Thursday, 20 July 2017

A line of beauty

To rule or not to rule? That is the question.  

In the staffroom, this week I pinned my allegiance to the proud, traditional line of separation between one lesson from another. I simply felt that a line draw at the start of lesson to highlight the start of a new lesson and the passing of a previous one was appropriate.
My colleagues didn’t think so.
Imagine my surprise when I withdrew to safety with Twitter and I was faced with threats of arm locks and wedgies for suggesting or hinting that a line was needed.

I listened to people and I read the comments.
  • The date is just good enough.
  • Doesn’t the title do the same job?
  • Hey man, lessons are like this abstract ideas and we just like, man, take loads of lessons to teach stuff. Your ideas about lines, man, are really constricting my vibe.
I, however, have yet to be convinced. You can blog until the cows come home, but, I think a line is important.
Well, because the alternatives are far more evil.

The Date
When has a student ever said the following phrases?
What was I doing in March?  
January is the perfect month for poetry and I am glad my teacher understands this.
I am sure I studied metaphors on a Wednesday sometime.

Never! Why? Well, because dates are written in books for observers and parents. Oh, I see that the last time you marked the books was in May. May 2014.
The date is purely there to timestamp the learning. It might be, occasionally, there to reinforce the spelling of Wednesday or February, but it is really there to track your work and when you mark and highlight when or when you didn’t teach an aspect.

I’d advise people to stop using the dates. How can an observer tell when you marked a book, if you don’t tell them when the work was completed? It will confuse them completely.

Dates are scum. Scum! Scum! Scum!

The Title
If I think dates are scum, then I think titles are pure evil. Sir, what is the title? Do you know what? I don’t know. I don’t know because I spent all my time planning a good lesson that the last think I needed to think of was a name for it.

Title are constricting the learning to a simple, soft soundbite. How could I replicate the complexity of a scene in Shakespeare with a title?  
Lines constrict the learning! Poppycock. Titles do. They are sensational, trashy, Hollywood names for complex thinking and ideas. ‘Die Hard’ as a title alone does not do justice to the film. Why expect the learning to be so easily reduced to the title?

Now, where is that work on Romeo and Juliet? Let’s go through the titles of work to find it.
Misery. Nope.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Nope.

What on Earth? Nope.
Teenage kicks. Yep. There’s Romeo and Juliet.

Titles are pure, vile distilled evil with sequins on. Let’s gets students to avoid reading and engaging in their work and get them to just look for a quick heading. In fact, let’s get students to draw a picture next to a heading and save them reading the title at all.
The Line
Lines are beautiful.

We have implements to help create them.
We have tools to ensure they are straight enough.

Lines do separate and they mark a boundary, but those boundaries can be crossed. They can be walked over. More importantly, they can be seen. They are visual. They are a visual distinction of units or focused work or learning.
Yeah, man, but the lines are so mean and they constrict and oppress the learning, man. If you like the lines, you are oppression students, man.

If people don’t have lines, then why don’t we have just one exercise book for every subject in school? If people don’t have lines, then why don’t we teach every subject at once?  
We don’t have one exercise book and we don’t have teachers teaching every subject at once, because we are constantly learning all the time, but to ensure we learn one aspect better, we need to channel the others out. We need to narrow, focus or zoom in.

A line separates and divides, but is does not hide. It signifies blocks of learning. Separate aspects. Different disciplines.
Lines stop your desert mixing with your main meal. Both are good. Both are food. Both together is messy and, possibly, disgusting.

Plus, dates are small things. Titles can be tiny things too. But, a line is a big thing. You can’t miss a line.
So, if you want to find something you have done, you are probably going to see the line and not the date or the title. A big fat lines is the signal you need.

A line is also versatile, because it forces the student to read. The title is a give a way. A line between different bits of work makes students read the work in detail and remind themselves of the previous work done. They have to sift through work to find what is needed.
A line is a thing of beauty.

You might be on Team Date or Team Title, but I am unashamedly on Team Line. We want students to engage with work they have done previously. We want them to sift and search through things they have done. We want the work to be an integral part of the classroom. We want the past, present and future to work together in learning. If a student has got to search for a tiny date or an obscure title, how are they going to reflect on the past? They are searching for a needle in a haystack. If only they had a nice big sign to help them find that needle. Maybe something like a bit fat line.
Team Line


P.S. For the benefit of this blog, I have shunned the teachers that use a new page for each new lesson. They will forever be known as the ‘Teachers-who-should-not-be-named.’

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Consistently consistent – The English Department’s Manifesto

Well, as the academic year almost draws to an end, I am left pondering what went well and what didn’t for our department. And, I think one of our successes was an A5 exam booklet. A small green photocopied booklet.

Just before Christmas, I got a bit concerned that as a department we could be teaching the exam questions in different ways:  the new GCSE meant that we weren’t clear as to what to expect and what to ask students to do. Yes, we had collective approaches to questions, but the majority of our time planning was on our own. As a head of department, I guided staff with resources and suggested approaches, but, still, I felt something else was needed. Therefore, armed with a laptop and the Internet, I created a booklet. Each page covered a question, providing students with guidance, approaches and suggested things to write in their answers. It also included a breakdown of the exams, a glossary, key contextual facts, quotes and numerous other things. In a way, it was our party manifesto for tackling the exam. There is a lot of conflicting information on the Internet. A lot of it for the new exam. A Youtube video says this. A blog says that. Comically, there are textbooks and revision guides for an exam that not one student in the country has sat at the time of making it. You can be endorsed by an exam board as much as you like, but when the exam board’s staple response to key questions is ‘errr….ummm… things will be clear after the exam’, then I am not convinced by any form of endorsement.  

I wanted to have a party line for tackling the exam and each question.

The students used the booklet in their lessons.

They used them for homework.

They used them at home.

I also used the booklets in revision sessions.

The pleasing thing was that I saw loads of them on the morning of the exam, as students revised. It was a point of reference at all times. It was starting point. But, more importantly, it was a concrete source of knowledge. I love a knowledge organiser. The exam booklet was just a bit like a 3D knowledge organiser. Consistency, however, was at the heart of it. This is what we do with this question. None of ‘Mr Thomas says you should….’ or ‘Set 1 were told to do it this way’. It gave teachers, students and parents some level of security and reassurance in these 'unstable' times.

Consistency is a hard thing to ensure in teaching. Ofsted love it. In fact, they are happy bedfellows.  Pick any report and you see them mention consistency or a lack of consistency. Ofsted is forever snogging the face off Madam or Monsieur Consistency.  

Of course, the booklet will be revised after the exam results and we will adapt it according to the examiner’s reports. As it has been so successful with Year 11, we are going to supply them to Year 10 and update them each summer. The work is done and it just needs tweaking. Plus, we will spell out the updates to parents, students and staff. Just to let you know parents and guardians we have updated the guide with these changes.

We already have a department glossary for grammar (building on and adding to the KS2 terminology) and literary terms that all year groups use, so we have consistent definitions for the subject specific terminology. This year we have added a few more terms and we’ll be explicit with the additions and changes. The great thing is that when the hard works done, all I need to do is tweak and reprint.

With a lot of subjects starting new GCSE courses, my advice is to decide what the department’ manifesto for the exam is. Make it concrete and share it. Yes, things can change and will change, but pin something down so you can build consistency. The teachers can be free to be creative with their teaching, but, like words in a stick of rock, there is a consistent message running through everything.

Political parties spend a lot of time and effort on making their manifesto, and then spend the rest of the time looking silly when they aren’t ‘on message’ – that’s for another blog.  

What’s you department’s manifesto?  

Oh, and learn from the politicians: don’t make it out of stone. Make it out of paper.

Oh, and did I mention it was really cheap to make?  



P.S. Sadly, I will not be sharing my booklet with people. You can try to tempt me with as many limited edition Jane Austen novels or gold plated paperclips as you like, but I will not share it for several reasons. The main reason is that it is our personal manifesto and I think a department should think about what their manifesto is.
Plus, if I share in on here, you can guarantee someone will sell it on a website and make some money out of my hard work.