Saturday, 20 October 2012

Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

It has been an interesting week at the educational coal-face in the Midlands.  With so much to comment on I thought I'd write about the highs and lows of me, a main scale teacher on a fully loaded time-table, and my week with Year 10. 

This is a sort of disclaimer because it is quite clearly a mix of the good and the bad of teaching: I have no intention to bring my school or my profession into disrepute, just to tell the tale of the demands and joys of a week at work with a specific teaching group.

After spending a large proportion of my Sunday, as so many of us do, planning lessons and marking, I write myself a 'to do' list of the tasks I need to get done this week. 

  • Assessment Point 1 data onto SIMS for ALL teaching groups
  • Finish marking Year 9 assessments (Jaws analysis)
  • Start marking year 8 assessments (Pitch for a new TV show)
  • Input my assessment data onto my Excel spreadsheets
  • Plan Year 13 Lang/Lit lesson on The Crucible (Tuesday evening)
  • Group Year 8 into 'lifeboats' for speaking and listening activity based on Titanic
  • Print off literacy work for Year 10
  • Pastoral - phone parents of tutees who did not make Parents' Evening a while back and/or those who are arriving late in the morning or having problems.
This is written on note-paper and stapled onto Monday's page of my planner. I  resemble being organised and at this point it is:

Gwen 1 - 0 Universe

Monday is a full teaching day, it whizzes by in the blink of an eye. 

After school: Faculty meeting, it is calm and steady but it runs on late.  Various things are said and more things are added to my 'to do' list:
  • A furniture survey of my classroom (something to do with our new build I think)
  • Print out hard copies of resources for the Schemes of Work I've written (they are already on the staff shared drive)
  • Complete a survey about the school for the Headteacher
  • An exam analysis of my Year 11 exam results. I briefly look at the data and the results are colour coded according to how near their FFT targets they are:  'Green' (achieved), 'Amber' (missed but not by much) and 'Red' (a BIG miss).  I have lots of 'amber' and 'red'.  I worked so hard. I spent a large part of last year with lots of stress induced minor illnesses.  The majority of the class got a C or better and I feel fairly demoralised. 
Gwen 1 - 1 Universe

 I don't leave school until about 5.20 pm, arriving home at 5.55pm.  Thus missing my beloved circuit class which is at 6pm. Instead of doing that, I sit and mark my Year 9 assessments and complete the school survey for the Headteacher.
I just have time to eat and have a bath leaving me about an hour to myself before I should hit the sack. 

Gwen 2 - 2 Universe

Hissing snakes and custard pies

I introduced you to my snake-wrangling group in a previous post. My Year 10 are a disparate bunch with lots of insecurities about learning and English and they wear me out. Sometimes they are almost vampiric in their neediness and can feel so exhausted at the end of a lesson I feel like I've done the Tough Guy assault course all over again. Battered. 
   I see them 5 times a week, and due to a colleague returning from maternity leave, I have them as a whole group (all 21 of them), period 2 Tuesday and period 4 Wednesday. I have half the group Tuesday 6, Friday 1 and Friday 5. When I have them as a whole class I focus, at the moment, on their literacy skills. 
  On a Wednesday I have them Period 4 before lunch, so far, although often a tricky start, they do eventually settle and we get some useful and meaningful work done. However, this picture best sums up that lesson:

The pupils enter as a rabble, loud and raucous.  Something must have happened on the way to my class but I know not what. One lad, who I normally get on really well with, is really agitated. His Head of Year comes in and he speaks to her in a loud and aggressive way. He is removed from the class while she tries to settle him. Another two boys, instead of sitting down, lurk by the door, grinning like velociraptors at the spectacle, adding to the agitation in the lesson. Another boy, who is played a part in this boy's upset is also called out by the Head of Year. 
  Meanwhile I am trying to set up my lesson; handing folders and resources out and getting my laptop ready. While I am doing this another pupil shouts at my rather brilliant TA for sitting in the wrong place, and tells the TA, 'You can't speak to me like that!'.  The TA reminds him of how rude he is being; the boy carries on shouting.  Again, I usually get on well with this pupil and recognise when he is not having a good day. He is told to go out into the corridor to calm down as he struggles to control his anger and agitation. He doesn't want to but I remind him I am trying to stop him getting into further trouble, so he leaves.
  I try and teach my lesson, which is reasonably sound. A grammar lesson based on the grammatically correct but tedious sentence, 'The cat sat on the mat'. They are to use complex and simple sentences to change it from tedious, into something imaginative. A short narrative based on that sentence. 
   However, due to the mood of the class, it goes down like a lead balloon. They think I am patronsing them. That is clearly not my intention but they are so entrenched in their negativity, they are unwilling to listen. Some pupils at least try and engage with it; others think it is below them and don't. I coax, I cajole, I snap, I take planners and blunder and battle my way through the lesson.  I take a pupil's planner because he is refusing to work; he glares at me and says, 'Take it for **** sake.' He is sent out straight away.
  The lesson finished, the TAs help me tidy up and I go to lunch feeling a little traumatised to say the least. I can tell I am still traumatised during my Year 8 lesson, Period 6, as I am short and snappy with the class. I sit on SIMS at the end of the day to record all the incidents that occurred in the space of those 50 minutes with Year 10. 
  I drive home still feeling upset and flustered.  I feel guilty about the terrible lesson with Year 10 and equally awful about my snappy-ness with the Year 8 class. 
  As soon as I get home I mark yet more Year 9 assessments and plan my Year 13 Lang/Lit lesson. 
  Dinner is eaten, I bathe and try and relax for a bit in the evening. The train wreck of an afternoon won't leave my head; I am still tense, and I have a terrible night's sleep. 
  Later on in the week I chat to their Head of Year who tells me what happened prior to the lesson. One of the other boys in the class, who is difficult to say the least, caused a fracas on the stairs on the way up to my classroom and hit one the girls in my class. He also wound up the rest of them up into the hurricane that entered my classroom.  He is quite rightly excluded. He returns on Tuesday next week...when I teach them. 

Gwen 2 - 5 Universe

Hissing snakes, custard pies and a triumphant victory all in one lesson. 

Friday Lesson 1, the snake-wrangling class.

My aims of the lesson are quite simple, to be able to know what a Point Evidence Explore paragraph looks like and to identify the different parts of an exemplar PEE paragraph and then to try and write one of their own. Sometime ago I swapped the word 'explain' to 'explore' for this particular acronym. The verb 'explain' makes the pupils do just that, which often slips into re-narration of the text. The verb 'explore' or better, 'explore the language' is far more specific and leads pupils into discussing sub-text a little better, in my humble opinion.
   We re-cap what PEE means, and the exemplar paragraph is handed out. I read it with them and one lad, moans and tells me, 'I can never write something like that, I'm going to fail my Controlled Assessment'.  I insist he won't, that he may not be able to do it yet, that this is what he is working towards. He remains defeatist and that sets the not very nice tone for the lesson. Once again the whole thing seems a struggle. 

Gwen 2 - Universe 6

Although my intention was good, my exemplar paragraph had just intimidated them. I struggled once again through the lesson.  However, towards the end we begin drafting, as a class, their own PEE paragraph about Curley's Wife and her emotions at the start of Chapter 5. They were telling me what to write and how to write it. Something meaningful was rescued form the ashes of the lesson.  We don't quite complete it before the lesson finishes.

Gwen 3 - Universe 6

Friday, lesson 5, the same snake-wrangling group.

  I see them again after lunch.  Again, settling them down takes a while.  I bring up their partially completed paragraph for us to finish.  The defeatist boy is very critical. He tells me, 'But it doesn't make sense.'  
I reply with, 'Ok, which bit doesn't make sense? Make it make sense, tell me what to write.'
He rises to the challenge, telling me, 'We need to change the quotation Miss, it doesn't really work' (The quotation we have is 'she laughed' they worked out it doesn't give them much to comment on).
Another pupil joins in, telling me from memory, 'We should use, 'What's that sonny boy?'' I do so making sure he explains to us why it is better. 
I edit the paragraph according to their instructions. Some of them are getting frustrated at crossing things out, bemoaning, 'But this is going to look messy.' 
'That's fine, ' I interject, 'We have to go wrong before we go right. That's what happens when you edit.' 
I ask them, 'What is her tone of voice?' How is she speaking to Lennie?' 
Another pupil, 'Like he is a child.'  Now they are on a roll and they make comments like:
'She feels content at this moment.'
'She is content because she has found someone to talk to.'
'She can tell someone her dreams, she's not been able to do that before.'

Gwen 4 - 6 Universe

Here is the paragraph we wrote together:

When Curley’s wife appears in the barn, she feels happy that she found someone to talk to, “What’s that sonny boy?” Curley’s Wife is normally lonely and miserable. By finding Lennie, she has found someone to talk to, even though she talks to him like a little child, she is content to tell her dreams to someone because she has never been able to do that before. This also reveals that she is curious about Lennie from what she’s heard about him.

This is by no means perfect but, considering their protestations of, 'I'll never be able to write this Controlled Assessment' at the beginning of the lesson Period 1 I was mighty chuffed. According to FFT data, their target grades are Ds and Es. I tell them I am teaching to a C with the aim of doing as well as, if not better then the other half of the group.

Gwen 5 - Universe 6

The defeatist boy asks, 'Can we do one about Lennie now?' So, taking his lead, I go in the direction he takes us in and we generate a new paragraph together about Lennie, using the same technique, using questions, pausing to allow them to think, listening to their ideas, asking if it is appropriate.  As we go through this process again, I am visibly happy and enthusiastic with the class, they grow in confidence and bombard me with great suggestions. They are working with me AND each other; I praise their ideas and include as much as I can. Their ideas are often showing higher level (at least Relational, nudging towards Extended Abstract thinking). Here is our second, class generated PEE paragraph:

Gwen 6 - Universe 6

At the start of Chapter Five Lennie is buried in the hay because he feels traumatised by the death of his puppy, he cries at the puppy, “Why do you got to get killed? You ain’t so little as mice.”  Lennie’s question shows the reader that he’s confused about his emotions. This also reveals that he is frightened of the consequences of his actions. He knows that George will no longer let him tend the rabbits he would love, and that his dream will slip away from him. The reference to the size of the mice shows that his actions were involuntary.

Whilst we are ending the lesson and packing away, I can barely contain my enthusiasm and tell them, 'Look at what we can achieve when we work together!' I ask them to tell me what they have achieved this lesson, and they do. One boy, the one who was aggressive and troublesome on Wednesday, leaves apologising for his behaviour earlier on in the week and says, 'Miss, we need to show you some love don't we?' 

In my head, a myriad of party poppers exploded. We grin at each other and he leaves. 

Gwen 7 - 6 Universe

By the end of the week, as well as this teaching lark, I have completed all items on my 'to do' list bar the Yr 11 exam results analysis. I think I'll do it the night before my meeting on Wednesday. I'm not sure my morale can deal with it before then. 

Gwen 8 - 7 Universe

A win, but by the skin of my teeth. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Snake-wrangling in the Midlands

Ok, I know I said I'd focus on the Bard on this blog, but I'm female so I can be fickle. I've decided to digress again. I'll come back to Old Bill when I have more time to give him the pondering he deserves. 

So, what this time? Well, currently, my work environment is tough. I think that can be true of so many of us teachers at this moment in time. I arrived back to school in September fairly demoralised after the combined efforts of Gove and Ofqual made the two years of totally hard graft of myself and the pupils appear to mean nothing.  That was not a great start. 

In September, we began under a worrying and black cloud. At the moment, things are compounded by some tricky work politics. It would be ludicrous of me to divulge the whys and the wherefores here in such a public place, so I won't.  It is one of those times when you can often feel happiest and most content in your own classroom with the hormonal ones. It is a time when remembering the positives is absolutely vital.

Snake-wrangling? In the Midlands?

Am I having a giraffe? Well yes, trying to. 

The phrase 'snake-wrangling' was coined by a dear departed friend, Anthony Fairhurst while he was doing his English PGCE. 

He never finished it, ill health, then a sudden, fatal heart attack saw to that in May this year. 

What on earth could it refer to? A class that is 'less able' or 'challenging' or any other more pleasing to the ear euphemism.  

The thing is, we all get them on our timetables. The class that exhausts every possible teaching and behaviour weapon you have in your armory, so that you have to go off and discover some new ones (and wine). 

So, snake-wrangling, it makes perfect sense now doesn't it?

Volatile snakes.

I have introduced you to these snakes before using the word 'bonkers' in an affectionate rather than a derogatory way. They are my Year 10.  I look back on how the year began with them and I could easily crash my head on the laptop. 

I was so often faced with a barrage of hostility, or 'I can't be bovvered', or playing the 'bat the rat game' as one part of the room settled, a new 'rat' would pop up to disturb that moment of order and calm. It did not feel like I did much in the way of teaching. I'd walk out of the classroom exhausted and drained, flummoxed as to what to do; disappointed at yet another custard pie moment in the classroom.  

The snakes make progress up a ladder

This week they have delighted and surprised me in numerous ways, not all of them directly teaching or learning related. 

1. Relationships are improving

How can I tell? Well, for a start my shoulders are no longer hunched around my ears like the Honey Monster; my stomach is not permanently clenched during the lesson; my palms are less sweaty, and I rarely have to raise my voice. 

The classroom banter is the other way. I have a lad in the class I taught (this is a whole other story, but the word 'taught' is used in its most loose sense here) in Year 7 and again in Year 9. We have a bit of shared history and he can be daft as a brush, punctuated by moments of genius or, in SOLO lingo, extended abstract thinking. First, to the anecdote and the banter:

I had just nagged a couple of female students about their mobile phones, quickly, and gently and not for the first time. They were at last chance saloon time before confiscation took place. 

I also have 'wonky eyes' or a lazy eye which sometimes comes up in lessons.  They don't always know who I'm looking at, and to be frank, sometimes neither do I. 

Pupil, 'Miss?'
Me, 'Yes, JLK, what is it?'
Pupil, 'It's good that your eyes can go in different directions.  It means you can look at different parts of the classroom.'
Pause for a serious bout of laughter, then I mention, 'Well, I have really flat feet too, but they are great for swimming.'
Pupil, giggling along with me, 'See Miss, everything can be an advantage, even your wonky eyes and flat feet.'  

2. They are actually talking about their learning.

Now, this surprised me even more than our bit of banter above. The class were writing sentences using abstract nouns and connectives to describe and explain the characters emotions in Chapter 5 in Of Mice and Men.  This lesson we were focusing on Curly's Wife. The same pupil as above had one of his genius moments as the rest of the lads were joking about the word 'slag' in relation to Curley's Wife, he made this comment:

'The word 'slag' is used in engineering, It's about the bits that are not used.'
I beam back at him, 'Ah yes, you get 'slag heaps' in mining too. What do they have in common?'
Pupil, 'Neither are wanted.' [the next bit of what he said was all him] 'That's why we can use the word 'slag' when we talk about Curley's wife. She's a reject, not wanted by anyone.'

If I was sat on a chair, I would have fallen off it. 

3.From an agitated to an amiable Cobra

Another pupil joined in the conversation, I'll get to it shortly.  In Year 9 this lad could not cope with putting pen to paper; he was crippled by fear of failure; convinced he needed a TA to write for him (he doesn't) and that he was stupid (he isn't).  Consequently, he had a huge range of work avoidance tactics at his disposal, and the attention span of a gnat who had just consumed some Red Bull. 

Pupil, 'Oh yes, slag. Do you remember Lady Macbeth and 'Is this a dagger I see before me?' 
Me, 'Good grief, you just spontaneously quoted Shakespeare at me!'

Now that may not seem that profound, but are Lady Macbeth and Curley's wife that far removed from each other? Had I even instigated the conversation? Had I led them into that thought? No. It is a leap of thought, or faith, that reminds me the moment in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' when he has to make the leap of faith, to put his foot in a seemingly non-existent bridge,  so that he can make progress towards his prize. 

At the end of this lesson this same pupil asked to take his book home so he could practise writing about the characters emotions in Chapter 5, telling me he really wants to do well in his Controlled Assessment. 

How do you charm snakes?

Hmmm, we must be all of these things in the classroom: 
Fair, calm, consistent, persistent, creative, ambitious, hopeful, optimistic, enthusiastic, in every respect stubborn, positive, encouraging, funny, caring, maternal (or paternal), stern, charming and never, ever, ever let them say, 'I can't do it.' Their self-esteem is already crushingly low, teach them self-belief equally with the course content. 

Out of the classroom: make positive phone calls home and send post-cards of praise for those doing well that week. You'll need to make some not so positive phone calls home too, but keep negatives down to a minimum. Sadly, these kids are all too familiar with negative attention from adults. 

Plan as well as you can but be prepared to adapt and think on the hoof frequently.  If they are just not getting it, find a different angle and go again. 

You can't go far wrong with stickers and sweets...although not necessarily at the same time, it could get messy. 

Oh and drink wine...or real ale, or vodka and coke, whatever your happy weekend juice is. Maybe even drink wine and tweet your tweacher buddies at the same time, you could be in for an amusing and morale boosting evening.