodical writing – across the year.   
If you could reduce your work by a fifth wouldn’t you tell the world about it?  Oh, and if it benefitted the boys, wouldn’t you also scream about it?

Thanks for reading,
Xris


Term 1


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
Describe a setting from two people’s perspective
Perspective
Week 2
Write an opening to a head teacher’s speech persuading students to improve their behaviour
Persuasive writing
Week 3
What is the most important colour in the world? Why?
Extended thinking
Week 4
Write the opening page to a novel entitled ‘The Forgotten’

Creativity
Week 5
Creative writing inspired by a picture

Creativity
Week 6
Write a news report on yesterday’s English lesson – it must be sensational 
Newspaper featured




Term 2


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
A humorous ‘how to guide’ on something dull. How to use a paperclip? 
Voice / tone
Week 2
Students continue on from an extract from a novel
Style
Week 3
Describe a character from a story from three different perspectives
Perspective
Week 4
Persuade teachers that you are the best student in the school
Persuasive writing
Week 5
Describe the journey to school as a wild adventure
Creativity
Week 6
Intelligence is far more important than strength and beauty in life.   Discuss.
Extended thinking


Term 3


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
Create a short story that is told backwards
Perspective
Week 2
School doesn’t prepare students for life. Invent new subject for school. What would it be?
Extended thinking
Week 3
Take one aspect of English or another subject and try to make it interesting for a text book
Creativity
Week 4
Create a small script for a short play entitled ‘The Challenge’
Features of a script
Week 5
A cartoon character has died. Write a speech for its funeral.
Tone


Term 4


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
Write a magazine article exploring the dangers of…
Tone
Week 2
Describe a setting – change the mood halfway through the extract
Creativity
Week 3
Write a monologue exploring why someone committed a crime
Dramatic monologue form
Week 4
Write about a time you felt lonely
Empathic writing
Week 5
Write for thirty minutes on the topic of horses.
Extended thinking
Week 6
Write a response on the emotion ‘jealously’
Creativity
Week 7
Write a television programme review – it must be humorous
Tone


Term 5


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
Write the last two paragraphs in response to a piece of non-fiction read
Style
Week 2
Describe a supermarket on a Saturday morning
Creativity
Week 3
We are all born equal. Discuss.
Extended thinking
Week 4
Using the style of one poem as a guide, write a poem inspired by a place, person or feeling
Style
Week 5
Write a letter requesting that your parents are given a pay rise
Tone


Term 6


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
Write a review of a place you have been on holiday to
Tone
Week 2
Describe an activity, but don’t use any words associated with that activity 
Style
Week 3
Write speech for a new political party
Persuasive writing
Week 4
Describe a building in an interesting way
Creativity
Week 5
Write about anything and in any style
Creativity
Week 6
Describe a famous event from an unusual perspective
Perspective
Week 7
Describe a place during the day and during the night
Style
Week 8





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