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. 

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