Tuesday, 18 February 2014

ICAN and Teacher Talk, or, 'How I overcame my fear of silence.'

For those of you who haven't heard of ICAN before (like I hadn't a few months ago), it is an initiative designed to encourage young people's ability to communicate. Within schools, it helps teachers to identify ways of improving their communication with students.

Now, to vitiate the words of Jane Austen: it is a truth, universally accepted, that a teacher, in possession of a class, can talk the hind legs off a horse. The truth is, we love to talk. But it's more than that: we're TERRIFIED of silence. We've all had that hideous moment during an observation lesson where you've asked the class a question and, in response, you get thirty blank, expressionless faces staring at you as if you've just suddenly started speaking in Ancient Greek. That sweaty-palms instance when two or three seconds has ticked by and there hasn't even been as much as a slight stirring as one girl adjusts her ponytail. It is mortifying - worse even still if you're asking it as part of a plenary, but that's an entirely different blog post!! Silence is to teachers what missing a penalty in the semi-finals of the World Cup is to a footballer: soul crushing.

However, the truth of the matter is that SILENCE IS GOOD. Sometimes.

When attending a course on how to make every lesson outstanding last year, courtesy of the brilliant Claire Gadsby, one of the best tips I came away with was to wait for a solid three seconds before jumping in with a clue or to paraphrase the original question. The research shows that by waiting for those three (ghastly) seconds, you are much more likely to receive an answer which shows thought and depth and is far more creditable than the usual 'erm...is it....a simile?' type response. Therefore, silence does not need to equate to a lack of understanding but, rather, it could mean that students are putting thought into their answers.

Equally, silence can be a bad thing too. A silent classroom is not always a positive thing. Long gone are the days when it was acceptable for a teacher to say 'copy out pages 18 and 19' and rightly so - we're educating people, after all, not parrots. Students cannot be passive in their learning; it should be busy, interactive, exciting, engaging and fulfilling. If it's not, then it does, at least, need to be independent.

A noisy classroom can take one of two paths: anarchy or action. It can be a true test of your behaviour management skills to carry out a noisy lesson because students can, sometimes, go completely off the rails given half the chance. If, however, that noise is productive then is there any harm in it? Drama lessons being the immediate example that spring to mind. How can students be independent inquirers, active participators, or creative thinkers if the activity is prescribed and dictated to them?

One of my performance management targets this year was to carry out my department's ICAN research and to try and implement improved ways of using teacher talk. Obviously, it is impossible to carry out every lesson, all lesson without saying a single word (although, conversely, I am going to try and do that this half term) but it is possible to use speech more effectively. A new favourite thing of mine is, when I'm asked a question, I refer it to the class or, better still, to another student - perhaps one who asked me the same question and received a comprehensive answer just a few minutes beforehand. When introducing a new topic, it's good practice to assess the class' understanding to avoid repeating learning so why not utilise those students and get them to introduce the basic idea behind complex sentences, for example? When planning a particular task, I now often ask myself how I can make students be more 'hands on' for it. Could one of them lead the task? Could one of them feedback their findings to the rest of the class? Could one of them be in charge of finding out answers without relying on asking me? Could one of them conduct a peer assessment of their group?

The possibilities are quite literally endless when you just loosen that grip on the reigns even just the tiniest bit.

Exciting, isn't it? Silence does not need to be your enemy and nor does your overwhelming urge to fill it up with unnecessary words. Consciously trying not to give them the answer when it's been longer than 3 seconds is exhilarating - especially when it pays off and suddenly a student's hand goes up and their response is 'I think the poet is using a simile here to help the reader understand how the boy feels' because it's confident, they're communicative, and it shows a depth of thought that you had previously assumed little Connor incapable of!!

Independent learning is a term bandied about by Ofsted and, in turn, SLT but it doesn't require copious amounts of post-it notes or hours of resource making; all it needs is three seconds and nerves of steel.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Schoooooool's out for summer!

And so we find ourselves at another summer holiday, thank goodness! It has been a varied year for me and I thought I'd reflect a bit on how it's gone for me.

It has been a year of real highs and lows. Arguably, my greatest improvement this year has been my approach - it is more refined, relaxed, and reliable. I don't worry about performance as much now since it feels so much more natural to me. I think this has best been reflected by the response I've had from the more renowned students in my classes: upon finding out I was leaving, one young lady reacted with, "Oh what?! You're leaving?! But I've actually been going to English this year - I barely went at all last year!!" In practice, I'm not sure what exactly it is she thinks she's been doing (she's been attending on and off but I've got one and a half assessments from her in between her visits to isolation and wherever the smokers go!), but the comment really did make me feel appreciated. I've had a Head of Year comment on how much one little tearaway likes me and how impeccable his behaviour is with me, compared to all of his other teachers (to be fair, this little one became one of my favourites this year - he was gobby but really rather sweet too... *whispers* on the quiet...). I've had various comments from parents too: one Year 8 whose Mum has been known to strike fear in the heart of some teachers informed me that her son thinks that I'm "right up there" and I was delighted to be able to say I thought the same of him; another parent bothered to email me and thank me for the time spent helping her daughter this year and how disappointed they both were that I was leaving but wished me all the best. Let's face it, these are the best things about teaching - it is these moments that keep us going through the boring department meetings, the CPD session that heralds the latest fad as 'the way forward' for the third time that term, or the times when the little darlings kick off and call you a horrible name... Still, totally worth it!

It was pointed out that my marking was an issue this year. I'm all for constructive criticism and I feel like, although I was really upset at the time, I learnt A LOT as a result from the outcome. I carried out a book monitoring activity for my department which allowed me to see the best and worst practice from my colleagues. The biggest thing I learnt was to write less and write smarter. My marking comments now focus more on level-based targets, feature higher amounts of praise, and encourage responses and interaction with students. I attended a training day in London on how to ensure every lesson is outstanding and learnt a lot of new marking techniques there too:

The Purple Pen of Progress: Students have time to go through and review my marking. Using purple pens, they go through and make changes and improvements to their work, as per my comments. The use of the purple pen allows everyone to see exactly where and what improvements have been made.

Bingo Markers: How many of you are sick of writing 'When do we use capital letters?' or 'Don't forget to use a full stop!'? Seriously, I could have retired ages ago if I had a pound for every time I had to write something like that. So now, I use bingo markers. Each colour represents a different basic literacy problem: sentence structure, punctuation, spelling etc. and then the kids have to go through their work and really interact with what it means. They can't just skim read and ignore what they don't care about.

So, in short, it has been a year of two halves. Lots more than just this has happened, obviously, but these are the two that really stick in my mind. How has your year gone - what advice could you pass on from what you've learnt?!

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Gifted & Talented: Failing & Troubled.

Hello! First and foremost, I'd like to apologise for not posting on this blog for nearly six months; it's been a hard year so far plagued with illness and misfortune and it's left my confidence re. teaching at a bit of a low. However, in the last few weeks, I've felt my spark returning after securing a new job and having so many supporters coming out of the woodwork. It's been a fantastic few weeks and I'm super excited about September now!

Earlier this year, I was asked to represent my department in terms of the school's Gifted & Talented provision. I'll be honest, what with everything that's gone on this year, it slipped further and further down my To Do list. However, I have been conducting research and have found it to be a fascinating subject. It is startling how little provision appears to be properly in place for these children and how little we understand them as individuals and their needs.

The bottom line is that we, as educators, do not understand what it means to make strong provision for gifted and talented children. Firstly, it is important to recognise that 'gifted' is generally a term attached to those who are academically accomplished, whereas 'talented' refers to those who are musically, physically and creatively able. However, whilst these terms have been used to describe whole groups of children who fit into these categories, it is hugely important to note that these children are all individuals and cannot be provided for under generic policies. Ofsted state that, in terms of gifted and talented educating, the best schools are those who create personalised provision for students' needs and who develop a unique policy to handle this. They also comment that a significant number of schools are not only coming up with generic policies which are just bastardised from either the LEA or other local schools, but that it would seem the vast majority of educators are completely unaware of WHAT a gifted and talented child is, and HOW to provide for them.

There are a number of fallacies concerning the G&T child which teachers tend to fall for, myself included. The main one being that these children will succeed and learn regardless of what input the teacher makes. That's not to say that we aren't trying because of course we are, but it is also our responsibility to ensure that every child reaches their potential. We are exceptional at making sure that the lowest end of students' needs is being met but it seems that many schools are failing to do that for the top end of students. Whilst it is fair to say that the gifted child can absorb learning from nearly anywhere - one document going so far as to say they get it even from the air - but the simple fact remains that this does not mean that they are able to fully reach their potential without the guidance and support of teachers, like every other child in the classroom. If they were, we'd be out of a job - it's not just about the passing on of knowledge; it's about supporting students to learn to learn as well. It is fair to say that these children will do well, most of the time, but they cannot possibly reach their full potential and therein lies the difference.

Another is the idea that gifted and talented children will come from 'nice' families where education is prized and personal development is encouraged. However, in this day and age where we rely heavily on data analysis and damning reports like the Fischer Family Trust, it is important to recognise that not every intelligent person has come from superior beginnings. One example which really caught my attention was Lisa Simpson: she is both gifted and talented - her academic achievements are astounding and her musical talent borders on the prodigious and yet she comes from a family where her father is of low intelligence, her mother lacks real life experience, and her siblings don't display any greater than average intelligence; even her school provision is extremely poor. However, she endeavours to prosper nonetheless. Not all gifted children will be able to do this; many will lack the confidence to even recognise their strengths and often their behaviour can suffer in school as a result. They are often bored, restless, restricted and frustrated by the confines of the curriculum. Ken Robinson cites the example of the little girl whose school felt had ADHD but, with some support, grew up to become one of the world's greatest ballerinas - her energy was because she had a physical intelligence (Gardner) and it wasn't being catered to.

In short, schools are massively missing out on working with these kids whose abilities can actively help to raise results across the board; if the teacher is tapping into their talent and challenging the whole class as a result, then it's not just the G&T kids who benefit. Many schools currently have G&T school trips and see this as their main provision whereas, in practice, these kids need constant reinforcement in every lesson of every day.

I'll be working really hard to improve my own practice now that I've made this realisation. I've always attempted to do my best for the brighter kids but I see where my failings have been now. I'll be posting updates about mine and the kids' progress on here. I'm hoping that I'll be updating more often again too; lots of new, exciting things on the horizon!!

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

GAT Teaching Strategies

Another day, another step towards world domination... Well, outstanding teaching, at any rate. What? I can dream.

There was a CPD session run after school tonight focusing on the teaching of Gifted, Able & Talented (GAT) students. The session resulted in a really positive buzz in the room and I've come away with lots of ideas and a renewed desire to challenge all of my students.

The feedback I often get is that there needs to be more independence, more challenge, more risks, improved questioning etc. All the things that will begin pushing my teaching up towards the outstanding bracket. This CPD session tonight allowed me to think more broadly about how I can implement this. It also gave me some ideas on how to get the kids up and out of their seats more. I really must shake the idea that they all need to be sat down for there to be order.

The speaker focused his discussion on six 'cornerstones' of GAT teaching:

1. Thinking Skills

This focused on the idea of improving the students' ability to THINK for themselves, as opposed to just retaining and regurgitating information. The ability to memorise facts does not have many real-world applications; the ability to think for yourself does. We discussed the idea of it being okay to be wrong and how the thinking process is more important than getting it right. He cited DeBono's Thinking Hats as a key part of this cornerstone as it allows the individual learner to explore an idea from a comfortable thinking style whilst also allowing the teacher to facilitate their learning by encouraging them to step outside of their comfort zone.

2. Creativity

If you haven't done already, check out Ken Robinson's TED speech here:

His basic argument is that, as we age, creativity has a less and less important impetus placed upon it. He's right. The argument being that creativity and literacy should be given an equal billing within the curriculum. The speaker tonight said that Robinson doesn't argue for creativity to be viewed as more important but, rather, like a bath, the two should be "mixed together with a few colourful ducks thrown in too." I enjoyed that analogy. Creativity does not need to just be about painting or drawing, it's about the ability to think of new ideas. We don't think of great scientific minds as being 'creative' per se, but without their ability to think outside of the box and ask creative questions, we wouldn't have advanced anywhere near as far as we have. Ergo, creativity MUST be given more value within our lessons.

3. Intelligence

GAT students must have some level of intelligence: it goes without saying. However, the speaker tonight discussed the different types of intelligence and discussed Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences (PGCE flashback, anyone?). Gardner states that there are 8.5 types of intelligence: logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential (which is the half). The argument being that we all bring different strengths to the table: a talented sportsman is more than just a fit individual; he is also able to interpret a playing field, read a situation, second guess his opponent etc. which all require a certain type of intelligence. Where is it written that intelligence must be represented by performance in a written test?

4. Mindset

It is suggested that 47% of us believe that our intelligence and ability is fixed and unable to be altered. 43% disagree and believe that anyone can improve their level of intelligence or success through active development. The former demographic are referred to as a 'fixed mindset' with the latter being known as a 'growth mindset.' Worryingly, this mindset is thought to be established by the age of three (!) through the expectations laid out by our parents. The advice to teachers is to praise students for their level of effort, rather than their intelligence. By praising achievement or intelligence, we are effectively limiting their success potential whilst also establishing the idea that if they don't get the next task correct then they have failed completely. By praising effort, it encourages someone to always try their best and to develop resilience.

5. Enquiry

The key word here is 'facilitate.' Students should develop a love of learning, a desire to ask questions, a naturally inquisitive approach to life. Questions are always the best starting point for discovering something new or stumbling upon a potentially revolutionary idea. If nobody had asked 'Why don't we fly off into the sky?' then we wouldn't understand gravity; if nobody had said 'Hey, why can't women be educated and given a crack at the whip too?' then I probably wouldn't be writing this blog now. Questioning things is how society evolves and if we don't nurture that idea in students then society will cease to develop and we will be stuck in a world without hover cars and stuff. Nobody wants that.

6. Character

I found myself immediately linking this last cornerstone to the ideas behind SEAL and PLTS: Paul Tough argues that certain aspects of a child's character will naturally allow them to improve their achievement and level of engagement with learning and thinking. These traits are hardly groundbreaking ideas: perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism, curiosity, and self-discipline. Combined, these traits allow a student to learn and achieve their potential. We've all used the 'but last week you did it brilliantly so you CAN do it' party line with students but this takes that to its extreme. It's important that we develop these traits in students to enable all of the above to have an impact at all. In a way, this links to the earlier discussion of mindset too: if we can 'break' their programming and encourage them to realise that they CAN grow then we're on to a winner.

In short, the discussion was excellent and there were a whole host of activity ideas too which I'll try in the coming weeks and feedback on.

Just to finish up, I wanted to show off my new favourite thing to use: colourful boxes (which I did make myself: thanks a lot, GCSE Graphics) as a plenary to assess their learning in the lesson. It's hardly groundbreaking but it's new to me and the kids seem to like it a lot too:

This was from a Year 10 lesson this morning that went to smoothly. I love those lessons... Nobody put their post-it note in the red box!

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Recent Developments

The past fortnight has been quite a hectic one at work, for one reason or another. This week was really the icing on the cake though with TWO observations, a seemingly endless pile of books to mark, plus a number of developments which are exciting!

The first observation was with an external schools adviser who, notoriously, is a harsh marker. I was pre-warned and so I wasn't expecting miracles. I was given a 3+ which, initially, I was a bit disappointed with but quickly realised that it could of been a lot worse. I was complimented on my control of the class (my Year 9's - nothing short of miraculous!!) and praised on my relationship with students but was told I had to be riskier and make it more challenging. Which, annoyingly, I tend to try and do as much as possible in my lessons. I suspect I allowed her reputation to sway me into a 'playing it safe' zone and I'm a bit annoyed with myself for it, if I'm honest. However, it was all valuable feedback and, when Ofsted return, I'm more convinced than ever to plan all risky lessons and throw caution to the wind. It will either pay off or I'll be on the dole; regardless, it's my plan.

The second observation was a line management one which I spent four hours planning last Thursday (it was postponed due to the snow). I got a 2, which I was happy with. My overall aim is to become an outstanding teacher and there were elements of the lesson which were edging towards that grading so, I was pleased. I don't expect to achieve outstanding immediately and recognise that it's something I need to work towards. I'm on the right track and have begun doing research into what it takes, and hope to organise some observations of my own with teachers who already are outstanding. A lot of the feedback I got from this lesson was things that will naturally change as I gain more experience but I'm also learning that I need to play out activities in my head to see them right through to their full eventuality. I'm hoping that the more familiar I become with outstanding lessons, the more I'll begin to naturally think in that way.

So, my current targets are:

1. Become more and more comfortable with riskier lessons.

2. Experiment with using music as a 'do now' task at the start of my lessons.

3. Observe some outstanding teaching.

I'm also enrolled to attend a day course in London in March which will focus on ensuring all my lessons are outstanding.

Onwards and upwards!!

Friday, 18 January 2013

Outstanding Effort

It's been over a month since my last blog post and I feel as though I've been remiss. So, I'm blogging. I can hear you all breathe a sigh of relief from here...

I was supposed to be observed today but because of the snow and general chaos it threw the school into today, I wasn't. That's okay though because I have an awesome lesson plan sat, waiting for next Friday Period 5. I did spend quite a long time fretting about this lesson plan though because I've been consistently graded as 'good' for quite some time and I fancy pushing myself up to 'outstanding' as my next challenge.

I'm one of those annoying people who always needs an aim to achieve and so, this academic year, I'm going to make that aim to be outstanding.

However, I spent 4 hours preparing this lesson last night so, y'know, I might need to become a bit quicker at being outstanding. Life is short and four hours per lesson means I might just make next Friday by the time I'm 78.

The lesson itself is going to discuss the value of newspapers. It's a lesson I enjoy teaching because I think it's important that, as an English teacher, I'm arming my students with the ability to see through the nonsense the media like to thrust at us every day. This lesson will be a precursor to discussing specific articles' values and then explore how true their portrayal of events are. It's fun because I get to slate newspapers and I like doing that.

After doing some research online, there seemed to be three key words associated with an outstanding lesson: choice, collaboration, and challenge. So, the lesson is built around various tasks which allows students to pick their own learning path (pause for moment to cringe at use of this phrase) whilst working in groups (designed to meet their learning style needs), whilst offering a big enough challenge to suitably stretch them. 'Fancy' I hear you say. I know.

I really dithered over this and I'm probably attempting to use a bit of humour to cover up the fact that I'm a bit scared to be wading into territory unknown. Admittedly, a lot of the 'outstanding' stuff I read about is stuff I already do but have tweaked them to try and improve their efficiency in the lesson. Given that I've now been given a week's grace too, I fully intend to try and implement some of these ideas throughout lessons this week to try and hone my use of them. Still a bit nervous though.

Better still, I have another observation on Thursday with an outside adviser and a member of SLT. So, next week, what with Year 9 reports due too, will be really, truly brilliant* I'm sure.

Anyway, I'm feeling quietly confident and pleased that I am at least trying to improve on my teaching so, watch this space, I'll let you know how it goes!


Saturday, 15 December 2012

Year 10: an update.

In other news, I am so proud of the change in attitude my Year 10 class have had since my last post about them.

With three and a half weeks to go until the end of term, I was suddenly struck by the sheer volume of work we had left to do. We still needed to finish annotating the scenes from Romeo & Juliet, we needed to watch the film and make notes about the relevant scenes (a crucial part of the assessment), we needed to carry out a mock, create sound assessment plans and then actually do the assessment. I also needed to mark the mocks to give some feedback to them before the assessment. I panicked. I explained to them. They panicked. Then we pulled together.

Some of the lessons did end up being a bit of a lecture, which I could be happier about but it just became about getting the job done, rather than flowery approaches. The kids seemed to respond well too and they really got their heads down and tackled the work head on. We had several lessons where I encouraged them to work together, use the computers, and make their own interpretations and the notes from the film were largely their own thinking too. They have done brilliantly and I don't feel anywhere near as nervous about the actual assessment as I did last time.

I feel really proud of them; they've stepped up to the plate and taken on quite a mammoth task. Their essay writing skills are the only issue but we did some major troubleshooting of that this week and I'm hoping that some of it will have gone in. There's only one or two who I'm not 100% confident of but I'm hoping that there will be a much higher percentage of them getting into Band 4/5 this time.

It's a learning process for me too. Last year, my classes were all Key Stage 3 and so I am a bit rusty when it comes to GCSE. However, I feel like I and my Year 10 beauties have hit our stride with this work. So, keep your fingers crossed that the assessments show this to be true!!