Tag Archive | English

The Three Rs and Aiming for Outstanding

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This last week I had the pleasure to read some excellent blogs on outstanding practice. It was fascinating to see what fellow practitioners think about great teaching, with exemplary practice outlined in a very helpful way. In this post by David Didau here there is a hugely useful model of what a great lesson looks like. In this post by Tom Sherrington here there is a breakdown about the qualities of great teaching more generally: with a particular focus upon ‘rigour’ (reclaiming it from Govean parody!). I was interested in the overlap and interplay between those two posts. I happened to be teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ with my Year 10 group at the moment, like David, and I too was being observed. What I wanted to do was not aim to exhibit a ‘showpiece’ one-off lesson (although these can be rattled out the bag by many experienced practitioners to mask a dull daily reality). I was intent on representing the real routines my group exemplify in any given lesson – to display the rigour articulated by Tom Sherrington, combined (hopefully!) with some of the outstanding strategies employed by David Didau.

Although we all feel pressure to perform when observed, we must aim for consistency in our practice before a pursuit of an outstanding lesson judgement, and we must trust in ourselves that this consistency will be rewarded. I have heard from a few wise leaders who have said that if every lesson saw our students display good progress then we would cumulatively see good to outstanding progress in student attainment. Of course, there are a host of important contextual factors to consider, but on a simple level, sticking to the ‘three Rs‘ of relentless and rigorous routines would see students flourish. I do not think it is having low standards to be happy with a consistent sequence of very good lessons, rather than haul ourselves over the coals in an obsessive pursuit of outstanding; it is effective pragmatism and a realisation that rapid progress does not happen every lesson. I have found that some cast iron ‘outstanding’ plans just don’t spark on the day, whilst seemingly simple lessons can smash through the ceiling of mediocrity and see students reach new heights. We must then reflect with care, but without despondency if the lesson doesn’t turn out exactly as we planned or wanted. What is crucial is that we learn from the experience of the lessons that didn’t go well and then tweak our pedagogy to improve still further.

With this in mind I tried to aim for a great sequence of lessons, where hopefully the observation lesson would show an accumulation of skills, rather than a one off showpiece. The following sequence of lessons outlines the planning for most of the week, with the lesson plans for before and after the observation lesson being just as crucial:

Monday’s lesson

Key question: How does the theme of power link to the theme of loneliness?
Starter: Who would make the better American president? See PPT. Student feedback: ‘Pose-pause-pounce-bounce’.
– In pairs, create a ‘power map’ using the ‘Character Cards’ resource. The pairing then needs to select three of the characters who have distinctive power relations. – They should co-construct a top grade paragraph that answers the key question. This should be done with students writing alternate sentences (with each partner orally critiquing the sentence of one another) and it should be completed on paper (for the gallery critique).
– Any questions should be posted on the ‘Question wall’.
– Recap the four steps of effective evidence analysis – their group target.
– Recap their proof reading target – each pairing is given two minutes DIRT time on their paragraph (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time).
– Complete a gallery critique. Remind students about the criteria for their feedback and how many paragraphs they should read ideally. The critique notes will be made on a post it note – using the ABC feedback model (Agree with; Build Upon and Challenge). Conduct oral feedback.

Tuesday’s Lesson (Observation lesson)

Key question: How is the theme of friendship presented in relation to the theme of loneliness?Obscure the two themes from the KQ and probe some ideas.
Starter: Who would you most like to sit next to in class? See PPT. ‘Think-pair-share’ responses using the ABC feedback model.
– Revisit the key question and elicit oral feedback using the ‘Pose-pause-bounce-pounce’ model.
– ‘Just a minute’ recap of last lesson from selected student – link to current KQ (articulate end goal of controlled assessment essay).
– In pairs, use character cards to create a friendship map (this is intentionally an open concept). Ask observer to select a map that is interesting. Get that pairing to rearrange the characters on the PPT slide – (See PPT) – whilst orally articulating their ‘map’. Get other pairings to conduct ABC feedback.
In pairs, write a model paragraph that answers the key question (akin to last lesson). Remind students that they need to write alternate sentences. Show a model PEEL high grade paragraph response – see PPT – with ‘four steps to a successful explanation’ model – see images slide on PPT. Question students about why the paragraph is so successful.
– Have two minutes DIRT time (use highlighters).
– Conduct a gallery critique (teacher model first oral response).

Thursday’s Lesson

Key question: How does social prejudice exacerbate loneliness?
– A student is made the ‘Secret Teacher‘ to privately note the best oral responses.
– Individuals note a list of the prejudices present in the novella. In groups, discuss those prejudices. Conduct ABC feedback
– ‘Prejudice Continuum’: the students have to individually select where they think each prejudice resides on the line, from ‘Most individually damaging’ to ‘least individually damaging’. Teacher orchestrates feedback and the ‘Secret teacher‘ orders the answers along the continuum.
– Individual writing of a top grade paragraph addressing the key question. Show two model examples from last lesson and unpick and reiterate key points. Use the question wall for any student questions, with post it notes, and allow a one minute question session midway through their writing. Otherwise, work in silence.
– Have two minutes DIRT time for their writing – with peer proof reading, then individual proof reading. Conduct oral feedback. Select students to read their paragraph, with another student having to give constructive feedback based on our writing targets from the previous week (a four step model to explain evidence).
– The ‘Secret teacher‘ gives feedback on their observations.

(There was a fourth lesson in the week but I wanted to keep the post to a reasonable size!)

Useful resources referred to in lesson plans:

PPT: OM&M PPT Creative Questions<

Of Mice and Men 'Character Cards': OM&M Character cards

Review of the week and the ‘Three Rs’

What I hope is evident is that much of the pedagogy in the lesson plans above is repeated to develop and deepen the habits required to produce great learning. Consistency, good habits and routine are king. The first two lessons of the week, in particular, clearly mirror one another to develop the required writing skills. Repetition is often frowned upon in education, with the misguided notion we should be endlessly creative and different to maintain the interest of students. Students derive comfort and increasing expertise through incrementally increasing the level of challenge through the repetition of the most effective teaching and learning strategies, not from an endless array of activities.

The reality of the lessons outlined above is that I also learnt a great deal about where they stumbled on Monday, when student progress that was definitely not outstanding, to actually inform my planning for Tuesday. For example, they failed to analyse the quotations as successfully as I would have liked on Monday, which was rather unexpected, so I added in an A grade model on Tuesday and spent more time modelling the paragraph structure to enhance their quality of analysis in the subsequent lesson. Not every lesson sees rapid progress – to think this is the case is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature…never mind hormonal teenagers! By working at the core habits relentlessly; however, I was able to make ‘marginal gains’ lesson upon lesson – only nuanced, slight improvements, but essential differences (this recognition often becomes easier with experience). Good became better.

Another clear factor about my pedagogy I hope is in evidence is my focus upon questioning see here and oral feedback see here. I couldn’t write those blog posts without practising what I preach! What is clear is that OFSTED are interested in progress– (it is the latest buzz word careering around schools). Some people are therefore quick to mystify this term, complicating what can be the best, and sometimes the most traditional, of teaching and learning strategies: simply asking great questions and eliciting thoughtful, intelligent feedback. When I hear we people explaining ‘mini-plenaries’ every fifteen minutes, or have our students spinning plates in different ‘learning stations’, with no real deep understanding or knowledge, just for when the OFSTED inspectors are in the room, I despair. Stop the showpiece; don’t invite the circus to town – just follow habits of excellent routine pedagogy!

If we develop real rigour in our habits then it will be obvious that students are learning and making good, or sometimes even rapid, progress: clearly in their attitude and demeanour; in the quality of their questions and feedback; in their written work and in their books or folders. Each one of my lessons above allocated time to make improvements (DIRT). It is trained behaviour, that may appear uninspired or lacking the necessary rapidity, but the rigour of proof reading may well be the two most important minutes of those lessons. Any observer should note that rapid progress is often the product of slow reflection! Not only that, it is this regular habit which may well transfer to becoming more settled habits for students when writing at any time in any subject – the learning trumps the chase for a great observation once more. It is a rigorous routine of real note (thank you Jackie Breere for the inspiration for DIRT) – whether a lesson is graded outstanding or not, students will reap the rewards of such sound learning.

When I speak to many colleagues they simply want to be shown what an outstanding lesson is, what it looks like, and how they can replicate it. This is problematic: as outstanding looks, sounds and feels different in different subjects. That being said, some definitive patterns of learning arise in great lessons. For me, those are seeing students highly engaged in responding to challenging questions, posed by a teacher with the highest of standards; it is feedback being artfully weaved around the group, lifting understanding; it is students reflecting with due care attention to their thinking and their work; and it is the palpable sense of motivation and commitment to the task at hand. These patterns are honed by routine, not derived from any off the peg lesson plan or formula for success.

Postscript: I am thankful to David Didau, Jackie Breere and David Docherty for their ideas that have informed my lesson plans outlined in this post.

‘Love English, Hate Maths?’

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I love a leading and provocative title, but I have you reading so I will assuage all those Maths teachers nice and early that this is not an attack at all – indeed, it is quite the opposite – it is a robust defence of Maths and the teaching and learning of mathematics. You heard it right: ‘English teacher writes in defence of Maths‘. Now, as a Subject Leader of English, I am acutely conscious of the pressures faced by core subject teachers, in both English and Maths, and particularly those of the Subject Leaders of Maths. In many ways I recognise that it is not really a fair playing field. One key critical factor, which as a teacher of children (and not just English) irks me greatly, is that society most often supports and celebrates the majesty of reading and writing, but it openly scorns mathematical study – the weight of culture actually militates against the learning of mathematics.

The impact of cultural conditioning cannot be underestimated and the stigmatising power of language cuts deep and endures. I was brought up in a literate working class background, rich in reading and good humoured talk. Education was seen as a privilege and I was warmly supported in a loving climate. I am whole-heartedly thankful for brilliant and loving parents. One small failure on their part is that they “couldn’t do Maths”. This familiar refrain passed readily onto me and around about thirteen years of age (after I had been temporarily sparked by a brilliant Maths teacher, Mr Laing, who openly debated his early struggles with Maths, and his Damoclean conversion to becoming passionate about Maths). I pretty much stopped trying hard at Maths. I couldn’t see the benefits, I was happy to take the easy route, perpetuate the stereotypes passed onto me. Does this sound familiar?

The stigma of illiteracy is anathema for our society so we do something about it – we need to tackle innumeracy with the same sense of importance.There is a widespread societal acceptance that mathematics cannot be learnt easily, in fact, from many the notion that it cannot be learnt at all; not like those supposedly ‘natural‘ subjects like English, or Art, or PE. Of course, all of this is nonsense! As is the stereotype that those ‘blessed’ with mathematical skill are particular geniuses! From birth, children are indoctrinated with this closed system of thought, which of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Children become unwilling to put in the time and effort to develop the mastery, so the mastery, and the pleasure therein never comes. Anyone who has read Carole Dweck’s ‘Mindset‘ will be fully versed in the destructive power of such culturally vindicated language. Day after day, these negative representations wear away at the will of students like water hollowing out a stone.

As humans we are naturally averse to thinking, we seek this state so we can focus upon the important stuff, like danger and our primal needs for survival. This neatly explains why I prefer to snack on sweets and not tackle complex mathematical problems of an evening! So children, intelligent and wily creatures that they are, will do their damnedest to avoid the difficult thinking and challenges that attend learning in Maths lessons. I wrote recently about reading great, and challenging, literature, like Shakespeare, to enjoy what W B Yeats termed “the fascination of what’s difficult”. The same principals apply to Maths, only children are vindicated in their avoidance of tackling the subject by negative cultural language and stereotypes. See this great collection of clips from films for irrefutable evidence of a deep rooted cultural bias against mathematical study:


A great video via Dan Meyer showing you how ‘Hollywood Hates Maths!’

Now, this video is comic in its collective negativity, but how many students are turned against mathematics because of these less than subtle social messages? In ancient times, Plato and the Greeks viewed the study of mathematics as purifying the soul – nowadays it is depicted as a pursuit for unpopular geeks alone! Let’s remember that children suffer from tremendous social forces in their daily lives that impacts upon their behaviour and their habits; no more so then teens, who walk through a status and identity minefield everyday, acutely sensitive of their appearance to their peers. The ‘Maths geek‘ stereotype is more seriously damaging than it may first appear. How many countless children have been turned off from committing the hours and hours of deliberate practice needed to help our working memory fit to deal with challenging mathematical problems? It is ironically this crucial deliberate practice which eventually can render Maths ‘easy’, or even, dare I use the term ‘natural’!

Compare this with the cultural capital firing the English canon. Shakespeare has been rendered cool by DiCaprio; television shows of great novels are abound; tablet devices and eReaders are cool accessories to boost reading; poetry is aligned with music and more. We can draw upon politics, comedy, the media – the list goes on. Even as an English teacher I can draw inspiration from ‘The Dead Poets Society‘ (and I shamelessly do!) or ‘Dangerous Minds‘ (well, I plainly don’t!). Our study in English is reliant upon vocabulary recognition (see this excellent essay by E.D. Hirsch on the topic), which of course is bolstered by our wider culture; by talk with the family and by the myriad of texts that surround students in their daily lives. Much learning is tacit and implicit – we can simply draw upon that learning in English. Don’t get me wrong, reading is beset by challenges – again, these are outlined by Hirsch in the essay linked above – but many cultural benefits are in our favour too. We are the popular big brother to the ten stone Maths weakling!

What needs to happen is that the pervasive cultural narrative attached to mathematics needs to fundamentally shift. You may well quibble that that is a rather tall order for individuals without Rupert Murdoch-like media power…and you would be right. We can and should; however, do our best to change our local culture, the culture of our school, or family of schools, including feeder Primaries and more(this language sets the rot in early, like gender ‘appropriate’ toys the dye is cast quick). We must work from Primary level and even before to celebrate the rich pleasures to be found in number. We need to work with parents in highlighting to them the power of their language – a crash course in ‘growth mindset’ thinking – as well as actually dealing with the language we use (many a staff room would be littered with similar attitudes to mathematics based in my experience).

We can also illuminate how mathematics it is rooted in everything we do (perhaps school staff should read some books on the topic, like ‘The Undercover Economist‘ or ‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland‘ to name just a couple). We need to articulate how it can make you eminently employable – wealth, status and power are for some reason very appealing to teenagers! We could even promote careers in ethical banking for example, god knows we need more of those! Effectively, we need many more mathematical role models who can articulate its value in a whole host of ways. Ultimately, we need to make mathematics real – we must draw away the veil of mystery from mathematical concepts and make mathematics relevant to everyday life. We must make it feel relevant beyond the four walls of the classroom and the exam hall. Hollywood, nor anybody else, is likely to do it for us.

George Sampson famously quoted, in 1921, “Every teacher in English is a teacher of English“. Perhaps we need to shift our school cultures to ensure that people think and talk with the notion that ‘every teacher in English is a teacher of Maths‘.

Useful Resources/Ideas:

I’m no Maths expert; however, I have found these really interesting ideas that certainly got me thinking about inspiring the teaching and learning of mathematics:

http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html A great talk from DD Meyer, an American Maths teacher who provides a lively vision for mathematics in the classroom.

http://blog.mrmeyer.com/ The great blog of the aforementioned Meyer.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/video/2013/jan/22/algebra-mathematics-masterclass-video A great teaching master class on using mathematics to engage and inspire in a real way.

http://www.ted.com/talks/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education.html Another intriguing TED talk to spark thinking about re shaping the teaching and learning of mathematics.

http://maths4us.org/about/ This programme looks to tackle many of the issues outlined in my post.

Do Some ‘Flipping’ Revision!

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Flipped Learning?

Many people hear the term ‘flipped learning’ and their hackles rise, expecting some evangelical heralding of technology unceremoniously replacing the humble teacher. I have written before about the concept of ‘flipped learning’ before in this blog post and I am still fascinated by its potential and a firm believer in its importance, both here and now, but crucially in our future and for the future of our students and our schools. Now, once you get past the glossy veneer and the potential technological wizardry, ‘flipped learning’ starts to sound suspiciously like mainstays in education – homework, or revision, or even reading for pleasure outside of school! Perhaps the original flipped learning experiment didn’t begin with ‘Project Gutenberg‘ but with Johannes Gutenberg, whose printing presses revolution changed the western world and brought reading to the masses. I am an English teacher and we are currently guiding our students through their crucial final steps of revision for their January English exam. What is crucial is that those students in my school, and around the country, who will be flipping their learning over the course of Christmas and the New Year have a much better chance of excelling in January the those who do not. Revision…flipped learning – same difference!

On many days as a teacher I have faith that my daily dose of teaching can make the ultimate difference for my students, that the time and effort has a transformative purpose. That may be true – I certainly need that belief to nourish me through difficult times; however, my rational self tells me that all the other factors impacting upon our students are just as important, if not more so. As an English teacher, I have a good deal of knowledge about the impact of early years literacy and the impact of reading and oracy in the first years of the growth of a child. I know the powerful impact of parents and the impact simply having a bookshelf in the home can have. Then the importance of reading for pleasure rears up in sight (this Literacy Trust report, although slightly dated now, is illuminating: report). Other factors, like social deprivation, genetic and emotional predispositions expand the list further. Suddenly, making the key difference with our students feels a bit like King Cnut holding back tempestuous waves! Still, of course, we must try. We must try to help them learn better, for us to learn better, inside the classroom and out.

I am deeply interested in the motivation to learn (teachers as well as students!). I think that intrinsic motivation should be the ultimate aim for all learning and an end goal for educators, but I also have the realistic understanding that this is not our natural state for thinking and learning. That boredom and a deep rooted neurological desire to save mental energy, as well as a plain dislike of certain subjects, can put pay to idylls of intrinsically motivated students! What is clear is that to really enhance student motivation in a transformative way we must simply communicate as effectively as we can – despite any factors that we challenge us. This often requires good old-fashioned direct instruction, but what increasingly strikes me is that in our changing world we must harness technology to communicate with our students and with their parents. We must communicate with students using the tools where their expertise resides. I am not advocating the gamification of education, but a digital literacy that harnesses good old fashioned literacy and builds learning power.

Students only spend a relatively small amount of their time in the classroom, so the learning that is undertaken outside of the classroom obviously has a crucial importance. John Hattie’s research about homework has questioned the validity of its impact, but the data is different for older students – the older the student, the greater the impact. The link between spending time on homework, learning beyond the classroom and enjoyment is being researched with interest – see here. What is common sense is that if students enjoy learning and school, and they have developed a capacity to learn with resilience and a strong sense of motivation, then they will undertake more productive homework and revision – or simply read more for pleasure for its own sake. What we can do is harness their love for technology, gaming, social media and the web, to enhance this enjoyment, to spark more reading for pleasure. What I see as key is that technology can smooth the pathway for students, it can provide key support mechanisms outside the classroom and it promotes interdependence we simply haven’t had in the past.

Independence is rightly celebrated as a valid goal for learners at all levels. Perhaps though we are making an error, perhaps simply a semantic error. For me, interdependence is the true condition of effective learning in our modern world, not independent learning. We almost never learn in splendid isolation and for our students, and their generation and for future generations, this is particularly so because of technology. How many careers will see our students work individually and not in teams? Of those jobs, how many jobs will be essentially connected through technology? How many careers will require a flexible digital literacy to source answers and support learning? Therefore, perhaps the answer to revision is fostering that interdependence – connecting students, teachers and the knowledge we seek to impart.

In the past week we have begun shaping revision support over the crucial Christmas holiday to be shared on our faculty blog: http://huntemf.wordpress.com/. It is only in its infancy, and our ‘advent‘ of revision resources, tips and ideas, will really kick off at the start of the holiday, but the principal of ‘flipping the learning’ for revision is clearly key. We are able to share knowledge, direct students through the minefield of the web, answer questions and connect peers to one another through technology. Should they simply switch off their computer and hit the books? Perhaps? Would it work better than the ‘flipped technological model’? Perhaps. Will it promote digital literacy? No. It is a realistic state of affairs over the Christmas holiday? No.

What am I trying to argue? Well, ‘flipped learning’, or what ever you want to label it, or relabel it, is here to stay. We should harness technology and harness the expertise of our students, not switch it off and hope it will go away (Perhaps if we embraced the mobile phone as a tool for learning, putting it on the desk and not under it, then students wouldn’t feel the need to seemingly stare at their crotch so much. Even better, perhaps we could replace the mobile with a better, flexible learning tool, like a tablet, that we can mediate for great multi-modal learning?…I digress!). We should promote interdependence and connectedness for homework and revision…sorry, flipped learning!

Please watch this outstanding lecture by Dr Eric Mazur, arguing more articulately about ‘flipped learning’ than I ever could. Please take the time to watch it, it will make you think about learning, it is funny, wise and perceptive, and it will make you think:

http://youtu.be/y5qRyf34v3Q

Confidence – The Rosetta Stone of Teaching

Nearly a decade ago I began teaching English (not very well if I remember!). I was a startled rabbit of the most baffled kind. Each morning I would quietly take ‘Rescue Remedy’ in the gents toilets to help conquer my raging nerves, before embarking upon the war of attrition that was every school day as an NQT! University success was a distant memory. I made the usual mistakes, experienced the typical emotional roller coasters, and eventually made my way through it to the other side. Now that I have a leadership role myself, I see that confidence is not just the Rosetta Stone for students to unlock their potential, it is just as important for teachers. Not just new teachers either, confidence waxes and wanes – sometimes when we think we are on the other side we are dragged back in the swim – battered by self doubt!

As a Subject Leader, I have the privilege of experience and the greater self-confidence it typically brings, yet the old ‘imposter syndrome’ never goes away – but, perhaps that is a good thing. I have seen brilliant teachers and trainees wracked by self-doubt, whilst the worst of teachers can be full of conviction in their own superior ability! As a friend, colleague and leader, I suppose it is my job to help guide through that tricky course between two different types of self doubt: one with the attendant drive to keep getting better, and the other self doubt that becomes crippling and destructive for a teacher.

I hesitated in writing any blog posts about confidence, as I didn’t want to betray any professional secrets of colleagues past or present. I discussed this with my brilliant colleague Helen, a young teacher, still fresh from completing her NQT year, who agreed to guest post her personal thoughts. They mirror many of my experiences as a new teacher and it is a refreshingly honest account of why confidence is crucial in teaching:

A few weeks ago my Subject Leader introduced the new personalised coaching ideas which would form the basis of our faculty training time this year. The idea was to focus in on one or two key things that would improve our teaching and work on them in discussion with other members of the faculty– in his words making ‘marginal gains’ to move from good to outstanding. Excellent in theory: I was an NQT last year, I’ve got this reflecting thing down and I have a whole multitude of things to fix! In reality, it was Monday afternoon, Year 10 had been in an entertaining mood and, as such, my reflection on my own practice extended about as far as: ‘What on earth am I doing – it was supposed to be easier this year!’ I survived the session, went home, cried, then composed (although didn’t send) a long and dramatic email to my Subject Leader complaining about the whole situation. So far: so mature. The main thrust of my ramblings concerned the central issue that teaching is wholly personal. And with that it can be potently emotional and even psychological. So a discussion of our areas for development can begin to delve into a whole heap of insecurities which we would often rather keep hidden.

Luckily, I have a very supportive department who spent the next morning soothing my concerns, and a Subject Leader who can generally pick up on my mood within about five seconds of entering my classroom! So, with my Subject Leader, we spent break discussing the roots of my email (which when I showed to him he found hilarious). We came back to the same place we ended up throughout my NQT year. Confidence. Or a lack thereof.

Confidence can sometimes be overlooked in discussions about teaching, but it seems to be absolutely central to everything we do as teachers. Not in a ‘standing up in front of 30 teenagers requires confidence’ way, but in the ‘I need to have a fundamental faith in the decisions we make every day‘ fashion. In my NQT year, the thing I found hardest was not dealing with tricky students (however fun Friday 5 with Year 9 can be!); it wasn’t the piles of marking which seemed to take over my life; but it was the sudden sense of responsibility for my students. There can be debate over how responsible we are for the students in our classes, but as I started my job I seemed to shift from a twenty three year old whose greatest challenge was driving a car and remembering to pay the bills, to having groups of teenagers whose progress in English was pretty much at my door. The Year 11s who needed a C to get into college, and the Year 13s who wanted to get into university, were now mine for a few hours per week and I had to try to get them there. This is an exaggerated way of looking at things and I had an incredible NQT mentor who counselled me down from these hyperbolic heights, but the main thing I had to develop, and will continue to develop, is the confidence that I am making the right decisions and doing the best by my students.

So on an afternoon in October, a discussion of marginal gains collided with a mindset of ‘there are so many things to fix – where do I even start’. I’ve been a perfectionist for much longer than I’ve been a teacher so it’s a tough habit to break. Therefore, it was only once I had admitted this to my Subject Leader – and more importantly to myself – that I could actually get on with the job of coaching and improving. If we fail to recognise this central point then any coaching will be as productive as my initial session – I was there, I was talking, I was listening but I wasn’t making any (to use a buzzword) progress.

It was only following an emotional email, a break time discussion, and a few good lessons, that I could get my head around what I needed to do in terms of my own coaching targets. I can only speak as new (ish) teacher, but it’s an easy cycle to get stuck in: lessons go wrong, emotion kicks in, confidence is bashed and the ability to be positive about how to improve can start to slip out the window. Yet, it is this emotional focus which actually makes it one of the trickiest things to combat. My Subject Leader can give me a range of strategies to improve my questioning but, much as it frustrates him, he cannot wave a magic wand and teach me to have faith in the job that I am doing. It is the ultimate part of the job that requires marginal gains – saving those comments from students and colleagues, taking pleasure from the fact that all my Year 13s did get into university and slowly building up self-belief. Building confidence. It is also something that fluctuates continually depending on the class, the day, the topic, or even the weather!

There are endless discussions over how to improve our teaching, but I know that at the centre of my own practice is a more personal battle: the need to be able to step back and reflect, without losing faith in my instincts. It is easy to put on the confident-teacher mask, but to really move forward that confidence needs to run much deeper. The first step to becoming the type of teacher I want to be, is developing the confidence to believe that I can actually be that teacher.

I am very lucky to share my working day with bright stars like Helen, who care so much about what they do, the students they teach, and the colleagues they work with each day. Perhaps the ultimate paradox about confidence is that teachers who lack it are driven to reflect deeply and become much better for it, whereas the teachers who are too full of it end up becoming gorged on their own self-importance and never become truly great teachers. What Helen’s words remind me is that we teachers must keenly remember that we are human – all too human – that we should tend to one another as we aim to do for our students. We should remember that we all want to be better teachers, but that the process is fraught with fears and other attendant doubts. Finally, and most important of all, that we should be kind to one another. Yes, that is the main thing I have learned working as a teacher. Not just with our students, but with our colleagues too – we must be kind.

So let us celebrate then the humble teacher, struggling to get better each day – building their own wall of confidence, so that their students may do the same. And let us be kind to one another.

Can the iPad really help improve children’s writing?

When the iPad is mentioned as a tool for learning to large groups of teachers I always detect a initial sense of awe and a frisson of excitement, quickly followed by a healthy dose of scepticism and even fear for some. I think the vast majority of teachers see it as a potentially useful tool for teaching and learning, but perhaps too many still see it as something of a glorified word processor! What is crucial is that those teachers have the experience of going beyond the ‘gimmick factor’ to realise the potential of the iPad to transform conundrums which often confound us as teachers.

It is a helpful tool (in my view the most helpful ICT device by a mile), not a miracle cure – but any teacher who witnesses the motivation levels inspired by the iPad will experience how it can engage students in the challenging process of writing and much more. With its myriad of apps, the iPad can harness oral rehearsal like no other technology to aid the writing process. With its capacity to show students writing through the projector at any moment (Apple TV, Airplay or a variety of other apps), it becomes a powerful way to make formative assessment instantaneous for all; helping to make the craft of writing more easily visible, and with good teacher pedagogy, more understandable. With the capacity to make real ebooks the iPad can make the writing process feel more real and more valuable to our students – there is no better way to make students value the crucial skills of drafting and proof reading than to create the opportunity for a genuine audience and create products the look and feel professional.    

‘Didn’t we inspire great writers and great writing before the iPad, or other such ICT?’ Yes. ‘Can’t we motivate students to write for the sake of it – can’t outstanding pedagogy exist without the iPad tool.’ Yes, undoubtedly. We should aim for a state of play where students are highly motivated without a reliance on technology; where students develop the core skills of writing both with and without technology – and yes, we must continue to hone their skills with the humble pen and paper! However, we should not ignore the potential gains provided by tools like the iPad, whose multi-functionality provides a host of ways to improve teaching and learning for writing. The iPad, with it’s unmatched range of applications, and it’s reliability and quality, can provide a series of marginal gains that cumulatively can make a significant difference to the learning of students – with writing being a key skill that can be enhanced.

It is about the pedagogy stupid!’ 

Any teacher who has used the iPad with students will know the x-factor it provides (nothing to do with the awful Simon Cowell product I assure you!) – the initial oohs and ahhs and impressed looks; the endless excited questions about it. Like anything, however, those initial awed impressions fade to a level of familiarity. That being said, the raised sense of motivation is palpable and never really goes away – remember, we are teaching ‘digital natives’ who have an expertise with technology (often beyond our own – something we should not fear, but instead harness) that makes them feel comfortable in their learning, often assuming the mantle of the expert unconsciously and with aplomb. When they begin to master the tool their confidence rises still further and they are more engaged than ever. Boys in particular, exhibit greater engagement and focus. One male GCSE student in my school reflected upon his learning with the iPad, stating: “I’m more likely to use technology – I’ll do more and work harder. It’s something different and new. I can make things look better and so I wouldn’t mind showing my work to the class then.” This young man is your archetypal disinterested boy, typically turned off by the process of writing, as he has formed a hardened sense of failure from an early age that is difficult to unpick. The technology gave him a sense of confidence and pleasure in writing that should not be underestimated – in fact, I view it as absolutely crucial to success.

Beyond the confidence and beyond the motivation levels of students is the use of the tool to enhance core teacher pedagogy. Why the iPad is the best technology, in my opinion, for students, is that is has such multi-functionality, such flexibility. Actually, the fact that it is keyboardless (you can purchase wireless keyboards of course) I perceive as a strength – as it removes the misnomer that technology for writing is simply a word processing tool. It can be that, but to transform and modernise and pedagogy it needs to be so much more.

 ‘The ‘How’ – ways in which the iPad can help improve student’s writing:


Oral rehearsal and recording: the iPad provides many applications that allow students to work both individually and collaboratively in rehearsing their writing – a crucial skill to support writing. For example, in devising a scheme for next year’s GCSE controlled assessment on writing a monologue, the students will work together on filming a monologue using iMovie. They will use the variety of camera shots and scene changes to build the narrative structure and sense of voice. They will edit the film, reflecting on the language choices, before showing it to the group to receive constructive criticism. The final process of writing up the monologue becomes cognitively clearer, the students have drafted without realising they have drafted! By using ExplainEverything, students can record their ideas, perhaps commentating on a text they have uploaded to the slide in the application, before they embark upon writing a conventional essay. They can play a presentation to the group and receive feedback on shaping what they have produced, giving then the constructive criticism they need to then write well.

Aiding the planning of writing: iPad has a legion of apps specifically for creative planning, such as Popplet, that are very useful tools. By using the likes of Notability, students can record their notes, save images, draw and be creative in their planning. Websites, such as Pinterest, or the Dropbox app, can be used to share planning, to access shared research or to engage in ‘flipped classroom’ learning. Again, the options are endless, but the teacher should hone their method to best suit their students. Apps like Comic Life can allow students to create comic book style plans for their narrative writing; Puppetpals can allow students to ‘play’ with interactions between characters, to practice speeches or debates in a fun and lively fashion.

Writing models: alongside using their own writing in the process of modelling, by using applications like Goodreader, or accessing documents from Dropbox, students can annotate upon almost any document imaginable! Classic skills of text marking can again be shared and made easily visible for all – the process can become shared, guided by the teacher or other students. Any annotation can be saved and stored, therefore making it accessible for future lessons, or even other groups of students. Although I have not used it, Google Documents can be utilised for creating shared documents and drafting writing across different devices – something I plan on researching soon. Annotation is an age old teaching strategy that isn’t new to any of us, but the iPad can take it up a level or three. The iPad is simply a tool to make the process of modelling and annotating more interactive, more easily visible and making any text more accessible.

Using the device and its applications as a stimulus for writing: I need not explain the potential use of the web or the YouTube app to aid wiring, only to say that it is fantastic to not have to book a computer room, or to organise and undertake the potted journey to the computer room to research the web, or to find some crucial gem of information that the students need for their writing! A range of stimuli for writing is there at the touch of a button – from the music library, the photograph library, iBooks, iTunes U etc. – the options are endless and all ready with easy and flexible access.

Formative assessment – unveiling the mysteries of the writing process: by using Apple TV, or applications like Airplay or Ideas Flight, it allows the teacher to stream the learning from any iPad in the room instantaneously – see Fig 1. Using Notability, students can write their ideas, perhaps a model paragraph or the opening of a narrative. The teacher can stream the writing and embark on questioning to support their writing, garner feedback from others and annotate directly onto the writing on the student’s iPad. The opportunities for guided writing and shared writing are obvious. The visibility of their writing becomes a powerful way to unveil the process of writing explicitly and with simple immediacy. Finally, taking a photograph of the written work of students is a great way to share their work and provide useful feedback for any given task.

What is clear is that the iPad has so many useful tools it can be almost be overawing, like a child flooded with excitement in a sweetshop! Each school or department needs to identify their priorities, harness their shared knowledge and learn together. You can use Twitter to find answers from their PLN (professional learning network) or the host of helpful YouTube video guides to help you through using the device as a teaching and learning tool. Our English and Media faculty have identified key teaching and learning strategies which will enhance our teaching and learning pedagogy – many in evidence above – that we will work together in honing. There will be elements of risk, there will be failures (technology has a habit of doing that at inopportune moments!), but the benefits outweigh the challenges. With some mastery, iPads can undoubtedly improve writing, providing marginal gains at every step of the writing process to result in better writing by our students.

FIG 1.

Why English teachers love teaching tragedy

The inspiration for this blog post came from a running joke in our English faculty, about how bleak our literature offerings were to our young key stage three students. We joked about how we couldn’t select a new Year 9 class text without checking first whether a distraught-filled collection of war short stories, or some nightmarish dystopian novel had been released in paperback that was obviously more appropriate! I began to think about the texts we teach, our choices and the values we instil through our teaching.

Class readers we choose, at KS3 and above, are selected over time, often through different teachers requesting to teach a new book, a syllabus shift, or at the suggestion of another, looking for a new avenue to refresh their teaching, or to tailor the text to a specific group. All too often our own pleasures and prejudices shine through in our selections. Quite rightly I may add: if we aren’t passionate about the books we read, how could we ever instil passion into the young minds of our students? Yet, when these choices are accumulated and analysed a distinct pattern emerges. It does appear like we are over-doing it with death! We are creating a generation of students who expect impending social breakdown, each hunkering in their bedroom fearing death and social decay! We didn’t mean to do this – honest! I than began to reflect on the ‘why’.

When I consider my personal book choices the pattern is clear, and I think many other English teachers are right there with me – tragedy dominates – not consciously, but perhaps necessarily. First on the culpable list is bloody Michael Morpurgo! More than any other writer for young children, he captures the horror of war, but at the same time he manages to summon the beauty of people and their relationships, managing to salvage meaning from the chaos of battle. Any English teacher who has not taught ‘Private Peaceful’ to impressionable Y9s is in for a treat. The narrative structure delicately builds the family life of the central characters, before unleashing a devastating but uplifting conclusion. I defy any English teacher not to read the ending without at least a trembling lip! I shamelessly go beyond that – I struggle to read the darn thing to its end! ‘Warhorse’ too, although lacking the emotional complexity of ‘Peaceful’, in my humble opinion, presents a unique and equally haunting view on World War One that goes deeper than any succession of images or series of facts.

I also happen to powerfully believe in teaching the horrors of the Holocaust. From teaching Anne Frank’s ‘Diary’ in my PGCE year this has been the case, to ‘Boy In the Striped Pyjamas’ more recently. The entire subject is inevitably challenging and almost incomprehensible for young children – yet Boyne manages to humanise the near-incomprehensible scale of the events with delicacy and beauty in BITSP. He crafts the innocent narrative perspective of Bruno with a subtle depth of language and meaning that students love. Despite more common knowledge of the delayed revelation ending, due to the release of the film, the punch of emotion at the end still has tremendous power.

Perhaps it is my passion for the writing of Philip Larkin and Thomas Hardy that makes me see the “skull beneath the skin” so prominently in the books I choose? My favourite novel is ‘The Great Gatsy’, play ‘Death of a Salesman’. The IB course I constructed is admittedly a litany of tragedy – from Greek incest to teacher molestation (the inimitable ‘History Boys’)! It is a wonder I do not hang around graveyards! But, no matter how often the students complain, “everything we read has death in Sir!”, their attention is never more powerful than when we read these works of artful grief. The concentration when the brother is in the waiting room in Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’ is palpable beyond any examination hour. They write little better than when they empathise with Ben Jonson when he mourns the loss of his son, his “best piece of poetry”, in ‘On My First Sonne’. All the barriers of Shakespearean language, and their typical attendant complaints about “bloody Shakespeare”, fall away when they await Juliet waking to warn Romeo, or when she then bears the dagger and takes her life. These stories reach easily through time to hold their attention beyond any lecture or worksheet ever could.

When I was taught ‘Death of A Salesman’ at school, or Jonson’s sonnet, a chord was stuck that has lasted deeply within me, something I am not sure I understood fully at the time. Perhaps I was laughing nervously to appear insouciant to my friends, perhaps I complained about the relentlessly bleak nature of our reading material – all likely in my desperation to appear impressively careless! But, without a shadow of a doubt, those books have stayed with me – when I have faced the grief of losing family and friends those fragments of characters and scenes have given me strength, succour and understanding. The catharsis they can bring is perhaps the most valuable gift I will ever give the students under my care, whether they understand it fully at the time or not. Knowing that keeps me focused when buffered by the political nonsense we encounter as teachers. When students threaten to become subsumed by numbers and data, an inevitable aspect of our job, I remember that the most important values cannot be counted, that each of my students deserve the tremendous gift of literature. I remember that teaching English is a great privilege – that their grades may hopefully take them many bright and new places, but these books, and mere fragments of books, will be rooted somewhere deeper, providing sustenance in their times of greatest need. For every report I have to write, or lesson plan I have to devise, it is good to remember that privilege I have in imparting these words of others.

In the more esteemed words of Leo:

“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” Leonardo da Vinci

The Flipped Classroom – An Introduction

The ‘flipped classroom’ appeared on my radar a fair few months ago whilst combing Twitter for ideas. As an English teacher, I was intrigued by the dramatic hyperbole and interested in what it was – whilst being inherently sceptical about whether it was just another buzz-term or ubiquitous hash tag of little use!  It took very little digging to find a host of information about the concept. In its purest form, represented by the likes of ‘The Khan Academy’, the model is quite simply the ability to share content through the medium of technology, in most cases simply lectures (of varying quality!). This basic model doesn’t add a great deal to teaching and learning, other than perhaps allowing for students to revisit and revise key information. Our tech-savvy students can easily use popular web platforms, like YouTube, to access this content at their leisure, on their terms (to a degree – it seems prime homework material!). There are the obvious benefits to this process. It allows for some personalisation of learning, it gives students the opportunity to revisit information, and in some cases (I doubt this is the case on any large scale) parents could engage with the material and support their children in their learning.

In our faculty we are looking to create a Youtube page for English and Media which would provide fun and interesting (that is the plan!) videos supporting students with issues such as essay writing, or giving them guides to our current courses etc. This idea preceded my knowledge of the very concept of the ‘flipped classroom’, but like most good ideas, they fit together nicely. There are a growing number of these departmental video channels now on the web and English departments will no doubt involve students in the process, making videos themselves (monitored and quality controlled by staff you would hope). We are also beginning to use iPads to enhance our teaching and learning, particularly group collaboration. The prospect of using mobile devices also fits snugly into the flipped model of learning and we should begin to align them in our planning and pedagogy.

Where the ‘flipped classroom’ model comes into its own is when the ‘flip’ is used to provide classroom time to then collaborate and engage in the learning, based on the assumption that the content has been digested. No doubt, like the setting of homework, some students will fail to undertake this gymnastic flip, but the show will go on regarding the teaching and learning within the lesson, and the minority who fail to complete their side of the flip would hopefully recognise the error of their ways! What is truly exciting is the prospect of greater curriculum time to practice all the higher level learning skills that help bring knowledge and curriculum content to life. How common is the complaint that we have too little time to cover the mass of curriculum ‘content’ we are expected to in the fulfilment of the National Curriculum and the multitude of examination requirements?

Undoubtedly, the future of learning is personalised to the learner.  It embraces the technology of our students who are the ‘digital natives’ of today and tomorrow. The ‘flipped classroom’ model is certainly a positive pedagogical step along that inevitably bumpy road. There are undoubtedly some dangerous flaws to navigate: simply uploading videos for a student busy multi-tasking on their Smartphone, whilst they simultaneously flick through their legion of social media comments, is hardly going to transform learning, or embed any understanding deeper than our existing model of education! (There is a level of distracted passivity and inability to concentrate fostered by omnipresent technology that is explored in this interesting article:  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/05/16/31multitasking_ep.h31.html?tkn=LXPFgFOQhUOkgsJaYbFATbwHcdnWde%2F%2Ffhli&cmp=ENL-DD-NEWS2 )

A further issue is the inherent expectation for teachers to create the legion of videos required to make the flipped model work at all. The monitoring of comments/feedback, maintain links, and the technological process itself, are all time consuming.

Like any innovation, such issues are common, but the potential benefits do, in my view, outweigh the issues. The issues can be eased, if not eliminated. There is always going to be a transmission of knowledge required in our craft – the flipped model can provide a way of presenting that knowledge in a more varied manner than our classic ‘sage on the stage’ model. It need not be some ‘brave new world’ where automaton children are taught by internet avatars, where hundreds of future children are cocooned in their bedrooms responding only to the flicker of a computer screen! The use of video or podcasting should be an ingredient that is used often, part of a varied diet of good teaching and learning! Also, no individual teacher need reinvent the wheel – the likes of Twitter and WordPress connects a wealth of teachers looking for great resources, ready to share and pass on those they have found. Who hasn’t used a TED talk or a pre-prepared video (the ‘Shift’ anyone?) with students or staff alike? Students can and should be integrated into the flipped creation of resources; those resources can be recycled and adapted. The teacher may eat and sleep!

It is all rather simple really: it is a bit of a glamorous buzzword, but the principals and pedagogy of the ‘flipped classroom’ are fundamentally sound. The ‘flipped classroom’ is not going away and it will undoubtedly become one of the core habits of teaching and learning in the next decade. Get filming!

Here are some useful links to ‘flipped’ resources:

http://www.scoop.it/t/the-flipped-classroom

http://flipped-learning.com/