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!)

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)

David Didau at #TLAB13

As an English teacher (and self-confessed Twitter-holic) then the choice of the first #TLAB13 workshop was a no-brainer: I was going to listen to David Didau’s Anatomy of an Outstanding Lesson session.

For those of you who don’t know David, he is an associate member of SLT and Director of English and Literacy at Clevedon School in North Somerset. He is also an associate of Independent Thinking Ltd and specialises in training on Literacy, AfL, Outstanding T&L and English.

He blogs and tweets under the name of @LearningSpy and I have always found his take on teaching to be both innovative and refreshingly real.

So, I left the theatre with my head buzzing from Alastair Smith’s keynote and entered the room to the sound of Cameo’s Word Up – classic theme tune for an English teacher, right? (Later in the workshop David spoke about playing music at the start of lessons and its potential to change mood/atmosphere etc.)

What a pleasure it was to meet David and to get an insight into how he goes about planning a lesson. He manages to combine authority with an endearing humility which belies his ‘twitterati’ status as the go-to-guy for English.

Alastair Smith had already talked about the problem of many lesson plans being simply “elaborate to-do lists” and David’s workshop continued this theme as he promised us he would demonstrate his “contempt for activities”.

Firstly, the visual metaphor of the iceberg to describe lesson planning was perfect. It really is the unseen ‘stuff’ that makes the observed lesson work. And, as someone currently mentoring NQTs and a PGCE student, it gives me a great discussion point for this week’s meetings.

David’s learning questions resonated with me. (I’m using the word resonate a lot in my #TLAB13 posts – but it was that kind of day. Lots of little lightbulb moments or earnest head nods and palpable relief that I’m not alone in problems, dilemmas etc)

Five Planning Questions

1. How will last lesson relate to this lesson?

2. Which students do I need to consider in this particular lesson? (Pen Portraits.)

3. What will students be doing the moment they arrive? (Bell work.)

4. What are they learning and what activities will they undertake to learn it?

5. How will they – and I – know if they are making progress?

Again, not only am I going to reflect on these questions in my own planning but they will become part of my dialogue with the department. I liked the idea of the Pen Portraits. Having certain pupils in each class who are the focus for that unit, skill, module, term etc seems like a good way to do it.

David is a teacher. He may have additional responsibility and a sideline in writing and training etc but the man teaches. So when he talks about how “time is precious” and offers ideas of how to work smarter, then this fellow teacher is listening. His assertion that “a set of books marked is a lesson planned” and “lessons can simply be working through the feedback” made me think. Could I (and by extension, the teachers in my department) be working smarter when it comes to marking and planning?

I liked David’s idea of the post-it note as instant feedback. I’m a fan of the post-it note as teaching aid. I use them all the time. I’m not sure I have used them in this way though – an instant take-away-and-implement idea. Genius! (The idea: step back during the lesson, observe pupils’ learning & use the post-its to offer suggestions, feedback, next steps etc)

The workshop continued. I was typing away furiously. Discussing ideas as they popped up with Kristian, my fellow back-row occupier. (It was probably at about this point when I stopped forgetting I’d already been up for hours and realising what a brilliant day this was turning out to be!)

A discussion about learning outcomes followed. David shared his use of the phrase “so that we can” which was a little slice of genius. This allows you to split the learning from the outcome but still make it meaningful and coherent. See the example he gave below:

Learning: To be able to analyse characterisation.

“so that we can…”

Outcome: Evaluate Steinbeck’s intentions

Or another: zoom in on details “so that we can” zoom out on the big picture

This was my second instant take away from the workshop. I’ll be framing my learning objectives/intentions/outcomes (whatever the phrase du jour is!) in this way from now on. It makes sense.

As a fellow English teacher, I always appreciate training delivered by subject specialists. I am confident that whatever subject the audience taught, they would have gained much from David’s clear breaking down of the elements of a lesson but, as an English specialist, the subject-specific element gave this the edge.

David on writing was very interesting. He writes with his pupils. Sometimes this may be typing straight on to the screen in full view, other times it may be on paper and then shared with them at the end of the task. It sharpens his own writing. It helps him re-frame tasks or questions. It also models good practice and, let’s be honest, good writing takes deliberate practice. (I do this. I think I miss a trick though; I don’t perhaps explicitly talk about the writing process enough. My third instant takeaway from this session.)

I’m going to pinch a Didau-ism and make it my own. Henceforth, I won’t talk about writing… it’ll be called drafting so pupils realise it is a process. I’m also going to channel David when I say: “If it isn’t proofread, it isn’t finished.” 

David went on to talk about how there is no magic formula for a perfect lesson. I agree. He did however point to one fact that separates the good from the great when it comes to lessons. What is it? The relationship between teacher and pupils. As the class teacher, you have an innate advantage or trump card you can play on the observer: your knowledge of the pupils in front of you. “Dare to know” challenged David and he’s right.

Thinking about the outstanding lessons I’ve observed and, dare I say it, the best lessons I have taught and they hinge on the teacher’s knowledge of the pupils in front of him/her. If you dare to know your pupils and teach a lesson tailored to meet their needs, designed to help them progress or to challenge them to exceed expectations, then how can it fail to impress those who may be observing?

What a workshop. What a guy.

Sycophantic? Unashamedly so. I had the privilege to meet someone whose writing I’ve long admired and, do you know what, he deserves the plaudits.

GCSE Intervention: Our Tuesday Writing Paper Sessions.

We do a decent job with our GCSE results. Last year, despite the much-publicised grading debacle, our results were up in Language and Literature.

Obviously we all want to continue that upward trend. However these are uncertain times for English students and their teachers, and it sometimes seems hard to know what to do or how best to secure that improvement.

We run revision sessions after school for pupils to attend but, clearly, that doesn’t always hit the students we may really want to reach. Letters and text messages have gone home to parents and carers and revision materials aplenty have been sourced and distributed.

What else to do?

Looking at our timetable, I noticed we had a slot in which all of our English Language classes were being taught at the same time. It got me thinking about how we could use it for a targeted intervention programme.

We teach in setted groups. Our students’ target grades range from A* to E. Sometimes I question the validity of this: do pupils work better in mixed ability groups? (Perhaps the subject for a different blog.) One thing I am certain of though, is that the old adage ‘a change is as good as a rest’ is often true and so I decided to mix the groups up a bit for their intervention lessons. I looked at the aspirational targets we had for our pupils and re-grouped them according to their 4-levels of progress target. I then discussed the groupings with class teachers and we moved some pupils based on them already outperforming against target data.

This through up some interesting anomalies. For example, we now had a number of set 3 pupils in groups with their set 1 peers etc. We felt this would have a positive impact on those students and so decided to give it a go.

I decided to focus on the writing paper for these sessions. By planning the lessons myself I could ensure that the whole cohort were getting the same messages about technique, tactics etc. Sessions were split into short and punchy sections; I wanted them to be pacy and feel different from ‘normal’ 50 minute lessons.

Session 1: vocabulary and punctuation.

Session 2: using the Toulmin structure in persuasive writing and how to improve content marks.

Session 3: audience, purpose and format and a recap on sessions 1 and 2.

(Subsequent posts will discuss the session content.)

We launched the idea to pupils and class lists went up. This caused some consternation in those who don’t like change, but on the day we had excellent attendance and they found their new rooms with minimum fussing. Pupil feedback after the session was very positive. They felt energised and boosted by the delivery. One pupil, who found herself in a “clever group” (her words!) waited at the end and told her teacher how pleased she was: “because I kept up with them and I know I could do that in my exam now too!”

We have our last session in January just before the exam is due to be sat. The final week in December was hijacked slightly by reward activities and mock exams. I hope to re-energise and inspire them before they go in and do battle with their GCSE-fate.

We will probably continue to use the lesson as a way of reaching the whole cohort in a practical, revision-y way as the year progresses.

 

 

 

Dumbing Down English Literature?

There’s a report in today’s Telegraph saying that the English Literature A Level has been dumbed down.

It makes for a great headline. I can just imagine the horror over afternoon tea: “Do you know they aren’t teaching the classics anymore?” “I doubt they even know who Shakespeare is nowadays. It just isn’t good enough.”

The Ofqual report has looked at the AQA exam board and focused on their choices of text for A Level teaching. They believe that the choice of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights are not sufficiently challenging for A Level students. I’m not necessarily going to dispute that, although I actually think that Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are some of the most profound and thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long while. It’s interesting however, that as you read the article further, a spokesman from AQA confirms that neither of these novels is on the current exam specification anymore.

So is English Literature really being dumbed down?

I teach English Literature A Level. My Year 13 students this year are tackling a variety of texts including Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, Hamlet and an anthology of poetry that includes work from Petrarch to Duffy, Browning to Angelou. Their Reading for Meaning unit is called Love through the Ages and they are examined on texts from Chaucer to the modern day. Their fellow students in Year 12 are studying Victorian Literature: Hardy, Clare, Bronte, Wilde etc. In both years, pupils are encouraged to undertake wider, independent reading and indeed without showing an appreciation of a variety of texts from different genres and, for the Year 13s, from different times, they cannot hope to pass their AS or A2 examined modules.

Of course we embed an appreciation for literature from an early age. All Key Stage 3 classes study a variety of literature from different genres, cultures and periods. Our Year 7s have a weekly library lesson, in which they are encouraged to read for pleasure. Later in the year they will be introduced to Shakespeare in a module that samples extracts from a range of his plays. Our Year 8s all study a pre-twentieth century classic novel in addition to a Shakespeare play. Differing abilities are catered for in the learning activities teachers choose for their groups, but all pupils are exposed to the texts in their original forms. In addition to this, they have guided reading of modern classic novels and poetry from different cultures. Our Year 9s build on this, studying further Shakespeare plays and a range of poetry, learning to make thematic and structural links between texts they have studied. At GCSE, our pupils study both English Language and Literature.

We are passionate, as a department, in encouraging a love of literature. We wouldn’t choose to teach exam specifications that we didn’t believe promoted a rigorous understanding and appreciation of the texts we study. The skills our A Level students acquire don’t just help them go on to study Literature at university either; they are both valuable and transferable: inference, deduction, synthesis of information from a variety of sources, analysis, and a formation of personal opinions alongside an appreciation of critical readings from many different perspectives. Our students mature into informed, independent readers.

The exam board we use is the apparently maligned AQA. However despite the shock headlines, I can assure you there’s nothing dumb about our lessons!

 

Written for the Huffington Post UK: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/clare-sarson/dumbing-down-english-lite_b_979079.html

 

“Have you read all these books then, Miss?”

“Have you read all these books then, Miss?” asked an enquiring Year 8 pupil, as she helped me take some texts back to our Aladdin’s Cave of a stock cupboard.

Regretfully – but probably not surprisingly – I had to say no. I’m lucky to work in a school with a long tradition of success in English Literature. That makes for a well-stocked text cupboard. As I looked round I was aware of the many gaps in my reading knowledge. Perhaps worryingly, this didn’t seem to surprise the Year 8 pupil, who nodded sagely at my answer.

“To be fair Miss, if you had read them all then you’d not really have much of a life, would you?”

Try as I might on the walk back to the classroom, I don’t think I convinced her that actually reading more would be a great thing to do. Shame I couldn’t instantly recall these wise words:

“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”

Maya Angelou

Whilst I couldn’t convince her to give one of the classics a go, before we left the room I persuaded her to take a copy of Neil Gamain’s Coraline.  All reading is good reading in my book!