Memory Lane: Have We Learned Anything?

I’m as guilty as the next teacher to be known to start a conversation with those infamous three words.

‘In my day’ gives the ultimate assumption that you were the model child in comparison to the yoof of today. That you tottered into school every morning twenty minutes early, got out your colour coding pens and sat, mouth agape, awaiting the nuggets of today’s learning. Oh yes.

Behaviour has shifted- undeniably- society does not present us or children with the option of remaining static. However, the independence required to identify what is required of you and then react accordingly to the situation that is presented – how has that moved or evolved?

I remember Romeo and Juliet in year eight and am absolutely gobsmacked. We came in, took out our books, were reminded where we were in the text and then Mrs Bursnell (still alive and wearing socks with sandals, confirmed siting in Sainsburys cafe last month) selected character readers. The rest of us sat and listened, annotating as we went. 

This is not a fairytale! Yes, it was top set (I had to be good at something) but the mindset was there. If I attempted to do the same with my own year eight class then one of us would die of boredom. There is a distinct lack of self- created colour coding strategy in my year eight class. 

I’m losing direction- between a positive attitude to learning that was geared towards long term goals and the independence required to not rely on heavily laden instructional powerpoints (rolling chalkboard, in case you were wondering), I wonder what the change is. Did we create this? I fear that my question is too big; the social construction as it is now and the feeling from a large proportion of students that aspiration is either a wasted energy or unrealistic which has led to making the future a clear and manageable journey. Students are afraid and not always with the knowledge of what it is that they are afraid of. 

I suppose this blog is more a question that an attempt at an answer- how are we developing those skills and that approach to education now when compared to cough-cough-unknown-amount of years ago? What comparisons can we draw to the previous climate of education within the UK and what is no longer successful or contextually relevant and why? Is it that education’s responses that has led to less independent, less engaged students (and by that I am being vast and referring to thise who mould education, not those who deliver it) or is the rose-tinted view of the past exactly that and schools were simply a ticking time bomb, demanding change? 

Ten Steps to Standing Alone: Developing Independence in your classroom

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After attending a GCSE English course today with the key focus being how to ensure achievement for all at Key Stage four as we enter linear assessment, my thoughts returned to my semi-ranty post about interdependence and how we can develop this invaluable skill within even the less confident of students. There must be a happy balance between guiding students towards success and allowing them to consider their own independent, analytical enquiry in response to a text, or their own work with regards to written pieces. I have segmented this into ten ways in which we are classroom practitioners can make adaptations to teaching that can help students complete their education with a more independent mindset; whilst Key Stage four will provide a measurable process for this in the shape of their final linear exams, I feel that Key Stage three needs to be of equal focus so that students recognise the value of their own responses and opinions.

1. Stop Providing the Answers

It is such an easy trap to fall into to give what we believe the be the ‘right answers’ or ‘the way to do it.’ But this can often be at the detriment of leading students to believe that we are the omniscient presence in the classroom. By acting as a facilitator, passing over the onus onto the students may feel risky but the act of presenting questions and encouraging the questions of the students, particularly at the start of a unit can avoid this corner of learning that leads to a tick or cross situation. This could be displaying questions from students that can then be used to respond to at a later point, or providing students with the capacity to lead a Q&A forum within lessons where you simply chip in to encourage elaboration from particular learners. There will always be an element of the non-negotiable within a subject, but that knowledge will ‘stick’ if it is they that provided such criteria.

2. Provide the Opportunity for Leadership and Ownership

Develop your own confidence to sit back and led the students lead particular parts of their learning, In the same way that you would use the strengths of teachers within a department, utilise and share the talents of your students. Student led learning is key to enabling them to have a mental rehearsal for an exam situation. How should we tackle this question? Who could provide a toolkit within your classroom for particular aspects of a response? I like to carry out a ‘Genius Bar’ lesson prior to assessments, where students act as a help tool for others in order to move towards the same goal. This develops the concept of challenge and allows those students that can quite easily become complacent when set a series of tasks to explore beyond the confines of a lesson structure.

3. Use Student Voice as a Springboard for Learning

I regularly use student voice to gauge the success of my teaching and their honesty is priceless for informing next steps as a teacher. End of unit student surveys- Survey Monkey, exit slips, short email homeworks to you directly, discussion boards- provide you with concrete, qualitative data that can then adapt both future teaching of that unit but also that of the particular class. The process also allows students to develop the confidence to own their learning journey by being provided with a voice that has an explicit and active impact within your classroom.

4. Open with Learning Questions

Linking to number 1, and something that I repeatedly harp on about is providing a question as a Learning Objective/Intention. This allows a framework for less confident students and a starting point for further challenge. By handing over the process to reach a developed answer to that questions, the student then feels a sense of accomplishment- they have achieved the response independently and to the extent that they feel comfortable. The higher attaining of the group can adapt the question to push their response further; by deciding on that adaptation at the start of the lesson, they can then stand back and recognise the progress that THEY have made, unaided and self-created.

5. Ask for Fears!

It is an old-age saying but one that students do not buy into often- failure is the first step to success. Failure is vital to learning and by addressing fears as a first step to a task or skill, it helps to then allow students to reassure one another, plays once again on the strengths within the room and builds a sense of compassion within the group. Fears identified can then inform future lessons or be addressed at a later point to demonstrate to students their achievements and capabilities. I am unconvinced from experience that students’ fears of their own areas of development and the reality match up- often, their own lacking confidence obstructs their sucess. By vocalising these, as a teacher you address the elephant in the room and they then provide the coping mechanisms and resolutions for said elephant!

6. Incorporate Collaboration Within Your Planning

Peer assessment, Group Writing, Peer created success criteria, tasks and challenges created by students not only creates a healthy, can-do mindset within the classroom, but also provides the stepping stone to interdependence. It is well documented that peer assessment is the middle ground to reaching a point of being able to become self-reliant in terms of self-assessment. The more the students can unpack success criteria for themselves, identify, prrof read and contribute to one another’s work, the more likely it is that in an exam situation, they will be able to evaluate their own work. By doing so initially with a structured framework and then over time, handing this strategy over to them, it will ensure that in a timed, pressured situation, they can recall these skills. Again, mental rehearsal.

7. Move Away from the Gimmicks

During my training year, I developed a format of processes to develop skills, with very little impact. Whilst a visual accompaniment to a term or point in assessment can be handy, the student will often (in my experience) recall the gimmick but not the skill itself. Engagement is possible without reliance on a process formula and can lead to confusion on the students’ part. I refer to a blender to ‘blend ideas’ or a pea for ‘PEA chains.’ The student recalls that there are three steps to analysis but is still none the wiser as to what to include or how to do it effectively. If students are to excel in terms of a skill, then they must recognise the requirements rather than us provide it for them. One size does certainly not fit all.

8. Create a Context

This acts as an alternative to 7. Develop tasks within the lesson that provide a real life setting to a process- those lessons will be memorable for the student because it linked to a situation that they can relate to in some way. The memorable lessons for skills focuses will ensure stickablility- Dragon’s Den for persuasion, using local information or a news story as a base for lessons. I like to carry out music quizzes to link to themes of a text prior to assessment (my recent lesson for Scrooge’s development in A Christmas Carol featured ‘I Don’t Care’ by Icona Pop and ‘Man in the Mirror’ by Michael Jackson!). The more than students can relate to a character or concept, the more likely they are to discuss it convincingly on paper.

9. Remove the Mist

Similar to 6, students seem most afraid of the Unknown. This has been a point of contention with teachers that I have worked with, but I start a unit by emailing out assessment criteria and the assessment that we will work towards. Could you teach without knowing what you were working towards? The more informed the students are, the sooner they can identify possible gaps in their own learning- this can even stretch to setting out one key target that they aim to fulfil before the final assessment, to understand or demonstrate a particular skill required in the assessment criteria.

10. Have fun!

You remember the teacher that took a risk over the teacher that taught by a specific strategy or focus. Move outside your own comfort zone and experiment. Handing over the controls to students can be terrifying and with the time constraints and pressures of teaching as they currently stand, it seems that the idea of moving away from a plan is simply not an option, but it will be the very thing that makes you more effective! We are facing a one size fits all end point, but there are many different ways to reach the end point. Do not be afraid to go off the beaten path for a bit!

Enrichment is Exactly That

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Not particularly ranty or thought provoking, but I have been spending lots of lunchtimes with students either revising or tutoring and have been able to find time for enrichment now that the exams are finishing up. In poetry club today, we explored the concept of what makes home home to us, leading up to submitting entries for The Stamford Theatre competition with Wendy Cope (link can be found here We used George The Poet’s ‘My City’ to inspire us to consider how to put the comfort that we take in home into words. Here was my quickly chucked together example:

Where I Live

The porcelain teapot,
The lull of the boiler
Warming the heart
Of where I live.

The chuckling breeze
Welcomes me home,
Opening the arms
Of where I live.

Scents of me? Of him? The aroma
Of honey and laughter
Of where I live.
There can be no replacement,
No alteration or substitute,
As I adore only
The place I live.

It is such a nice outlet to teach what I consider a little bit of a lost talent and one that I am keen to open up young writers’ eyes to. With the final products of graphic novel club now in printing and film club commencing after Easter (thanks to Into Film!), I am really enjoying giving students the opportunity to explore aspects of English and Media but with ownership and controlling the pace of their own curiosity.

The type of week that I have survived: allow yourself a little self indulgence

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I ran my first Teachmeet (and learned that my self-induced expectations are ridiculous).

I spoke passionately and honestly about the teaching climate today, with emphasis being on to be a better teacher for students, you have to protect yourself.

I pulled off a guest speaker with @thefixupteam for Y9 that had a HUGE impact on students.

I gave a merit to my severely autistic boy for his bravery and confidence. He cried.

I found out that some children actually like having me as their teacher.

I have let my illness change my teaching so that the students ran the show.

I have witnessed some of my most reluctant learners celebrate their success through our long term homework pilot.

I have refocussed my efforts for preparing GCSE stuff that has been on my to do list FOREVER- I may actually contribute more than a Ppt stuffed with animated GIFs.

I tinkered with Powtoons. I love it!

I met some inspiring new teachfolk that will be invaluable.

I got to watch @PivotalPaul in action again and remember how emotionally attached I am to teaching.

I received several comments from staff about how absolutely GORGEOUS my small person is.

I cracked on with that heap of marking. Efficiently.

I used student voice to get clarification and confirmation that they do actually not only recognise the value of homework, but enjoy it.

I shared some positivity with many different staff, and got to know some a little more.

I changed my teaching and experimented again with approaches that I know have worked.

I emailed year 9 to let them know that I am here for them before their exams and that I had every faith in their efforts and capabilities.

I set up Film Club.

I compiled a list of books for the library including some fantastic young people’s poetry to inspire!

I sat with kids at lunch every day to work with them or share my love of literature with them.

I talked to three girls in tears (separate times, no en masse!) and told them it would be ok. And meant it.

I sat down with a very isolated young man and made a plan.

I created beautiful poetry.

I got brave and sent off the poetry for judging!

I judged some fantastic stories for the @bbcradio2 500 words competition.

I took some work off people’s hands.

I did as much as I could pre exams before taking to reins off.

I took time for myself in between.

It’s amazing how much you can fit into a week- I bet you’ve managed to squeeze in a whole heap of amazing bits.

Workload Challenge: What Have You Done?

Spurred on to post after finishing up my presentation for @TMLeics (final plug, I promise), I was reading back over the Workload Challenge and the key elements reported back by Nicky Morgan and Nick Clegg as ‘implementations’ which I would like to retitle as pointers but somewhat lacking the guidance for practical implementation. Attending Education Question Time this week, I am keen to see the practical implementation that the parties intend to embed within the education sector after creating and analysing such a vast amount of data that the survey must have produced. Whilst we wait (pigs will shortly descend overhead), I wanted to throw something out there.

What are WE doing? Now we can see the key obstacles in our path that prevent us from either being or feeling that we are doing the best job that we possibly can, how have we responded? Please do not confuse this with the acceptance that we should indeed pick up the responsibility within schools; the dictation from government changes and the Curriculum reform leave a very large proportion out of our hands; however, I am reluctant to ever sit back and believe that something that I am directly involved in, and that has such a significant impact on my work and life, that I am unable to respond in some way. The two largest elements that teachers reported as large indicators of their workload were planning and marking. Now, I see that as a positive- the very tasks that are the essence of being a fully informed, reflective practitioner remain our number one priority, even in the climate that we are currently working within. They SHOULD be and remain the parts of our role that demand the highest amount of time- no?  So, it appears to me that there are two key viewpoints in order to approach and respond to these statistics. A) dedicate all time to these two, to the detriment of all other requirements of the role (unwise- this is also essentially to the detriment of children that we teach, even if not directly linked to their teaching and learning, then certainly their well-being) or B) look to reduce the time that we spend on other pressures of our workload so that we can continue to dedicate the same, if not more time to teaching and learning.

I do not have an answer for this- I do not claim that I am in a position to amend and reduce the constraints that individual schools experience with regards to policy, behaviour management, increased parental support (again, a good thing, surely?) or the administration that exists in the fall out of such an evolution within teaching. I will say that those who have the control and power to dedicate to such a task are undoubtedly seeking to review how current systems work within their schools, so that we can recognise that teachers are, even in such a state of adversity, and in a profession where over 4000 teachers are leaving on a monthly basis, still remaining focussed on placing the learning of children at the centre of their workload. Personally, I find that something to celebrate.

#TakeawayHwk a year on

After seeing the prettiness of takeaway homework menus that teachers had coated Twitter with last year courtesy of @Teachertoolkit amongst others, I felt the need to jump on board the bandwagon. I loved the sense of engagement, the differentiation that it presented to students and the consideration that homework didn’t simply need to be writing on a piece of paper in order to demonstrate curiosity in my subject.

A year on, I have fine tuned and experimented with Takeaway homework menus and I stand categorically by the fact that homework in several cases has turned some students around; students that could not be described as anything but apathetic were showing hidden talents and a real enthusiasm for the work that they produced. The development of autonomy was interesting to note as well, and I plan on blogging about this once I have compiled the final stages of my data to support my comments. As an indicator, students and classes at a massively reduced hand in rate for homework are at 100%, every week, without fail. Students cannot wait to hand in homework, because they are proud of the final product.

I have been working with takeaway homework at the school that I am now at since September. At the start of this term, I developed the concept further, to incorporate a long term project. This is to push the capabilities of students’ new found independence and decision making to a new level; a somewhat experimental moment for me to see what they were able to create and develop when giving very little guidance on what the final product had to look like or include.

Using three titles as a starting point, my classes have been asked to create a project proposal, bring in and discuss their creation at a halfway point so that peers can feedback and critique before students then have another week to complete their final product. The final week requests that they complete an evaluation of their project, including the adaptations and improvements made along the way from their first initial ideas to the final item.

I have received a lot of head shaking from those that do not enjoy the process of homework as much as I do, but I think often, teachers do not realise that if homework could be  a student’s opportunity to present a slice of their personality to you, the detentions and chasing tends to fall away. From leaving the format of the homework almost entirely open, my most reluctant learners have been the ones handing in homework early. I have proposals of Minecraft video tutorials (watch out Mr Bruff), music compilation with accompanying song lyrics, developed board games, scripted films, creative pieces such as Dr Frankenstein’s suitcase, a tour of a gothic scene, an extensive Victorian newspaper. I very much look forward to both the products and the measurement of data in relation to my execution of a fantastic idea- the wonder of Twitter!