Saturday, 23 February 2013

Blog Sync 2: Motivating Pupils and Me

Where on earth has February gone? It seems like only yesterday that we were eagerly writing our first ever Blog Sync posts and 'handing in our homework' to Christopher Waugh with eager faces, bright eyes and impossibly bushy tails.   February is a short month and boy can a lot happen in a short space of time in a school.  

Some of you may know that my current school is, after a recent inspection under the new regime, in what we can politically correctly phrase as 'trying circumstances' . Having chatted and scanned Twitter about this very topic, this is clearly not unique to me and my school. It is not a pleasant place to be and as @kevbartle has tweeted to me in his Bartle way, 'it is often darkest before the dawn.'  

Therein lies my quandary.  Being in a core subject when the OFSTED verdict on your department is, well, bad things can get very difficult in deed. 

My friends in my department and I are in what mariners would call 'the doldrums'.  The sea is flat and glassy and we feel stuck, anchored to the spot in fear of what might be if we don't 'do this' or 'do that' as instructed by 'the powers that be'.  We know much of this is to turn our slow tanker around, to push our school onwards to better things and away from category 4. However, I must add before I continue, that our not so new anymore Head Teacher absolutely knows what she is doing and is the best person to not only move us forward, but make sure we are pointing in the right direction. 

Back to the theme of the blog:  How to do as this blog post title suggest, 'motivate pupils' when you have to first deal with your own levels of motivation as you step  into that room so that you can do what you signed up to do in the first place; engage pupils in learning and loving your subject? 

Well, one of the things is to keep in my head a comment made to me by an AST in my NQT year: "Your first duty is to make your pupils love your subject."  As we sit in 'the doldrums' I think of this as I walk into my classroom.

The other big thing that keeps me motivated will be no surprise, it is Twitter.  I have eulogised about it in a post called 'Metamorphosis' which you can read here so I'll not regurgitate it in this post. It is Twitter's collaborative rabble of butterflies that has enabled me, and so my pupils, to make marginal gains in lessons which I think has motivated us in equal turn.  Therefore, the best thing for me to do now is write and reflect upon these marginal gains as fuelled by Twitter.

1. Getting my head around and trying out SOLO in my lessons. 

This was initially triggered by a @Ukedchat many moons ago; followed by reading numerous blog posts by @LearningSpy, @lisajaneashes, @ICTEvangelist and latterly @aknill. I have introduced it most successfully with my Year 13 English Language and Literature class of 5 lovely ladies. 
      I owned up to never having used it before when I introduced it to them; admitted it may all go horribly wrong at any given moment and then we gave it a whirl. The SOLO Taxonomy was grasped easily by them and they liked how visible it made their progress in lessons to them and I. This became most apparent when I recently planned a lesson using SOLO to 'round up' The Crucible. The clear stages of progression in the lesson were easily structured around the taxonomy, and combined with John Sayers Question Grid, enabled them to finally be courageous enough to articulate Extended Abstract thinking. SOLO was implicit in the structure of the lesson I'd planned and referred to intermittently throughout the lesson to show them where they were, where they are and where they were they had arrived. 
  Recent SOLO posts by @deadshelley and @LearningSpy debate how teachers should use SOLO in teaching and learning. David Didau (@LearningSpy) asks whether we need to explicitly teach the taxonomy to students and if that is necessary to use SOLO effectively in your lessons? Whereas Jamie Warner-Lynn (@deadshelley) presents 'A Case for SOLO' an enthusiastic case for the defence extolling how well both he and his students have engaged with it as a teaching and learning tool. 
  Ultimately, we are all prepared to do what ever it takes in order to see our classes succeed. If using SOLO taxonomy works for you and your pupils. in what ever way you choose to apply it, then that is the right decision. 

2. Writing better Learning Objectives

In the past I have fallen into the trap of writing a Learning Objective that is essentially a task in a lesson. Not particularly helpful for my pupils or I.  After reading David Didau's 'The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson' and sharing resources with many fantastic teachers via Dropbox, combined with the verbs associated with the SOLO taxonomy, I have begun to write more clear, focused and purposeful learning objectives.  Consequently the pupils are more readily engaged at the start of the lesson.  Here is an example of what I did for a recent lesson observation that introduced the topic, 'The Growing Pains of Poetry' to Year 8:

TBAT identify the features or  ‘_ngr_d_ _ nts’ of a poem 

TBAT ev_l_ _t_ the featIures decided at the start of the lesson.

The pupils enjoy trying to figure out the missing words in the objective and they may even get a little competitive over it. It then leads us onto clarifying what those verbs mean in the context of what we're doing and off we go! Dare I even mention it as a subtle literacy strategy? Oh I just did...

TBAT = To be able to. Something I saw in the SOLO Taxonomy network Dropbox folders. I can't remember who I magpied this from but thank you!  The verbs 'identify' and 'evaluate' are taken from the SOLO taxonomy.

Gripped by self-doubt and nerves the lesson was over-planned and didn't quite go according to plan. I didn't get the grade I wanted. However, I know my teaching and learning intentions were good even if the execution didn't quite work. 

There are, of course, many more methods to try such as David Didau's idea of showing the objectives in a series of pictures or sorting the objective into a sequence - which are the most important key words?  These are already penciled in to my mental to do list for this half term. 

3. Increasing the level of peer and self-assessment by pupils.

My school has recently re-drafted its Marking and Feedback policy as has oue department's KS3 co-ordinator.  In each case there is a greater emphasis on pupils self and peer assessing their own work, something which I have wanted my pupils to be better at for some time. 

I have started doing this in quite a simple way with a Year 9 class that is a top group, large and not terribly easy to teach.  I mark their books and sometimes I feel disappointed in some pupils lack of care and pride in their work.  Previously I have been awarding pupils effort grades for the work I see and writing this in their books, but it seemed to have little or no impact and certainly did not motivate them. 

One lesson I began with the process of pupils marking their own most recent work for effort (following the school policy 4 = Excellent and 1 = poor) making sure an explanation of why is also given. Very quickly pupils noticed when they had worked well in a lesson or not, one commenting, "I didn't have a great lesson Miss, look there's not much work." Which has at least focused them on how productive and motivated they are in a lesson.  Before the lesson ended another pupil suggested, "Next time we should swap books and mark each others."  I beamed at him proudly and made sure we did this next time. 

I have as yet, not given definitions as to what a grade 4 of Excellent actually means. This is deliberate as I would like to co-construct (thank you @headguruteacher for the term) this with them. Only be evaluating a range of work, their own and others, can they they then decide what they think 'Excellent' means and consequently work out how to achieve that each lesson. 

This was also done with a year 8 class the same week and within a lesson it was easy to see the improvement in the quality of the work from all of the pupils in the class. This is so simple, why have I not done this before?

4. Exit tickets

This also came as a result from a "Help, I have a lesson observation coming!!" chat on Twitter and a range of advice and fabulous ideas came my way from @KDWScience and @LearningSpy as I'd reached a fork in the road of the lesson plan and was stuck at how best to end the lesson. Both Karen (@KDWScience) and David Didau suggested the idea of 'exit tickets'.   This is what I did based on their suggestions for the same observed lesson mentioned above:

Exit Post-card

Write down on your post card:

Your initials in the address side of the card e.g. mine are GN

What you now know and think about the BIG idea:

 Poems always have to use the same ingredients

  • 1 QUESTION you have about the ingredients of poetry
  • Draw what you think your SOLO level is
  • Explain why
  • Give it to me as you leave

They were told their post cards would help me plan the next lesson.  This nugget of information motivated them to consider carefully what they put on their cards and showed a range of different ideas about poetry.  It also gave me a very clear idea of what I needed to do next time. 

This is just a small selection of marginal teaching and learning gains in my classroom.

Another BIG credit should go to @JOHNSAYERS whose generous sharing of his Question Grid and accompanying range of resources has improved how I have phrased questions in lessons AND with my lovable rogue of a year 10 class, motivated them to ASK questions about what we are learning during a lesson. Well, that and that they are now in teams of 'Montagues' and 'Capulets' while we are doing 'Romeo and Juliet' which they LOVE. Points are awarded for answering questions and I added for asking questions about the lesson topic which they are now doing with vim and vigour. I think I can up the ante if a pupil answers a question asked by a pupil in the lesson. Then I'll be more redundant and they'll do most of the work. Just how it should be.

 What keeps me keeping on? Well, it's best summed up by one of my favourite films, 'The Hudsucker Proxy'.

Tim Robbin's hapless character invents the hoola hoop:

He holds up his drawing proudly, with the plan view being a beautifully drawn circle; the elevated view a line.  And he says this:

Thank you for taking the time to read and if you want to read more on a similar topic carry yourself off to @Edu-Tronic's site and find many more blog sync posts:

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Questioning the question: regaining some teaching mojo

The Climax of the Crucible meets Exam Preparation

I love my Thursday mornings. Thursday morning involves an incredibly pleasant series of three back to back lessons with my Year 13 Language and Literature class (AQA Spec' B).  I have five pupils, all female, who are a delight to be in the room with and my choice of teaching 'The Crucible' could not be more apt for this group. I am most often the teacher I want to be in these lessons.  

We have reached the last few pages of The Crucible where John Proctor is tormented by the decisions that are enforced upon him; he is in conflict with himself and caught between his desire to live and his desire to tell the truth. Anyone who knows The Crucible will know that these are not compatible desires. It can only be one or the other.  

As I have already said, the girls are just lovely, but as girls are want to do, they often seem to hedge their bets and lack the conviction and courage to theorise and hypothesise (Extended Abstract thinking) about what they see in a text.  I have been using and experimenting with SOLO in these lessons and one of them often tells me how much she likes it when we do because, "I know where I am and I can see where I need to go." Cue teacher beam. 

This lesson was based entirely around questioning, but not mine, it was their ability to formulate questions I wanted to focus on.  The idea being that I could give them the means to a) unpick the exam question with confidence and b) show them how to move their thinking onto Extended Abstract  - something they have made tentative steps towards, but not quite landed in with feet fully planted. 

So, let  me run through the lesson.

Year 13 The Crucible – Act 4 Part 2
Lesson Objectives

TBAT generate lower to higher order questions about the sample exam question
TBAT to reformulate questions to enable you to produce an Extented Abstract response
TBAT use the generated questions to plan and organise your response to a sample exam Q 

We began the lesson by looking at a sample question I had compiled:

Explore the ways in which Miller uses literary, linguistic and rhetorical devices in order to create specific dramatic effects in his portrayal of character relationships in this passage? (pg 108-9)

The wording of the question does not alter a great deal except for the 'steer' which is highlighted in bold.  The page number refers to a short section of dialogue where Proctor is asking Elizabeth what he should do.  I thought it was a pertinent choice because, as typical thematic issue in 'The Crucible' is that established hierarchies are tipped over and trampled on (Proctor is asking his wife what to do, not telling here), the language's sub-text references the themes of honesty, dishonesty and theocracy in the play and the reversal of hierarchy between Proctor and his wife enable students to bring in theories like Lakoff and Grice. 

We discussed the wording of the question, which we have done several times, and knew they had to use the 'steer' to focus their discussion of linguistic features in the extract.  They then had to do the following:

Write the question down on A3 paper and surround it with questions that this question provokes. What do you need to find out in order to answer this question?

The girls did as instructed, and began scanning the relevant pages to see what they could see.  Here the cunning plan fell down a little. They were nervous of writing down questions, worried about doing it wrong which meant I needed to prompt them with some ideas e.g. 'What IS the relationship of the characters in this scene?'  A deliberately simple question whilst telling them it is no problem to write simple questions or ones that deal with the blindingly obvious. Examiners are not mind-readers, the blindingly obvious has its uses. They then felt more able to write their own questions, even if tentatively. 

We then read to the end of the play discussing language features as we noticed them - here it was mostly them doing this rather than me and the girls then felt able to ask questions of the text as we read.  More time was given to then add questions to their A3 sheet. We shared these amongst ourselves and each added to their range of questions about the exam question.  They were generating an essay plan and they didn't really know it! 

The pedagogy of Twitter

The next part of the lessons is largely down to Twitter and the marvellous @JOHNSAYERS.  A while ago, after a Twitter #eyelashflutter or two,  he'd emailed me his magnificent question grid and question cards.  If you have a read of his post on questioning here you'll get an idea of this fella's genius and generosity. And here is a crudely copied and pasted version of his grid. 

Question Grid







I showed the girls this grid explaining the difference between higher order and lower order thinking and questionning.  They then had to assess the question they'd already written, working out which were higher, middle or lower order thinking.   Whilst doing so they were able to recognise when notes they had made in the response to their own questions were lower or higher order thinking.  Here their learning, or the more Ofsted friendly term 'progress' is made very visible to them.

Visible learning: progress, progress, progress

Once this was done, I asked them to choose which questions to re-formulate using John's grid. 
E.g. One pupil's original question was:

What is the explicit and implicit meaning of the conversation between Proctor and Elizabeth?  

Now, I'll be honest, I was quite chuffed with the question as it was because she was already thinking about the layers of meaning within the language AND focusing her idea on the steer of the exam question, but she re-formulated it anyway to:

How might the explicit and implicit meaning of the conversation between Proctor and Elizabeth be interpreted by the audience? 

I have a 'Learning Wall' display in my classroom which has the SOLO symbols and verbs at its heart, which I often refer to through out the lesson.  After this question was formulated, I could show them that their response to it would require them to hypothesise and theorise - creating an Extended Abstract response to the exam question.  

Once this had been made explicit to the class, all were able to confidently re-formulate their questions, sharing them with each other and happy in the knowledge they'd pushed themselves onto Extended Abstract thinking by the end of the lesson.   

Even more noticeable, as the lesson progressed, they were the ones generating questions verbally, e.g."Would Lakoff's theory be applicable here Miss?"  
Which I of course re-buff with a, "Explain why you think so." And she did, confidently.

On their sheet of A3 were a comprehensive set of challenging questions they had generated themselves; notes they had made on how to respond to these questions and relevant quotations.  An essay plan.  Now, imagine, if I'd began the lesson explicitly using the phrase 'essay plan' in my Lesson Objectives you can just imagine the excitement on their little faces can't you? But, they looked at their sheet full of notes and questions and said, "Essay due in next week Miss?".  

We finished a happy band of teacher and pupils, because it felt like many weeks and months of work on the play, linguistic terms, language analysis, application of theory; HOW they are learning had culminated together all at the right time.  The use of SOLO and John's question grid combined together beautifully to help them make real progress in the lesson and they were delighted to know they had reached the Extended Abstract thinking stage of SOLO. They had really demonstrated noticeable confidence in themselves as learners. 

Now, I wonder what kind of grading this lesson would get? *bites nails*

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Breaking blogger's block

I've had blogger's block for a while. At least blogging about my teaching. After two, not the grade I would have wanted, lesson observations (Ofsted and Performance Management) my confidence had been knocked, battered and bruised. Impostor syndrome looms large over me. Who the heck am I to advise others about teaching? Who DO I think I am?

But, maybe, just maybe the merest of corners has been turned and this is down to something that happened whilst I wasn't in school last Friday afternoon.

Context of my anecdote:
To cut a long story short, I have a doctor's note for reduced hours and work load (black dog combined with an Ofsted report that graded us 'serious weaknesses' does not a healthy Gwennie make), so I am currently leaving school at lunch. This leaves two lessons to be covered on a Friday, and with that doctor's note, there was a bit of confusion, with me at least, as to who was doing what regarding the cover. Acting with conscientious intent, I provided cover work, just in case. 

One of these lessons involves what I affectionately call my 'snake wrangling' Year 10s. I have them twice that day and had already taught them Period 1 that morning. We'd started my version of 'The Reduced Shakespeare Company Romeo and Juliet' - I'd condensed the play onto two sides of A4, adapted from a postcard from The RSC.

I gave a copy of this condensed version to our wonderfulness personified supply teacher and the class were to: 1. Read it through, in roles they decided last lesson, seated. 2. For each character part, highlight the words that show emotions, annotate their dialogue with abstract nouns (emotion words as I call them with that class) and use that to work out how their parts should be acted. 3. The designated directors to begin directing the play section by section the actors using their notes to aid the director.

The anecdote
Yes, 'practical' work in a cover lesson, was perhaps a gamble, but they'd asked to do drama for Shakespeare.  They suggested it, so 'Be brave' I thought. 'Trust them.' I persuaded myself, 'Be a bit co-constuctiony with them.' I'd tried to do it in a way that will only lead to a limited amount of time out of seats. I told the supply teacher, 'If you don't think they're in the right frame of mind to be out of seats, keep them seated.'

Yet something went horribly wrong.  One of the girls, who it would be fair to say has anger issues, totally lost it in the lesson. I'll not describe in detail what happened, as I don't want to bring my school into disrepute  - things are tough enough as it is - but I shall hint at the extent of the chaos.  In total, 7 members of staff came into the room. All at the same time? I don't know. Included in that list were the Head of Faculty, two Deputy Heads and a Pastoral manager (a non-teaching year head). The awfulness of the situation has been described to me more than once.

Now, oddly this has made me realise some important things about this group.  They have NEVER once behaved like that with me in the room. Yes, they have used every work avoidance tactic known to pupil-kind; yes, they have entered vibrating on the ceiling after witnessing a fight before the lesson; yes, sometimes they swear and their language would make a convent of nuns blush; yes, they are welded to their coats and their mobile phones are practically part of their anatomy; yes, they totally exhaust me; yes they are lovable rogues; so yes, despite all these difficulties and challenges in our classroom they have never shown aggression to that level, in that room with me present.

I often come out of their lessons feeling defeated; feeling guilty that they have not learned enough; that we aren't making enough progress quick enough; that I can't manage their behaviour.

But, but, but. There was no TA with me (there used to be, but I think the Pupil Premium has altered where our TAs go and why); there has just been me and them. There has not been a hyper-drive of descent into chaos and aggression with it being just us. Me and them.  What does that tell me about my teaching-self?  Perhaps, I'm not as bad as I think, just perhaps.


This morning, Period 1 I had planned, and more importantly, got to deliver a whole lesson with them on Shakespeare's rude language in Act 1 Scene 1. 

I asked pupils to scan the extract while I was setting up a YouTube clip to watch and it didn't take them long to find some suggestive language once I'd clarified what I'd meant by 'rude language', in short, 'References to sex' is what I bluntly called it. 

I'd asked them to find certain words and then repetition of them, one of the being 'stand'.  
"What on earth is that referring to?" I posed to the class
A slight embarrassed silence followed. 
One of my best prospects of a C said, coyly, "The bits below the waist Miss."
"Yes, good!" I replied enthusiastically, "Now, how do those bits below the waist, erm, behave? What happens to them?"
The boys smile, the girls giggle and some coy euphemisms follow combined with a 'you couldn't make this up' comment from a pupil.
"It's erm, when you're happy." suggested one of my best prospects of a C.
"What?" said another lad, who has ASD and one of my most interesting characters, "Playing Fifa?" 

My composure crumbled and once returned I told the young man he had made my week and thanked him for making me laugh.
Back to the lesson, composure is back in place. 
"So," I ask the class hopefully, "Is no one going to say the word that needs, to be said? MUST I say it?"
Silence. Dramatic pause. "Ok then, they're talking about their erections, they're being boastful about how great they are with women. Is that anything unusual when it comes to blokey conversation?" 
"No Miss, of course not." they respond.

Towards the end of the lesson I show them pictures of The Globe full of groundlings and I ask them why Shakespeare makes the character's be rude and crude at the start of the play. Yes, dear reader, they knew why.

I point out that they had a whole lesson discussing Shakespeare's language, and asked them what they thought, "Well Miss, it wasn't really that difficult was it?" replied my best prospect of a C.

#pedagoofriday moment if ever there was one.