Tuesday, 5 May 2015


A quick post based on Twitter's newest viral blogpost topic (also guaranteed to drive Andrew Old bonkers as they appear on the Echo Chamber), I'd better crack on, as it is like a game of Pokemon, combined with Trumps (the old-school card game), meaning you can't pick a Twitter person already nominated by someone else. 

People I could have easily nominated, but no longer can:

So, sulking and scratching my head, I have to think again, and think I shall pick some 'unsung' heroes amongst my mere 5. 

1. @deadshelly Jamie (Warner Lynne) coached and prepped me through more job interviews than I care to remember. Although we have yet to meet - goddamit - he has watched over me from affair, replid to inane and/or hysterical panic stricken emails; read through personal statements, job applications and interview lesson plans; as well as sending me a myriad of lesson resources upon request. We've not had much chance to be in touch much recently, but he has a place in my heart forever for all his brilliance and wonderfulness. 

2. @Treezyoung She is Scottish, but please don't hold that against her. Scottish and a mathematician, I know, right? Despite all that (you know I'm kidding lovely) she is a good egg, A stalwart of Functional Skills Maths teaching in FE, she has encouraged, advised, ranted with me via DM, met me for Costas and shares a frankly unhealthy obsession with pretty stationary. 

3. @annaworth Truly knowledgeable about how to teach children to read; even more knowledgeable about how to teach using phonics; organiser of the Reading Reform Foundation conference and someone who is relentlessly supportive, cheerful and positive. Thanks for all that you do. 

4. @Sezl Sarah (Ledger) is just a magnificent person. Her blogs detailing her 50 before 50 missions are just utterly brilliant, wonderful, witty, warm, courageous and wonderful. If you've never read them, then WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU THINKING. 

5. @bryngoodman I met Bryn for the first time at the most recent #Starkyfest this Easter, and is worth a mention for his participation in the following conversation:

Tom Starkey, announces to the whole group, "They are serving squirrel next door,"
A little wary I ask, "In what format are they sold Tom?" 
Bryn, "Dead Gwen, dead." 
A succession of squirrel related punning soon followed. 

Bryn, we will always have 'the Paris of the North' (Leeds) and squirrels. I think you are ace. 

Disclaimer: I have not knowingly chosen a person who I think has been nominated. 

I will think of something lovely to say about you. (Offer stands for the next 24 hours)
@teachertoolkit ‘s rules are: 
  1. You cannot knowingly include someone you work with in real life
  2. You cannot list somebody that has already been named if you are already made aware of them being listed on #TwitteratiChallenge
  3. You will need to copy and paste the title of this blogpost and (the rules and what to do) information into your own blog post
What to do?
  • Within 7 days of being nominated by somebody else, you need to identify colleagues that you rely regularly go-to for support and challenge. They have now been challenged and must act and must act as participants of the #TwitteratiChallenge
  • If you’ve been nominated, please write your own #TwitteratiChallenge blogpost within 7 days. If you do not have your own blog, try @staffrm
  • The educator that is now (newly) nominated, has 7 days to compose their own #TwitteratiChallenge blogpost and identify who their top 5 go-to educators are.
Rachel, I too totally agree with @chocotzar:
As I am a rebel, I nominate everyone. You are not the last to be picked in PE again.

NB I WAS that last child picked for a team in PE. Damn you wonky eyes...

Monday, 6 April 2015

An FE Inspector (of dubious competence) Calls: Part 2

Before I document the lesson observation, the interrogation (yes, really) and the questionable feedback, I do not want this to be a 'tar the whole of Ofsted with the same brush' kind of post. 

I may have mentioned this before, but what the heck, I'll mention it again:

I've been in the same room as Sir. Michael Wilshaw at Wellington Education Festival (terrifying); I've gate-crashed a meeting with Sean Harford, Andrew Old and David Didau in Ofsted Towers, Birmingham; got myself an invite to a meeting with 'Sir Michael of Cladingbowl' and several other teacher-bloggers in the Death Star, London and managed to compliment Mike Cladingbowl and insult Sean Harford (Mike nearly choked on his tea) while introducing them at Research Ed September last year in London, AND on Twitter publicly critiqued both their biscuit provision at said meetings, which I'm pleased to say, has resulted in Marks and Spencer biscuits being provided at said Ofsted and teacher-blogger meetings henceforth. That was a long winded way of saying - I have a great deal of respect for the Ofsted Grande Fromages I have met, and one Inspector of Dubious Competence does not mean the whole barrel of Ofsted apples are rotten. 

On with the Lesson Obs:

The Class: GCSE re-sitters

Time of Day: Wednesday afternoon

Duration: 1.15 - 4.00 pm (it's a LONG afternoon)

Class size: should be 20 at least, not all 20 always turn up every week (typical in FE I think)

Gender mix: fairly even Stevens between male and female

Ability based on CA's marked so far: D to B. The majority of students get a Band 3 or 4 in controlled assessments I have marked so far. Those who got below a Band 3/C is down to poor attendance. 

Behaviour: Now - good, when I started, 'feral' wouldn't be fair, but sometimes I thought I couldn't teach and they really weren't learning. 

The lesson: 3 hrs of Preparation for the Controlled Assessment for Creative Writing 2 task (based on the title of a poem from the AQA Anthology) - aiming to teach them after their writing-warm-up;  specific grammar skills e.g. How to use a semi-colon to join two 'linked' simple sentences; to provide them with two poems as a stimulus ('The Blackbird of Glanmore' by Seamus Heaney and 'Cold Knap Lake' by Gillian Clarke) which were initially in a Word Cloud (don't shoot me Andrew Old and Tom Bennett!) then in their original form; ideas for how to respond and how to structure responses; how to use their planning sheets etc. So you see, it couldn't be, nor was it a 'jazz hands' kind of lesson. It was about them knowing precisely what they had to do in the Controlled Assessment the following week. 

So here, here was perhaps my Achilles heel, or Catch 22 or what other literary, or mythical analogy you can attach to it, because I had to do what I had to do that lesson, as the pupils had to write their controlled assessments the following week. It is a routine and kind of lesson the class are used to prior to a Controlled Assessment. If I were to deviate and do a 'special lesson' for the inspector, I'd be criticised (in my view, correctly) for not preparing them for their Controlled Assessment. 

The Inspector of Dubious Competence Calls

The Inspector came in after the writing warm-up part of the lesson (words taken from a narrative we have read, or are going to read, they look them up in the dictionary, use them to write about something specific e.g. describe a room they know well, an opening to a horror story and so on - I participate in the writing task on the whiteboard) and part-way through the 'semi-colon' section - where I used a 'comic strip' from the Oatmeal to help explain how to use it as I find it fiendishly difficult - the examples given in there are quirky and memorable and the explanations very clear.  I DID ask to see her identification lanyard as the female inspectors has a knack of hiding them under neck scarves. 

The class were golden from the start of the lesson, and more so when she walked in. Despite the fact they clearly struggled with the whole topic of semi-colons, they did ask  a lot of questions about how to use them in different ways, such as: Can you use them to join X and Y together? (I wrote their example on the board, tried it out, explained if it worked or not) and developed onto questions about using dashes and hyphens in words and sentences (not part of the lesson I'd planned so looked it up in front of the class and gave them examples). Although it was very difficult for them, they were clearly trying really hard to grasp it, and because they found it difficult, it told me that not a one of them had been taught how to use a semi-colon before; or there is the possibility that they had been taught semi-colons, but had not remembered a jot. 

The Inspector remained for the introduction of the poems in Wordle form - where I had a few tricky moments of pupils asking me to define words for them. The first time got nervous and didn't explain one well (criticised in the 'feedback'), but when The Cheeky Lad asked me what 'frolic' meant I got him to look it up and later on asked him for the definition.   In response confidently told the class and I, and then I asked him, "So, when was the last time you frolicked?" 
Student, "In my bedroom Gwen." 
Me, "You can stop there, I don't need to know any more." 
The class guffawed in unison. Literacy job done....or so I thought. 

During the word-cloud task (they had to put the words from a word-cloud into categories of their own choosing - thanks Jamie Warner-Lynne - I still use this!) we discussed their choice of categories; the words they had put in them and why; the assumptions and conclusions they had drawn about what the poems were about; the possible themes of the poems before we read the poems in their original forms; what kind of story is being told by the poet and so on. We then went back to what they originally thought, and what the poems could actually be about. We discussed them as best we could despite the fact the class were clearly flagging from the presence of the Inspector. 

All the time she was in the room, she did not move from her seat.  She spent a lot of  time thumbing through the paper-work, and showed complete dis-interest or indifference to the students. 

It was time for break so I let the students go for break, some of whom wanted to stay. She asked if I wanted feedback, so I said, "OK" (although, as you'll find out later, l should not have bothered) to get it over with even though I was:
a) desperate for the toilet
b) desperate for a cup of tea and.
c) desperate to get away from her and for it to be over. 

We walked down the corridor to an empty space near the 'posh bit' of the college where they have a conference centre. But, the feedback, didn't begin with feedback, but an interrogation (I can feel my blood boiling just thinking about it).

The Interrogation:

The first question, which she asked after having spent half an hour in my classroom with my students is what makes my blood boil, then evaporate a bit and I SO wish I was joking but here it is and it deserves making BIG and highlighting:

"Are you qualified to teach?" and I did explain, "Yes." without using rude words, involving 'off'. 

(I wish I had said, "Yes, and are you qualified to observe me?" or, "Shouldn't you have known that before you stepped into my classroom?" or, the  slightly censored version in my head being, "What the actual? Who the *bleep* do you think you are?"). 

A consequence of this question is that, to use a rugby term, I felt on the back foot here from the off, having to justify myself to her as she didn't seem to like anything that I had done. 

"How long have you been working here?" 
"Have you had any training since you've been here?" 
"The boy in the middle?" (There were two, she had student profiles with pictures and names on)
Me, "Which one, there were two sat in the middle?"
Wagging  her finger vaguely, "The one in the middle?"
Me, "His name would help."
"He has a C in English" 
Me, after doing a 'Sherlock' and working out who she meant I explained that was an input error as he only had a C in his course work, but not his overall grade. 
"Who inputs the information to the profiles?" (I didn't know and told her so)
And so on. Eventually she got round to the feedback. It wasn't much of an improvement from the interrogation. 

The 'Feedback'

She gave her criticisms whilst peering over her glasses like Umbridge from Harry Potter, whilst adopting a condescending tone (I know Andrew Old, I know): 

Inspector: Some of your resources had literacy errors, like a capital 'S' on semi-colon' - that's not good modelling of literacy is it? 

Here I felt fairly patronised and embarrassed, then rallied and told her I usually use it to my advantage and correct errors in front of pupils. Or that often pupils spot-errors and correct them. I wish I'd said, "Have you never seen Geoff Barton's session on Literacy at Wellington Education Festival? Have you read his book, 'Don't Call It Literacy!" where he discusses why teachers should share their errors with pupils and share how to correct them too." I didn't say it, but still wish I had.

Inspector:  They hadn't quite got semi-colons had they? 
My rebuttal: No, which means I need to go over it again with them. Which I will. 

I wish I'd said, "Do you know what that means? It means clearly no one has bothered to teach them semi-colons in the past 5 years of secondary school. They'd been given up on. That's what that means."

Inspector: Why did you use a resource from an American website? (referring to The Oatmeal)
Me: I have used it before and it helps with difficult grammar teaching, as long as you point out the different terminology and what it refers to in British Standard English and grammar, I don't see it as a problem.

Inspector: At times they looked a bit bored. 
Me: They are preparing for a Controlled Assessment, its the nature of the lesson before a Controlled Assessment which involves fairly didactic teaching. 

I wish I'd said. "I am NOT paid to entertain. If I was, I'd be on an awful lot more money than I am now. Have you bothered looking at my classes Controlled Assessment results? If I was as bad as you are implying, they would not be achieving the Bands/Grades that they are." 

Inspector: There was a missed opportunity when the student asked about the meaning of the word 'frolic' (I was baffled, what missed bloody opportunity?) - you should have checked the whole class understood. (I had, as far as I can remember). 

At which point, I had utterly switched off and was taking less and less notice of what she said. There were a few positives about the use of the Word clouds but: nothing about the level of challenge; she didn't look at ANY of their work in the lesson, so no comment on that (their writing warm-up work was brilliant!); nothing about the good relationship I have with the class; nothing about the good behaviour of the students; nothing about how well they were achieving; nothing about the progress I KNOW they've made since September. 

She had a very fixed view of what she thought I should be doing, and how students at college should be taught literacy and GCSE English. I could see her literally ticking off boxes as she went on with the feedback. I don't think I could have 'won' no matter what I did. All this did was show me the fickleness of lesson observation gradings and why they are of no help to me as a method to improve my teaching. Nor is it any use if your observer has no credibility and the "Are you qualified to teach?" question lost her any credibility she might have had. Why on earth should I take notice of anything she had to say to me after that?

Inspector: Grade?
Me: OK then. (knowing full well it wouldn't be a Good or better, it wasn't an Inadequate so knew what she was going to tell me)
Inspector: A three.
Me: OK...(I shrugged my shoulders and thought I'd better show disappointment then added)...I'd obviously prefer better. 

I then shot off down the corridor to find a toilet and put the bloody kettle on. 

When I came back after break and thanked the class for being aweseome - WHICH THEY DARN WELL WERE, Cheeky Lad said:

"I didn't like her.....I think she had her head wedged up her *rse"

Did I laugh? Oh hell yes, of course I bloody well did. 

I have since marked their most recent Controlled Assessment. What was lovely was seeing the more ambitious students using words from our writing warm-ups such as: grotesque, illuminate, atavistic, askance - along with new vocabulary from the poems they read -  the kind of words I know they would not have used in September, as they a) didn't know what they meant b) did not have the ambition, or motivation to do so. 

A message for FE Ofsted Towers:
Somewhere on my 'phone, I have the name of the inspector involved here. If you would like to know who it was, please direct message me on Twitter and I shall pass it onto you. 

An FE Inspector (of dubious competence) Calls: Part 1

I am part way through my first year in FE teaching mostly A-Level English courses, with a soupcon of GCSE English Language classes (1 evening class, and 1 class of re-sitters) and as the year has gone on, the 'OFSTED ARE COMING!!!!' heebeejeebees increased. Turns out, they were right, as on the second week of our 5 week half term, on the afternoon of Thursday the 5th March 2015, we had 'the call' telling us they would be in all of the following week, beginning Monday 9th March 2015. 

I want to explicitly state that I do love my place of work - I work with great staff and students and do not want, through writing this blog - to damn anyone in my place of work. This is the first time I can say I've really and truly enjoyed teaching and working in an educational institution. Turns out, you don't have to feel stressed everyday when you turn up to work. Go figure. 

My fellow secondary school teachers will notice the, ahem notice, being greater than the secondary school standard procedure of a mere 12 hours.  I believe the greater notice period is because FE institutions are generally quite large, often encompassing several sights (ours has six, all over Warwickshire with the 'Mother-ship' being in Leamington Spa) ergo the need for a slightly longer run-up time, to me, seems quite justified. 

By Friday morning the Principal of the college has prepared a video that we were to show to all our students and the numerous other leaders within the college began the 'deluge of emails' approach to Ofsted preparation - again, more due to the large number of sites, rather than an inability to communicate another way. However, 'deluge' remains the right word - the deluge was to the extent that, as the days wore on, I just didn't look at my work emails, and relied on office chatter to work out what I really need to look at, and what I can sensibly ignore. If I had spent all my time reading all the emails that were sent; I would not have had the time to do all the things I actually needed to do. 

Prior to the Ofsted call we were given lists of preparation admin to do - running to at least 20 items - again I had to really work out what was utterly necessary to teach my classes, and safely ignore the rest. What did irk was the need to write out lessons on a pro-forma when the most recent FE Ofsted myth-busting document explicitly states that, 'Ofsted does not expect lecturers to plan in a different way than they do normally' (that is a paraphrased version of what is in the actual document) - but  being a 'newbie' at my place I did not feel brave enough to day 'No' so I duly complied, but dear God did I hate filling out the colleges own '10 minute - but at a  minimum it really takes 40 minutes - lesson plan' to the extent that on the first Monday after inspection week, I felt visibly lighter from not having to fill the darn things out. 

Also on the Friday we knew which specific  areas the college would be inspected for - from memory, they were: Business, Equine, English and Maths (Level 1 and 2 courses) ...I forget the other three areas, but 'A-Levels' was not a target area. Here the A-Level staff  were just amazing - knowing pretty much definitely get seen with a GCSE class - I had so much support and offers of help - I had not a clue what to do with it all:

Geography A gave me a talking to, 'Your are NOT to get all stressed and worried.' in her loving but also a little bit scary Northern way

  • Personal Learning Advisor C - asked if she could cover some of my classes so I could get ready for the Inspection

  • Mentor and desk buddy T - TOLD me not to come into work over the weekend (I did work all day Saturday at home) and rang me on the Monday to check I was OK. 

  • Boss K kept checking that I was OK every day.

That just gives you a wee flavour of 'Team A-Level' during the Ofsted inspection was like. 

For the record - our A-Level students were beyond marvellous - calm, supportive and even hugely defensive of us - to the extent that one lad that I teach in A2 Language and Literature - made a point of finding the Ofsted Inspector interviewing students to GRILL him about 'What the point of Ofsted was?' AND telling him, 'My teachers teach differently when you are not here [wait for it, it's good] - the teach BETTER.' 

So, on Wednesday afternoon, with the GCSE re-sitters whom I have written about before here and here  I was observed by The Inspector of  Dubious Competence. A more detailed account will follow in part 2 of this blog. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

My Top 10 Tips for GCSE English Re-Sitters

I'll not waffle but just crack on with it, this SHOULD be short and sweet.

  1. For them, YOU represent all that has gone wrong for these students before in GCSE English. It is not YOUR fault, but expect a wave of resentment and apathy coming in your direction. It isn't really aimed at you, you are just a painful reminder of what went wrong before. If that doesn't happen - EXCELLENT. Enjoy it!
  2. Because of what went wrong before, you have a room full of mainly fragile egos. Some might appear arrogant, this is more than likely a front. Walking in and barking orders like the Stazi will do you no favours, but firm and fair management of them will. 
  3. Some WILL be more able than the prior grade indicates. Things go pear shaped for students for many, many, many reasons. Sew them the idea of the possibility of doing even better than a C. The C is definitely what they need, but if they can do better, you need to let them know that they can. Keep drip feeding the idea, they'll take the hint eventually. 
  4. This is a no-brainer really, but, your students are likely to have weak literacy skills. Poor sentence construction; inability to punctuate those sentences, a limited and weak range of vocabulary; lack of literary and non-literary writing techniques; unable to paragraph, and a very limited range of conjunctions in their writing. Each lesson must involve some explicit grammar teaching, but do it in baby steps. 
  5. Homework - my adult evening group aside - getting homework from such classes is VERY difficult. My suggestion is to provide grammar worksheets, then within the next lesson, set a task that links to the homework, giving the students the opportunity to apply their grammar skills in the lesson. Take this work in to mark then you can easily find out who did the homework or not.  Also, by marking the work, your relationship with the students grows. It is VERY important you mark honestly, but positively. They REALLY need to know what they CAN do, whilst letting them know what they need to do to get better. 
  6. If you want students to focus on a particular technique or skill in their writing, attach a points system to it. E.g. adjective - 1 point, personification - 4 points, and congeries (yup, done that with my re-sitters) 6 points - according to level of difficulty. It should also prevent a 'death by adjective listing' form of creative writing. Get students to self-mark or peer mark before you even clap eyes on it; it will get them into the habit of checking their own work, and reading it carefully. 
  7. Going back to that lovely rhetorical term 'congeries' - rhetorical figures is something I have been doing a lot of with my A-Level classes. One lesson, while looking at the description of 'Dr. Roylott' from Conan-Doyle's "The Speckled Band", I reasoned, why the hell-not expose them to it? So I did. We looked at the definition, how it looks on the page, what it DOES, and how such long sentences are constructed and why. Using the points system, pupils were keen to try it. Some of them succeeded. I also told them it came from my A-Level lessons, making sure I told them that if I didn't think they were capable, I wouldn't bother. So, going back to those fragile egos, that's them starting to wag their tales right there. 
  8. Another no-brainer. Turn up. Always, turn-up. This will be, eventually, rewarded with their loyalty. 
  9. Have a sense of humour, by GOD you'll need it, along with this, be relentlessly nice, even in the face of their apathy and truculence. You will wear them down, because when you are relentlessly nice, they find less and less reason to be truculent and unpleasant. If they were to continue being mean, it would be like kicking a puppy. 
  10. Be patient. Very, very patient. They will come round to you once they have got used to you, and learned to trust you. Like skittles in a bowling alley, it is won't be a strike, but one or two skittles at a time. Eventually, the bowling ball that is YOU and your teaching, will knock them over. (Dodgy metaphor now over). 

Monday, 16 February 2015

Getting to grips with GCSE re-sitters

When I started at my college and saw my timetable, I made predictions about which classes might prove the most tricky. As most of my timetable is A-Level teaching, it didn't take long to suss out that Wednesday afternoons with full-time students re-taking GCSE English at college would be the most challenging. 

Why did I make this assumption?

  • They HAVE to do it to remain on their chosen course
  • They have not got a C, yet, so will feel disappointed by that.
  • They MAY have sat the GCSE exams at least 3 times prior to coming to me.
  • They are quite likely to feel let down by their previous institution, or GCSE English teacher due to not getting that C.
  • English is unlikely to be their favourite subject, if it was, I'd be teaching them A-Level English

Now, anyone who has taught a low ability Year 11 class on a wet and windy afternoon, will not be unfamiliar with the words, 'truculent' and 'apathy'. It is a cross that all we core subject teachers have to bear, so have to use all of the tools in our box, and much nicked from other people, in order to overcome it. That said, teaching students GCSE English as a re-sit class is a new experience for me, and I have had to learn a lot over a short period of time.  There is very little that is the same in FE as it is in Secondary School when it comes to teaching GCSE English.

As well as the issues mentioned above, we have:

  • Behaviour issues, usually work avoidance tactics, which essentially down to a lack of confidence in this subject
  • Teaching them 'Of Mice and Men' at the start of the year, when they are, bless them, frankly sick of it. 
  • Issues with attendance and punctuality - meaning that, apart from a core of affable students, you can get a different class each week depending on who turns up (I do not think this is unique to my college at all). 
  • Lessons are once a week and 3 hours long, with a break in the middle - these last two points making planning lessons, and even doing a seating plan, or trying group work, very difficult. 
  • Chasing up lateness and punctuality is much more difficult in a much larger institution - I am slowly getting to know the people I need to talk to about this. 
  • Some pupils have a deeply in-grained all pervading, overwhelming, feeling of negativity about their ability in this subject, which you can sympathise with, but also question whether your amateur psychology built upon years of teaching in different schools, can help these individuals. 
  • Getting in homework, and ergo, having something to mark, assess and praise is a nightmare. 
The first term: the long slog up to Christmas. 

This was the 'Of Mice and Men' term, and I think this made things difficult for the students and I. The majority had studied it to death, whilst a small minority didn't know it at all. We read (or re-read) the text doing some fairly simple comprehension exercises and built up to constructing the good old, 'Point, Evidence, Explore the language' paragraphs. It is easy to knock PEEL paragraphs, however, with students who have no confidence in their ability to write, and write about writing, this kind of structure IS useful. I made sure to tell the more able ones it was adaptable. 
  However, their over-familiarity with the text, made my prediction of my Wednesday afternoons being bloody hard work absolutely spot on.  Neither had I mastered the art of planning a GCSE lesson over 3 hours - mainly via not pitching or pacing it right. 
  On Thursdays I felt visibly lighter and practically skipped into work as Wednesday was over with, meaning I had a joyous day of A2 and AS Language and Literature ahead. 
  Towards the end of December the 'Of Mice and Men' CA was sat - all done properly in exam conditions. It is an epic slog with 1 hour for making notes, and 4 hours writing. One pupil kicked off in spectacular fashion, complaining that he could not do it. He had attended less than 50% of lessons, so I can't say I was overly sympathetic, less so when he shouted at me in the classroom and in the corridor. The rest, thankfully, did not join in and knuckled down and got on with the long slog. Afterwards, other pupils told me how silly they thought his behaviour was...making one of those precious little moments that make you realise the class are coming around to your side, and will eventually stop fighting you. 

Spring Half term. (WHY do we call it that, when we are still in the DEPTHS of Winter?) and the gradual decline of apathy. 
Fortunately, I managed to mark this classes' CAs over Christmas before I got horribly ill with a sinus infection. This meant that, due to the most of the class achieving a C, and one pupil getting at least a B, we could begin the year on a positive footing. Those who GOT their C where pleased, if not a bit relieved, the lad with a B was pleasantly surprised, whilst those who got Ds took it on the chin (they had terrible attendance) and are keen to re-sit so they can achieve a C. 
  There is a notable and visible sense of relief that 'Of Mice and Men' is OVER WITH, whilst the new CA task of creative writing is much more enjoyable to teach, and gives the students a refreshing change of direction.  With huge thanks to a delightful Twitter lady (your name escapes me, SORRY) I used an extract and stills from Danny Boyle's '28 Days Later' which the class grew increasingly more interested in as lessons went by. 
  Here I also used 'slow writing' cards and devised a points system for using different literary and grammar techniques in practise pieces of writing; plus I compiled a table of model sentences using Alan Peat's 'Exciting Sentences' app for pupils to experiment with.
  I made them write in silence to a range of stimulus, gave them different sentence types and techniques to use each week, then made sure I took in class work (rather than homework) to mark each week, so that they were getting regular constructive feedback.  In class they also peer and self-marked to see how many 'points' they accumulated, based on the variety of techniques, and range of vocabulary they could use.  
  One pupil's was so 'wowsers' I read it out to my friends and colleagues in the A-Level office, which received appreciative 'Oooooos' and 'Ahhhhhhs' as a result, which I passed onto the student. 
The Second Controlled Assessment

They were an absolute delight whilst they had their note-making lesson and preparation. I made sure they used a thesaurus to compile a bank of vocabulary to use in their CA. They worked with quiet diligence and real focus. Frankly, I could hardly believe it was the same class I had been teaching in September. 
  Before the CA I gave them a pep-talk, reminders of what to do when stuck, told some pupils to write double spaced as their handwriting is as bad as mine, and let them crack on. I also told them, in no uncertain terms, they were not finished until they had checked their work for errors at least twice or until they were sick of it. 
   As in the note-making session, their effort and behaviour really could not be faulted. 
   I bought them Jaffa cakes which were gently plopped on their desk mid-way through the CA and (I tweeted about this) REFUSED a second Jaffa Cake on the way out, REFUSED. What is with that? 

An attempt at an 'autopsy' -why I think things have changed (there's nothing remarkable here):

  • I came back after each holiday.
  • I turned up each week (bar the evil sinus infection week).
  • I sent some out who were persistently disruptive, one has even been removed to another class (who has since BEGGED to return to my group).
  • Got the hang of chasing up poor attendance and punctuality.
  • Weekly marking of classwork improved relationships between the class and I.
  • Taking the 'be relentlessly nice' approach seems to have worn them down.
  • My planning and pacing of lessons has got better - and easier - the better I know my pupils.
  • The first CA marks gave many a confidence boost AND enabled them to trust me.
  • I am a stubborn sod and don't give up easily.
  • We have had some lovely funny moments in class, I've laughed with the student so at least they know I am human. 
  • Because of all of the above, and other things I may have missed, some are now more motivated than when they were in school, and certainly more motivated since September. 
It is hugely satisfying to now be at the 'enjoy teaching them' stage considering I gained new grey hairs every week when I started teaching them in September. 

I was hugely cheered by a comment a student made at the end of his creative writing CA last week:

Students looked up from his CA, bleary eyed but pleased, "I am really pleased with what I've done and my effort."
"Good," I reply, smiling, "So you should be."
"You know what the difference is this time?" he asked me, more rhetorically really.
"Compared to school you mean?" 
"Yes. It's motivation. I just got things done quickly to get them out of the way. Now I want to do it well." 
Well, I could hardly contain my joy and told him, arms aloft, "You have TOTALLY just made my day. Thank you." 

Continuing in this lovely manner, the pupil was then a total poppet and helped put the classroom desks back to normal before he left. 

That was a VERY satisfying way to end the half-term with this class. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

#Nurture 1415

This year had been an interesting one, and initially, not all for the best of reasons. This time last year I was signed off work, and could not contemplate the thought of stepping into a school again, even worse the last thing I wanted to do was teach. 
   Thankfully, things got much better and choosing a mere 5 from all the good stuff that eventually happened will actually be quite hard, so please forgive me a wee bit of cheating. 

Good Stuff of 2014

1. The de-singlification of the Nelson.  

I started teaching in my late 20s, and to be honest, in terms of a personal life and a love life, both were in short supply over those 12 years. As far as the love life thing is concerned, I may as well have joined a convent.  I'd bantered with my now OH on Twitter for a good few months before we actually met (initially, I had even blocked him as I found him a bit scary) in October 2013. Out of which came the most tentative of friendships. To use the phrase 'slow burner' would be a severe understatement. But, after a MAMMOTH cleaning session of his house (I was off work, and wanted to feel useful), which was frankly a HORRIFYING mess when I first encountered it, we became much closer friends,  Later on, this lead to a Muppet Movie night where friendship changed into cosy coupledom.  Nine months later, we are still together despite nearly giving him multiple organ failure when he bought me a Vivienne Westwood handbag for my 40th. Something he reminds me of OFTEN. 

2. Being published in a real-life bonefide book! 

Firstly, in 2014 I stayed with Rachel Jones many times, who on one occasion was BUZZING after becoming a Google Certified Educator. Rachel had an idea of asking various edu-Twitter types to send her 10 top teaching tips that she could compile into an e-book, selling for a nominal amount with proceeds going to a children's charity. I helped a tiny bit by asking a few people to contribute, whilst Rachel constructed a Google form for us to use, and later formatted it into a beautiful e-book on some clever bit of Apple software. 
    As well as I, who is a petite fromage in the scheme of things, there are such Twitter grande fromages as Vic Goddard, Andrew Old, John Tomsett, Alex Quigley, Tom Starkey, Chocotzar, and the lovely Rachel Jones herself. 
   Before long, Crown House got wind of it, got in touch and offered to publish it into a real book! A REAL BOOK called 'Don't Change the Lightbulbs.' proceeds of which go to charity. Click on the link to get your own copy. 
  The book launch was great, and somehow I managed to talk to the whole of Twitter about literacy, and more inexplicably, told Twitter to 'grow a pair' and just get on with it. 
  The launch became a mixture of Edu-Twitter-Pokemon, the mission getting fellow contributors to sign their pages, and a selfie-a-thon getting your self snapped with the grander fromages. I'm STILL dead chuffed that I met Vic Goddard. 

Right, in a typical English teacher way, I've been quite verbose. Succinct Nelson, be succinct! 

3. Published again  - but in picture form! 

This is down to two remarkable forces of nature, @Chocotzar  who wrote a really moving blog about a pupil at her school who needed and deserved a holiday, sadly the likelihood of  that actually happening was zero. @Cazwebbo quickly cottoned on, and whipped us up  into posing for holiday themed pictures frenzy, in order to create a calendar to raise money for the Family Holiday Association.  Thus was born the 'Sweet Dreams Desk Diary 2015'. Still available to purchase! (Carol, my mum bought a job lot, meaning my sister got one, whether she wanted it or not.)
  A few of us clubbed together for a photo-shoot in Manchester - thanks LOTS to Carol for organising, Cherryl and Carolyn for helping this camera-phobic through the photo shoot. The combined efforts of these friends, the photographer and make-up artist meant I did not look like a grimacing corpse. Miracle. 

Still not succinct...sigh...

4. Maintaining and building various Twitter friendships, and making the most of opportunities.

2014 meant attending quite a few Twitter edu-events: Pedagoo London, Policy Exchange bash, a few Teach Meets, Research Ed, the London Currries, Wellington Education Festival and Starkeyfest in Leeds; whilst also meeting up with old and new Twitter friends individually. Out of which has grown an increasing amount of strong friendships, a sisterhood - you know who you are - who have seen me through my darkest of days; even better pulling me away from my walk with The Black Dog.
  This has also lead to great opportunities - most memorable being getting into the Master's Lodge at Wellington due to my OH being a speaker at the festival. I ate lots of good cake, I saw numerous famous types, which was bewlidering, and Oliver Beach from Tough Young Teachers (see what I did there Oliver), who, it has to be said gives a very fine hug indeed. 
  Later on, I gate-crashed a meeting with Sean Harford (the new Ofsted head honcho), Andrew Old and David Didau, and later on attended a meeting with Mike Cladingbowl (the out-going Ofsted head-honcho) and various other Twitter folk at Ofsted Towers in London.        At Research Ed in September I introduced Mike Cladingbowl and Sean Harford (to be interviewed by Andrew Old) to a huge hall full of people, during which I called Mike the 'Grande Fromage' and Sean 'a not quite so Grande Fromage' of Ofsted. Mike nearly spat out his tea, Sean virtually choked on his biscuit, Andrew stared at the floor, my knees nearly buckled. Kev Bartle told me he loved it. The tumble-weed response of the rest of the hall suggested the potential idea of a stand-up comedian being a second string to my bow, blew slowly away with the forlorn tumble-weed. 

5. Getting back to work

In May I found a part-time FE post teaching A-Level and GCSE English. By that point I had been off work for 7 months, my salary would end for definite in August as literally a few days prior to applying for this job, I had resigned from the old one. As interviews go, it felt very high stakes. However, the stars  were aligned and I got the job! For the lengthy version, click here.  The response from Twitter after I tweeted I'd got the job, was AMAZING. My timeline went bonkers with lovelieness for HOURS. 
  In short, the move to FE and being part-time was exactly the right thing to do. I love students, staff, colleagues and my boss is sound as a pound.  Although, thanks to the hideous road-works on the A5, the commute home is a real ARSE. 

Bonus Bit
Oh and this is too memorable not to mention. I had the FUNNIEST time on Twitter after Stuart Lock tweeted a picture of a fox in his garden, which none of us could see. Thus ensued what is fondly known as #Foxgate - well fondly for everyone except Stuart that is. 

One more Bonus bit
Over the past 18 months to 2 years I have participated in @ieshasmall's  photography journal of people who have had, currently dealing with, or recovering from depression. It is also on Twitter as @mindshackles - do click on the link to view. 
    Other participants I know are Rachel Jones and Andy Knill. It has been a really rewarding experience. Iesha is great company, knows her medium of photography, and documents our stories with heart and diligence. Our last sesssion was at The Globe on The Southbank, where as gronudlings we watched a great production of A Comedy of Errors. 
   Thank you so much for asking me to participate Iesha, it has been life affirming. 

Hopes for 2015

1. To celebrate a proper anniversary with 'im indoors. 

We are but 3 months away dearest, what shall we do to celebrate our 12 month adversary (that was a typo in a text to him a while back, but 'adversary' seems to have stuck)? I'm thinking something Muppet related. Just an idea. I think another Vivienne Westwood handbag might give him actual multiple organ failure. 

2.. To spend more time  with friends, to nurture those friendships better

I am fortunate that I have great friends. I know some wonderful people. I don't see or talk to them as much as I'd like. My past 18 months or so walking with The Black Dog has not helped these friendships much, neither does my phone-phobic nature. Friendships need nurturing, I need to nurture them far better. 

3.  To grow my confidence back as a teacher

I'm getting there, really I am, but after being off work for 10 months and the after-shock of being in an untenable situation at work, epic levels of stress and the stuffing being knocked out of me, it doesn't take much for the insidiousness of self-doubt and anxiety to creep in. Also, I'm teaching all new texts (to me) in my A-Level courses, it's terrifying. BUT SO MANY Twitter folk have Drop-boxed me resources, and I would have sunk into a pool of my own stress dribble if not for their help, I am HUGELY grateful. Next year is new A-Level Specs' so, it is no easy ride next year either, but it's the challenge I like. 
Already I am thinking of how to teach better, much better. 
  I'd like to start attending Teach Meets again, and have a crack at presenting once more. It terrifies me, but it will get easier the more I do it. 

4. To go on holiday in the school summer holiday

Not something I've actually done. Ever. The main hurdles are: money and to persuade the OH that not ALL foreign places 'smell of wee' so that we can at least get out of the UK on said holiday. 

5. Do some more tutoring

Currently this is a bit of an experiment, but recently I have done some 1:1 tutoring with the son of the folk who run my local sub-Post Office. I tell you, an hour barely seems long enough. It's very enjoyable, it's a little extra pocket money, it's another string to by bow and it could be developed. My pay is much less than it was, so I'll have to see how it goes. Plus I need to keep Mr. Tax Man in mind if this little venture is to grow. (If there is anyone who can give me advice on this, please do so. I am Mrs. Clueless here). 

Hurrah, finished! Well done for getting to the end! 

There are a few other things I'd like to do, many no less important than the ones above (cheating, sorry):

  1. I want my new students to better than both they and I expect in their exams in May and June. 
  2. Hear the words 'lesson observation' without tumbling into the well of anxiety and almost lurching into the zone of panic attack. 
  3. Do bloody awesomely in said lesson observation -  by that I mean get through it without panicking. 
  4. Go on the super-long zip-wire in Blaenau Ffestiniog and do Bounce Below (boinging on trampolines in a cave) also at Blaenau wiith a group of friends. 
  5. Do  something else wacky - like a parachute jump, or a hot-air balloon ride. 
  6. Get another discrete tattoo, Welsh and Wales being the theme. It's my 40th year and it will also be 10 years since dad passed away in November 2005. Ergo, it seems sort of right. Suggestions welcome. 
  7. Do more Yoga - it helps with my rubbish feet and general aches and pains. 
  8. Get more comfortably into my size 12 clothes - cosy coupledom has equalled weight gain. 
  9. Do an assault course again. I don't think I'd survive Tough Guy again, but something in the 10K region would be do-able. 
  10. Exercise at least 3 times a week, 4 if I can. (Which will help with No. 7)
  11. Write on this blog more regularly. I've been very cautious since behaviours of certain people at my old work meant I knew I was being 'monitored' - but they never openly admitted it, just mentioned stuff I'd tweeted or blogged about in passing. Way to make you paranoid, huh? Being in a new job has also made me cautious of using this blog, which, initially, I think was wise. I mustn't be scared of using my voice. 
  12. Continue teaching a GCSE English class in the evening. It's very enjoyable, the students are smashing. 

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

My defection to FE: Notable differences

After 12 years at the chalk-face of three state secondary schools; I was done in. Many of my friends here on Twitter have seen me broken, battered and bruised, teetering on the edge of a dark, potentially terminal abyss. 

Here I am, 5 weeks of teaching and 7 weeks in total into my FE teIaching career (and I really DO hope this is the start of a new career in FE for me) and the differences between FE and the state secondary school sector are numerous. 

So, to borrow the words of Dylan Thomas, 'to begin at the beginning':

1. I started at my college two weeks before the students began. 

In secondary schools, if you're lucky you get two days INSET, at least one of which is a 'death by meetings and PowerPoint' day and the other a Faculty day. If particularly unlucky, you just get one day of the former, with no real time, or motivation to get yourself properly sorted for the first day's teaching. 
  Here I had a week to get settled in, find resources, get 'inducted' by my manager and I WAS left to my own devices to get myself sorted, as much as I was able, having not met any of the students yet. 
  The second week involved enrolement of students, where I was repeatedly told it would be 'manic'. All I can say is that the FE version of 'manic' is clearly very different from the secondary school version.  

2. I work for a large 'Corporation'.

    Frankly, this really unsettled me. The last time I worked for a 'Corporation' it was for The Abbey National, in their Visa Disputes Department where I was miserable, bored and little more than a battery hen. Education, a BUSINESS? What the....???
    This 'Corporateness' was bought into stark relief when I was booked into, and attended my 'Corporate Welcome Day' where we had many presentations by senior managers of  the college - most of which were at least useful in integrating us into the FE way of things; and learning about the vast range of courses and students the college caters for.  
  What was nice was that most of them made the effort to chat to us in the breaks, and get to know who we were, at least a little. This was where I nearly, but I didn't quite have the gumption for, said that I was, 'kind of a big deal on Twitter'. 

3. The manager to lecturer (teacher) ratio 

In my previous secondary school, in my English Faculty there were: Head of Faculty, Head of KS4, Head of KS3, two Heads of Year, leaving a part-timer and I as the only non-manager types. God knows what the actual ratio is, but managers clearly outnumber 'normal teachers' by a big margin. Furthermore, in the climate of a school in a certain category, this leads you to being micro-managed to within an inch of your sanity. 
  Here I am part of the 'A-Level Academy' section of the college, and above me is the 'A-Level Manager' for our site, then above her is an overall 'Academy Leader' for A-Levels across all sites that offer it.  Here, the atmosphere is much more like when I started teaching, where your Head of Faculty was 'first among equals' - a teacher who happened to have to deal with all that admin you didn't have the stomach for, who just let you get on and teach. 
  So, in effect, I am 'Head of English'. I was most amused, whilst munching on my ready-meal prior teaching my evening class, to open correspondence addressed to the 'Head of English'. Ok, so I manage myself, but that feels really rather good. 

4. I can say, 'No' to things on my timetable I am not yet ready for

I applied for the post at the college because it was part-time, and I could have had a full FE timetable if I had wanted to. However, I said, "No" because a) I didn't want to work full-time in a sector I was new to, and b) It was ANOTHER course I've not taught before (A vocational Media Studies course). 
  I could also say, "No" to a third GCSE class I was offered on another site. The fact that I could do this was, well, a revelation! 

5. My timetable - It's not bonkers! 

Last year, I had a timetable that I just could not get on with. All KS3 (bar a year 9 class) and KS4 and 5 classes were split. Split KS5 classes are the norm in secondary education, but ALL of KS3 and 4? I saw those classes for 2 hours a week. It made building relationships, the positive kind, infinitely more difficult, as with marking, and planning lessons. That was one of the nails in my secondary teacher coffin. 
   This links to the point above - it  is not entirely dictated to me. I teach 18 hours in total, 15 are part of my contract, and 3 hours are paid hourly - again my choice. MY CHOICE! I have, as part of my contract, 8 'On site hours' which is the FE equivalent of PPA time. Some of which you can complete at home.  I had to keep asking permission to leave on my half day on Tuesday, until I got the message that, 'No one clock watches around here'. There IS such a thing as  'give AND take' not 'take, take, take'. 
  In total, in my 18 hours teaching I have 5 classes: 2 GCSE, 2 AS and 1 A2 class, meaning I spend 6 hours a week with each A-Level  class and 3 hours a week (all in one chunk) with each GCSE class. This huge increase in contact time for the majority of classes means:

  • I know all their names already after 4 weeks of teaching, even the massive AS Lang/Lit class of 25 and NEARLY my massive GCSE class of 35. 
  • Planning lessons is SPEEDY. I know my classes. I am not swamped with data but I know my students pretty darn well already.
6. The 'work-load' and marking hot-potatoes

As previously mentioned, I teach for 18 hours, which is not much less than a full-time teacher's full time-table load. Perhaps, one class less? However, the marking policy is much different to secondary school where exercise books must be marked every two weeks, assessments and feedback given also within two weeks of the assessment being given (given, it's not much of a 'gift' is it?) along with homework, for each teaching group - which with that crazy shared group timetable, your number of classes nudges into double-figures, while your marking load slowly, but surely, saps the very life-blood from you.  
   Here, the expectation is that you set homework, for each group, mark it and grade it so students have weekly 'working at' grades. The only real 'extra' to this is the half-termly mocks. However, as the pupils can and want to do a good job if it, you can sit and mark while they work in silence, meaning you can start marking once classes mocks while the one you are with are doing theirs. 
   So, I am busy, there is plenty to do each day and week, but here is the crucial difference - I am not overwhelmed, permanently over-whelmed and constantly defeated by the work--load. It is actually manageable. I am tired at the end of the week, but not sapped of all strength. 

7. My team is 'A-Level' not my subject

Now, this I really like. It is much more like the Swedish Gymnasium 16-19 school I visited in Ystad, where teachers were in teams of courses, not necessarily curriculum areas.  This means a wider range of personality types, and none of the potential 'insular' or superiority complexes that one curriculum area can lord over another. Plus, no one seems particularly stressed, so this does not feed into the kind of 'stress vortex' you can find in over-worked secondary school faculty areas.  
  It's great to look discuss different subject areas and learn stuff in the process. 

8. There is LOTS of admin:

  • Lecturer's record book - basically a teacher planning system to record lecture notes and marks
  • Pen Portraits - notes are to be made for each pupil in each class about their needs, or difficulties as learners and how you intend to meet their needs in your planning. It is OK to do this later on when you have got to know your classes
  • Each class has a spreadsheet for you to record homework marks. This is monitored to see if pupils are meeting the college's high standards for their pupils. The emphasis here IS on the monitoring of the students and THEIR progress.(Although I'm sure it's something to do with monitoring teaching too, but there isn't a big deal made about this.)
  • Lots of admin is require for lesson obs - lesson plan, pen portraits, Scheme of Work you are using. 

At the moment I'm really focusing on the teaching and the marking. Am just starting to get to grips with some of the admin. 

9. Lessons are still graded and Ofsted are in for a week

It's a bit of a step back in time! As a new member of staff I'll get a developmental, ungraded lesson observation prior to a graded one. If that's the system, so be it. However, I'll not plan lessons on the basis of worrying about a one-off lesson observation or 'what Ofsted might want'.  Having said this, my mentor/buddy type person is also the UCU union rep and is steering 'The Powers That Be' into un-graded lesson observation process. 
  When I started teaching, Ofsted visits lasted a week and it is likely you'd be seen more than once. Thinking about this, I think that part in particular is FAR less stressful than the '20 minutes to prove your competence under untenable pressure' system we have had to deal with in Ofsted's recent history.

10. I am not a form tutor

Here, pastoral responsibility is with a PLA (Personal Learning Advisor) on each course. They act as a Head of Year and form tutor rolled into one. Ours is a force of nature and brilliant. 
  You don't notice or realise how much time a tutor group takes up until you don't have one any more. Therefore, I am free (yes FREE) to focus on what I am employed for - the teaching of my courses. I love that I can focus on this. 

11. How I don't feel - I am not:

Stressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, exhausted, paranoid and neurotic about errors I may make, scared of speaking to my boss, frightened to express an opinion, in a constant state of worry, miserable, defeated, lonely, isolated, or undermined. 

12. Lastly, but most importantly, the students

They are:

  • Very compliant - not in the 'Stepford Wives' sense of blind obedience, but they pretty much do as they are asked by lecturers. This is taking some getting used to. 
  • Part of a very wide and different catchment to Coventry - Rugby definitely seems more 'well-to-do' than the catchment of my previous place. Even walking around the nearby Tesco and even just walking around the college site, the LACK of expletives in general conversation is very noticeable. (The most swearing has occurred in my History Boys lessons - ALL Alan Bennett's fault). 
  • That is not to say they are spoilt and none are vulnerable - there are plenty of students with a range of potential barriers to learning, but whatever that barrier might be, they don't seem to want to let it get the better of them. 
  • They seem to have higher expectations of themselves than the pupils that I have taught over the past few years. Is this to do with them making the choice to come here? Surely it must be a factor. 
  • They call me by my first name, 'Gwen' which is odd, but rather nice. It is all part of the expectations of them behaving like adults. I'm getting used to it and think I like it more than 'Miss' - a perennial reminder of my potential to mutate into Miss. Havisham. 
  • Are here for a second, or even third chance at A-Levels and know they are in the 'palace of second chances'. I love that. 
  • They are patient - they know I am new to the college and many have passed on resources about our texts to help me out. I thought that was really sweet! 
  • They want to have feedback and can take a bit of harsh marking and detailed, honest feedback on the chin. 
  • A stern 'bollocking' -  no shouting - is really enough to get them back on track when they are not quite at their best. 
  • They are very, very, very likeable. I think I've bonded really well with all my classes, even the tricky, truculent reluctant re-sitters in my GCSE night class. 

In short, it's damn lovely. I am still busy, but I am more productive because I am less stressed, much, much, much less stressed. I wish I'd done this years ago. 

For an FE to Secondary Education transition - please read my dear, beloved friend @rlj1981's blog here