SSAT National English Conference

SSAT English Conference – Friday 7th February, 2014 at Hilton Kensington Olympia. 

The 5:27am train from Liverpool to London Euston is a strange beast. It doesn’t really get full until it hits the commuter-belt of Milton Keynes. In fact, it is almost deserted as it pulls out of Liverpool’s Lime Street station and I’m willing to bet I’m the only passenger who is taking her early morning coffee with a generous side-helping of A Level Literature essays….

So, why was I up and London-bound at such an unearthly hour? To attend the SSAT’s annual English Conference.

I was alerted to the conference by my Deputy Head prior to Christmas. At the moment there seems to be a dearth of courses run by training companies promising enlightenment about all things ‘new curriculum’. This seemed different; not only would there be a discussion about curriculum design, but also a chance to attend some practical workshops delivered by outstanding English practitioners and a keynote from Ofsted’s National Lead for English and Literacy, Patricia Metham. It’s difficult to get out of school in the run up to exams, so if I was going to miss my classes for a day then I wanted it to be for a worthy cause. I’m heartily glad I was allowed to attend.

And I don’t regret the early start*.

The day began with a keynote speech from Patricia Metham, HMI & Lead for English and Literacy. I appreciated the clear distinction between English and Literacy. She pointed out that too often, the two are seen as synonymous. So, what is literacy? It is a set of non-negotiable skills; it is NOT the sole preserve of the English department and it should be a focus across the school.” So that’s everyone told then!

It was reassuring to hear that Ofsted’s main question is always: “what is the impact on students’ learning?” I felt that this gave me a good standpoint from which to review my own department’s practices. Metham kept coming back to key questions: “where is the evidence?” and “what is the impact?” I can feel my departmental self-evaluation becoming a lot more focused!

And so we moved onto the subject of school libraries. Ah yes, the ‘library’ which is all too often a glorified computer room with books. Or possibly worse, as Patricia Metham anecdotally shared from one school’s inspection: “the room you get sent to if you’re in trouble.” The school library should be at the heart of a school’s drive to improve literacy. She said Ofsted will ask:

  • Do you have a school library?
  • Where is it?
  • Who is responsible for it?
  • How is it used?
  • What works well?

And then, something which might install equal parts joy and dread into the hearts of many English teachers, Ms Metham said:

“I want to put any school without a library in special measures immediately… but unfortunately I am just not allowed to.”

All in all, I found the speech to be full of thought-provoking ideas. I appreciated the insight into the Ofsted Inspector’s focuses and priorities. In short, reading matters, writing matters and speaking and listening matters. Build them in to your curriculum in a balanced way and whatever you do, be able to evidence its impact on your students.

Next, I opted for the workshop on Outstanding English Subject Inspections, delivered by Emma Speed from Belvedere Academy in Liverpool. Emma spoke candidly about the subject inspection process, from the initial receiving of the letter to the final judgement conversation. Her delivery was warm and humorous. It was good to hear from someone who had been through the process and survived. As someone who is currently an Acting Curriculum Leader, it also gave me a few ideas about what we need to do to ensure that not only are we are inspection-ready, but that we are moving forward as a department. No time to stand still!

My second workshop was Raising achievement at KS4 level and how to use data effectively to improve performance. Delivered by Tom Street, the Director of Achievement for English at Harris Chafford Hundred Academy in Essex. Tom talked us through the many measures his team have in place to deliver excellent results. (And when I say excellent, I mean it: 100% A*-C in GCSE English last year.) At times, his outlook seemed to run contrary to much of what Patricia Metham had said, particularly when she warned against too much teaching-to-the-test in KS3. However it was hard to argue against the rigour and single-mindedness of Tom’s approach and the resulting outcomes for his pupils.

After lunch, we were treated to a presentation from Fiona Banks of Shakespeare’s Globe. It looked at ways of creatively teaching Shakespeare to ensure that students “have Shakespeare’s words in their mouths and their bodies.” (Fiona was supported by a professional actor who led the practical activities but whose name I have, regrettably, not noted. She was fantastic.)

I’ll admit to some initial scepticism, given the limitations that a classroom environment can potentially bring to teaching drama. These were completely unfounded; Fiona’s approach was tailored specifically to classroom-friendly activities which still felt much more appropriately ‘theatrical’ than your usual written analysis. I will be taking back these ideas to my department and hope to build them in to our future programmes of study. And let’s be honest, channelling one’s inner ‘luvvie’ is always fun. We English teachers are often frustrated thespians, after all. (No? Oh. Just me then!)

Next up was Tom Middlehurst, Head of Research at SSAT and former English teacher, who gave a presentation entitled: “Principled Curriculum Design.” I’ll admit that this is where my worries lie at the moment. How do I translate the new national curriculum and GCSE proposals into that innovative and appropriate curriculum Patricia Metham spoke of? Tom asked us to describe the landscape for a Head of English at the moment. The answers were poignantly revealing but reassuring, because yes it does feel uncertain and stormy out there for all of us. So it is important we get this bit right.

After some discussion of “a world after levels” and the new Progress 8 and Attainment 8 measures, Tom spoke about Dylan Willam’s approach to ‘principled’ curriculum design. I felt this was as good a checklist as any to apply to curriculum planning:

  • Balanced
  • Rigorous
  • Coherent
  • Vertically Integrated
  • Appropriate
  • Focused
  • Relevant

I particularly like the idea of how to achieve focus. William advises asking what are the ’10 big ideas’ in your subject? Once you have decided on them, then build your curriculum around them. If it’s not related to one of those ten ideas, then it doesn’t need to be there. I’ll be going away and looking at this in more detail. (William has written a pamphlet for the SSAT on the subject. Worth a look, I’d say.)

There was a chance to have a chat to all of the speakers and workshop leaders in a series of round table discussions at the end of the day. All-in-all, it was a great chance to meet with other practitioners and get some fantastic ideas.

What will I take away from the day?

  • Departmental focus: I am planning a half-term departmental review based around the Belvedere subject inspection presentation: where are we now and what do we need to do?
  • GCSE focus: My Head Teacher and I have already discussed many of the ideas in the Harris Academy presentation. Time to make some changes, methinks!
  • School libraries matter: a great message to be able to take back to my school with the “but-Ofsted-said-so” seal of approval!
  • Curriculum design: I will be discussing this with the department and seeing what we feel the ’10 big ideas’ are. From there, we will begin to plan for our new curriculum.
  • Creative approaches to Shakespeare: Year 9 are about to start Shakespeare post half-term so I will be disseminating some of the activity ideas presented by The Globe to the department.
  • Renewed enthusiasm: it’s always good to be reminded of my passion for English.

My head was filled with ideas and questions and, despite the inevitable tiredness caused by my early start, I left feeling invigorated by the challenges ahead. It’s an exciting time to be a teacher of English. Daunting, yes, but exciting too. As Patricia Metham said: “with freedom comes accountability” and I am looking forward to being  a part of that.

Thanks to all at Team SSAT for organising and to the presenters for giving up your time. I certainly hope to attend future conferences.

(* Well, I don’t regret it much anyway!)

Daisy Christodoulou at #TLAB13

Grammar: the domain of pedants or necessary and vital for our students?

As an English teacher I have a confession to make… I find teaching grammar really hard. In fact, I’m not sure I do it very well.

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Having listened to Daisy Christodoulou at #TLAB13 I may have to re-think my attitude (trepidation?) and embrace grammar. I want the best outcomes for my students and I need to equip them with the tools they need to express themselves clearly beyond the English classroom.

I found Daisy’s presentation refreshingly honest and simple: grammar matters. We need to teach pupils grammar and, perhaps like Daisy, do that discretely. She argued that what was needed was separate grammar lessons with pupils drilling the skills they needed. I was reminded of my French and German lessons, many years ago, when I learned what grammar I know. That’s what we did then. It worked. So why would I treat grammar teaching in my own language any differently?

As Daisy said:

You can’t do this in a starter activity.

It is important.

It isn’t going to be learnt innately.

It’d be great to think there was a ‘quick fix’ when it comes to grammar, but there clearly isn’t. Again, I’m paraphrasing Daisy: you have to decontextualize and teach the abstract concepts sometimes and sometimes it takes a whole lesson on ‘the verb.’ If we want to help our pupils become better writers, we all need to do our bit and get their grammar right.

Daisy has designed a three-year cycle of grammar lessons. This has been introduced at key stage three. It strikes me that this is exactly what I need to do. KS3 needs to build a solid platform for pupils to succeed, not only in their GCSEs but in their writing generally.

Dare I say it, but my attitude to grammar may be changing. We’ve all got to do things that challenge us and fully embracing grammar might just be my biggest challenge yet!

Some biographical details: Daisy Christodoulou is the Chief Executive Officer at The Curriculum Centre and is TCC’s English Language, English Literature, History and Geography lead. She works at Pimlico Acadamy. She is @daisychristo on Twitter.

#TMLpool: an educational “bring and buy sale”?

At #TLAB13, Alastair Smith spoke about TeachMeets. He’d attended the TeachMeet held at Berkhamsted the night before the main conference. He called it “an educational bring and buy sale” or a “carboot for teachers” and praised the counter-cultural, bottom-up rather than top-down nature of the TeachMeet format.

It made me think, as much of what was said at #TLAB13 did.

I’m currently organising a TeachMeet in Liverpool.

TeachMeets, along with the weekly #ukedchat sessions and the edu-extravaganza that was #TLAB13, have been the things that have re-energised my love for teaching. It’s easy to get caught up in the pressure and the negatives, but meeting people from across the country who are engaged, motivated and brilliant at what they do makes me realise why I love this profession.

Not many of the staff at my school seem that engaged – yet. They seem somewhat reluctant to commit to an event on a Saturday. And I appreciate why: we’re horrendously busy at this time of year and the majority of us give up lots of time as it is for revision, extra-curiccular activities etc on top of a huge workload. However, I believe the chance to meet, share and learn is important.

I’ve currently 12 people signed up to present and another 35+ coming to watch, meet and network. I’m confident that figure will rise. I’m looking forward to the chance to meet educators from across the North West.

So here’s to our counter-culture bring and buy!

If you’d like to come along, then sign up here: http://teachmeet.pbworks.com/w/page/64371633/TM%20Liverpool

After #TLAB13: what next?

It was a long journey home after the conference and I had time to reflect and start to think how I was going to implement some of the things I had seen, heard, discussed, considered…

My action plan:

  1. Students as questioners, not tellers: using Rosie’s ideas in my Y12 planning.
  2. Sharing what I’ve learned with colleagues back at school.
  3. Risk-taking: I need to look for my next challenge and that might involve taking a gamble. (No more ‘if only’ regrets!)
  4. Looking at my planning at how I can incorporate some of David’s ideas.
  5. Next year’s KS3 schemes need an overhaul. What better time to think about explicitly teaching grammar?
  6. Promote TeachMeet Liverpool – networking is so valuable.
  7. Blog more and read more blogs.
  8. Try to recapture some of the sheer exuberance and joy for teaching that was present – it can get lost amongst the daily grind (aka exam season!)

Thanks to everyone at #TLAB13.

You made me think, reflect, reconsider and laugh, lots.

Rosie McColl at #TLAB13: can pupils be more effective teachers?

One of the biggest challenges I find is making student presentations effective, so again, my choice of second #TLAB13 workshop picked itself. Rosie McColl, Deputy Head of English at Berkhamsted School, led a workshop which posed the question: can students be effective teachers?

Rosie had endeavoured to fix the age-old problem of ineffective group presentations. I thoroughly enjoyed Rosie’s workshop as it contained ‘real’ (video) examples of her action-research.

We saw examples of student vox pops on the problems of presentations:

  • they enjoy the research but don’t like the feedback if it isn’t engaging, detailed or the presenter(s) is nervous.
  • if all class are doing the same topic, fine but if not, we only really learn our own topic.
  • it’s nice to hear other voices and views though.

and the one that surprised me the most:

  • I don’t trust other pupils’ research – teachers should validate content.

This was backed up eloquently by several pupils in the audience (and whoever’s school they were from, they were a credit to you) who echoed much of what Rosie’s videoed pupils had shared.

So, what can be done to improve on this?

We’ve all come across research that says we learn best when we teach others, so equipping our pupils to do this effectively must be the holy grail.

Rosie’s approach was simple but effective.

Her year 10 boys were looking at war poetry. They needed to makes links and connections. The class was split into groups and all were given a selection of unseen texts, poetry and prose. Half the groups were tasked with presenting their findings via the traditional method of ‘telling’ the audience. The other half were told only to use questions when presenting their findings.

(Some time had been spent on effective question formulation prior to splitting into the groups, so all pupils had come up with some ‘good’ questions or question stems to aid with their discussions.)

We saw videos of the pupils feeding back. The ‘tellers’ were predictably dull with a fairly dis-engaged audience. The ‘questioners’ were much more engaging. Both audiences, classroom and conference, were paying attention, considering responses, involved.

Rosie said she was simply offering one idea of how to make pupils better teachers, she wasn’t claiming it was the best or only solution.

Sometimes though, it’s the simple ideas which are the best.

Pupils as questioners and not tellers: there’s my year 12 lessons planned for the next week or so!

(Oh and if you’re not already, then get following Rosie on Twitter: @rosiemccoll)

#TLAB13: Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted School

4am on a Saturday morning & my alarm is going off.

What would get me up at this unearthly time? Why, the inaugural Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference at Berkhamsted School of course!

The conference was organised by Nick Dennis, Deputy at Berkhamsted (@nickdennis) and publicised on Twitter. The power of the educational network on Twitter means that come 9am on a chilly Saturday morning, around 200 educators who had travelled from the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States were gathered in the theatre to listen to the first of the day’s keynote speakers.

I’m going to do a separate post about the various sessions I attended, each of which have made me reflect on my teaching, but wanted to reflect on the day overall as well.

A massive thanks goes to Nick and the staff and students at Berkhamsted for hosting such a fantastic event. To those who gave up their time to be workshop leaders, thank you. A special mention to David Didau (@LearningSpy) Rosie McColl (@rosiemccoll) and Daisy Christodolou (@daisychristo) whose sessions I attended and found both incredibly useful and thought-provoking.

The three keynote speakers: Alistair Smith (@alatalite) Bill Lucas (@eed_net) and Bill Rankin (@rankinw) also deserve a mention. You all made me think, re-think and reflect on both my own teaching and my school’s direction and purpose.

Equally valuable was the chance to meet, chat and learn with and from fellow educators. In a time when education is undergoing a massive transformation and morale can, at times, feel low it was a pleasure to meet everyone and realise what a passionate and committed bunch we are. And yes, there were moments of contention and disagreement when views were shared which some didn’t agree with. But that’s what made the day so interesting. We all come with different experiences and realities and we bring a variety of perspectives to every issue.  The one thing I believe we all had in common was a desire to become better at what we do. Admirable on our day off, no?

Finally it was, as always, a pleasure to catch up with Kristian Still (@KristianStill) Vice Principal at The Wellington Academy, fellow mischief-maker, almost-heckler and force-of-nature.

#ukedchat – a year or so on and I’m still a fan!

I blogged in August 2010 about the weekly #ukedchat discussions that happen every Thursday on Twitter between 8 – 9pm.

https://dailydenouement.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/ukedchat/

A year on and I’m more enamoured than ever with the whole #ukedchat ‘thing’.

Why? Well, for a start I have now got professional contacts from all over the UK who provide me with advice, support and inspiration on a daily and weekly basis. Sometimes I think there is a tendency for teachers to become quite inward-looking. We get very caught up in “this is how we do it here” and “our focus is this”… #ukedchat takes you out of your own classroom and gives you a privileged insight into hundreds of other schools, methods, pedagogies etc.

It’s free. It’s fun. It’s fantastic.

Join us?

Applying for your first teaching post: advice from an ex-recruiter

In my pre-teaching life, I worked as a recruitment consultant in the retail sector and spent some time recruiting managers and shop-floor staff for a multi-national retailer. As well as turning my hand to UCAS personal statements aplenty, I’ve also delivered training for our PGCE students on how to write a good application.

Here’s that training in a blog-friendly format:

1. Use the advert – schools pay a fair whack for their job adverts so don’t just look at them to get the bare minimum of details. The advert can often contain key words and phrases that give major clues as to the ‘type’ of school they are and what they’ll want to read in any application. Look out for things like: “The school nurtures innovation and risk-taking” or “and we are looking for an ambitious and enthusiastic colleague.” You’ll want to exemplify these qualities and attributes in your application.

2. Use the school website – again, this should be mined as a source of rich information about the type of school you are applying to. Do they have a mission statement? Has the Head got a welcome statement on there? Yes, most likely and you should again pick out the key messages. Read the latest school news; that will tell you a heap of useful stuff. Are they keen on extra-curricular provision? Have you run a club or could you contribute in some way? Make sure that part of your letter or statement is prominent.

But how do you ‘prove’ you can do it?

4. Mind map/Prep – before you write the application list, mind map, bullet-point everything you’ve done. Think about specs you’ve taught, achievements, extra-curricular stuff. Look at the person specification and job description and see where your skills and experiences fit with what they are looking for. Group your ideas together and prioritise based on what you’ve learned from your research about the school.

“What?! There’s no generic one-size-fits-all approach?”

In a word: no.

5. Tailor your letter to that particular school – having decided on what their focus is, prioritise and tailor your letter. Sure you can put together a basic letter of application, but every school is different. Cut and paste is your friend: if you think your A Level experience will set you apart, then move that further up in the letter; if it’s achievement of less able, then bump up your bit about your set 4 who all made three levels of progress.

6. Give real, tangible evidence – the Head Teacher and/or Head of Department may read 50+ letters for this post. You need to jump off the page as someone who can actually do it, someone who can hit the ground running. Don’t waffle! Use active rather than passive verbs: lead, coordinate, manage, engage. Give stats if appropriate: ‘25% of my Y11s received an A*, twice the national average.’

“But I’m only a student. I’ve not got real experience…”

Really? Have you been twiddling your thumbs for a year? I doubt it. You have experience and you have massive potential. Don’t underestimate the appeal of an enthusiastic person at the start of their career!

And finally, just a few application form dos and don’ts:

  • Do spell check & proof read everything
  • Do be truthful – you will need to back up your application claims
  • Do be creative with font sizes / margins if needed – page limits need not be too scary!
  • Do go and visit the school prior to applying if this is offered
  • Don’t copy & paste without checking – wrong school names do not a good impression make!
  • Don’t put someone down as a referee without checking
  • Don’t go over page limits or fail to follow instructions
  • Don’t send the same letter to every school – tailor it to fit them
  • Don’t use ‘creative’ fonts – stick to the basics

Hope this helps.

Any questions or comments, I’ll happily help if I can.

Books I recommend

I’m a terrible hoarder of books and, since becoming a teacher, have found a wealth of weighty educational tomes to add to my collection.

I thought I’d share a few that have made a real impact on me:

The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook by Jim Smith 

The Lazy Teacher's Handbook

I bought this at the end of last academic year and am excited to put some of the lazy philosophy into practice this year.

The Pefect Ofsted Lesson by Jackie Beere (Edited by Ian Gilbert)

The Perfect Ofsted Lesson

This is a great little book… and I say that in the nicest possible way! One of the best things about this is its size; it isn’t a weighty tome you have to be daunted by. It’s small but jam-packed with practical lesson planning tips. If you’ve an observation coming up or if you just need some basic but refreshing tips on how to make your lessons better then read this.

The Teacher’s Toolkit by Paul Ginnis

The Teacher's Toolkit

Now this is the kind of book you can dip in and out of. It has a range of activities which can be adapted to suit different phases or subjects. For every activity it gives you suitable room layout, equipment needed and ideas of how it could be adapted to different subjects. Love it!

 

More to follow…

#ukedchat

If someone had told me this time last year that I’d be spending time in the hols ‘talking shop’ with a group of strangers via a micro-blogging site more frequently associated with celebrity gossip, I’d have laughed at them.

Fast forward to 2010 and welcome to the world of #ukedchat!

So, what is ukedchat?

Between 8-9pm on a Thursday evening a group of people who have teaching/education in common gather for a natter on Twitter. The topic is decided by a democratic poll, again publicised on Twitter, and the discussion is moderated by volunteers.

What do we talk about? Well, tonight’s topic is:  “How can we make our classrooms a more inclusive learning environment? (Are ‘tech tools’ the answer?)” In previous weeks we’ve reflected on what went well in the last year, how to maximise the use of technology in the classroom, how to share best practice etc etc.

Why is it so good? It is genuine support and professional development. It’s cross-phase and for me, that’s exciting; I don’t think we work enough with our primary colleagues. People work in schools and colleges all over the UK and beyond. I’m able to actively network with fellow professionals in a way that I truly don’t believe I would otherwise in the proverbial million years!

It’s worth staying in for…

But hey, it’s Twitter and on a smartphone or Netbook or iPad, who says you actually have to stay in for it!

So if you’re interested in education, then come and join us – search for #ukedchat on Twitter and get contributing.