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!)

#Nurture1314: That was the year that was…

2013: that was the year that was about…

1. TeachMeet Liverpool. I organised the first Liverpool TeachMeet in April. It was a fantastic day and showcased some excellent teachers and educational professionals. It was a labour of love. It was a Saturday. I’m not sure my SLT quite ‘got’ what a TeachMeet was when I first mooted the idea, but hey, I think they are now convinced. I am currently planning the next one, so watch this space!

2. #TLAB13 One of my professional highlights was my attendance at the Teaching Learning and Assessment Conference at Berkhamsted School. What a day! It started very early on the first London train from Liverpool but it was worth it. Not only did I get to hear some fantastic speakers, but I came away energised and enthused. For a profession that gets almost constant flak, us teachers are a pretty incredible bunch. One of my posts about the day is here: http://wp.me/pYpwi-4Z

3. Visiting Joseph S. Clark Prep in New Orleans. I was lucky enough to visit a high school when I went to New Orleans. It was a fascinating insight into how teachers are working in a very complex educational system. (There is a blog post; I need to finish it!)

4. Getting to grips with being (Acting) Head of English. Maternity cover is never easy. You want to do a good job but, at the same time, it’s not your job, you’re a caretaker-manager. I had the privilege of stepping up from second in department to Curriculum Leader for English for six months. It was hard work. Luckily, I work with a great team.

5. Getting to grips with being Head of Year. In September I became Head of Year 12. Wow. After five years with a departmental TLR, the pastoral side of school life has been an eye-opener. I have really enjoyed this opportunity and am sad that, come January, I am moving back into curriculum leadership. However, I feel that my experience as a pastoral leader will have added much to my leadership.

6. Meeting Twitter pals in ‘real life’. I value the inspiration, knowledge, ideas and support I get from twitter and the connections I have made as a result of being on there. In 2013, it was good to meet @joanne_rich, @mrpeel, @ChillEdU, @deadshelley, @learningspy, @nickdennis, @danpo_ and many more. It was also lovely to be reacquainted with @KristianStill. There are some who I can now call friends and others I consider virtual colleagues, rather than just random screen names and 140 character witticisms. That’s a great thing.

7. Team English. I work with some fantastic colleagues. I’ve already said that, but it cannot be over-stated. It has been a pleasure and a privilege.

8. About seeing people’s true colours. There were a difficult few weeks at work. It hardened my resolve to be the best I can be.

And 2013 wasn’t just about work, you’ll be pleased to know…

9. Finding a lost friend. Earlier this year a friend of ours went missing. It was a harrowing time for his family and closest friends. I was humbled to see how people pulled together and worked to get his name and face out there. It worked. He’s back and on the road to recovery.

10. Rediscovering a love of live music. In 2013 I have been privileged to experience some brilliant live bands. New Orleans was a feast of music, from start to finish. I also (finally!) visited Ronnie Scott’s for the first time. It will not be my last visit.

Jazz in the Park: George Porter, Jr & Bill Summers
Jazz in the Park: George Porter, Jr & Bill Summers
Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile, June 2013
Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile, June 2013
Soul Rebels, RNCM.
Soul Rebels, RNCM.
Irvin Mayfield at Wednesday in the Square
Irvin Mayfield at Wednesday in the Square
Treme Brass Band at dba, New Orleans
Treme Brass Band at dba, New Orleans

11. Cats! I can’t really do a summing up of 2013 without mention of McNulty, who I adopted in January and who is a joy. Alas, Brontë the beautiful stray who I adopted in August was sadly run over. She is missed.

McNulty: Jan 7th 2013
McNulty: Jan 7th 2013

12. All about New Orleans. My city. I have never felt as truly ‘me’ anywhere else. It was an incredible experience to return and I will definitely not be leaving it as long next time.

Bayou Metairie, New Orleans City Park. May 2013
Bayou Metairie, New Orleans City Park. May 2013
Free Hugs? Jazz in the Park, New Orleans.
Free Hugs? Jazz in the Park, New Orleans.
Jackson Square, May 2013
Jackson Square, May 2013
Reminders of Katrina: N. Rampart, Treme.
Reminders of Katrina: N. Rampart, Treme.

13. A reminder of the importance of friends. I lost a friend this year. He died suddenly and unexpectedly. It reunited me with a group of friends I’d lost touch with. It made me appreciate the fact that friends are friends no matter where or how you met, or indeed how often you all get to meet up. He is much missed.

Neil: wordsmith extraordinaire.
Neil: wordsmith and wit extraordinaire.

And 2014? What will this be the year of?  

(I’ve left a few blank… I’m hoping 2014 surprises me!)

1. Health. I am pledging to get fitter. I need to make time for exercise to balance the mental workload. And hey, if they want me to work till I’m 69 then I’m going to have to be seriously fit to do so!

2. Doing. And not just saying I am going to do. My biggest flaw? Maybe. I am the Queen of Procrastination. In 2014 I will be a doer and not a thinker-about-doing. Professionally and personally.

3. Marking. I’m making a concerted effort to mark smarter. I am focusing on D.I.R.T and making my marking meaningful.

4. Reading. I’ve set myself a ‘Fifty Books in 2014’ challenge and shall be blogging my progress. I want to read more for pleasure.

5. Writing. Years ago I wrote all the time. Now, I seem to forget what an excellent tool it is for reflection, idea generation and all round relaxation.

6. KS3 Curriculum. My big professional challenge as Acting Curriculum Leader is to re-vamp our KS3 curriculum in preparation for all the changes that are coming. A big job, yes, but one I am looking forward to.

7. Appreciation. Saying thank you and really taking time to recognise and appreciate those around you is often overlooked. I’m putting it on the to-do list as a permanent item in 2014.

8. Photography. In 2014 I’m determined to get out and shoot more.

9. Career. I think this is the year for me to make some decisions. Hopefully they will be the right ones.

10. De-cluttering. I need to do a bit of this. Physically and metaphorically.

11. Learning and getting better at being a teacher. #TLAB14 and Northern Rocks are two main teaching CPD events I’ve got booked into the calendar so far. Generally though, here’s to a year of collaboration and learning.

12.

13. 

14. New Orleans. I have to go back. My favourite Chris Rose quote kinda says it all: “She is a New Orleans girl, and New Orleans girls never live anywhere else and even if they do, they always come back. That’s just the way it is. This is where she belongs. End of discussion.”

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.

IMAG0878

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.

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.

A* Vocabulary: building students’ word power.

One of the strands of my GCSE writing intervention has been vocabulary building. In fact, students really enjoyed looking up the ‘A* words’ I gave them. Simple pleasures… or straightforward gratifications if you will!

I’m not sure we do enough explicit vocabulary-building work. This is something I am looking to build into our schemes of learning. I’d be interested in hearing how other schools have done this.

I’m currently designing some posters with a selection of A* words to encourage pupils to consider their vocabulary and we will be launching a ‘Word of the Week’ scheme next term.

In our GCSE Writing intervention lessons, we shared a list of ‘ambitious’ vocabulary. 106 words Pupils were challenged to look up ten of the words and use them in sentences. With my groups, I then used these words in various ‘exit pass’ activities. Pupils were challenged to focus on five words and, in the words of my old English teacher Mrs Rough “make them their own.” I would’t let them leave the room until they’d used one of the words in a sentence. No repetition of sentences was allowed. Other variations on this theme included me demanding definitions of their focus words on entry and exit to my room.

Has it translated into improved performance in the GCSE Writing paper? Only time will tell, but it was a fun activity to do and pupils seemed genuinely surprised at the amount of words out there that they had never read or heard of before.

This is what makes me think I need to make vocabulary building an explicit activity with all my classes.

All help/ideas gratefully received!

(I will be adding ideas the good folk of Twitter share with me, as I have posted this on my Twitter feed.)

Ideas suggested:

@ramtopsgrum: use a “banned words” wall. I  ban: it, thing, like, stuff, youknowwhatImean, undefined pronouns etc. Answers have to be rephrased without these.

@yesiamemmab: even though I teach year 4 I use a ‘criminal words’ system for words such as ‘nice’ , ‘walk’ etc..

@KerryPulleyn: Geoff Barton has a long list of sophisticated vocab on his site. You could have a look at this.

@teacherTonytips: I get them to use 5 new words they have never used before in each piece of creative writing. This helps a lot.

@andrewmillar72: Big fan of ‘what goes in comes out’ mantra. Stress private reading, provide high level texts & model vocab in own speech.

@kevbartle: Has to be modelled by teachers. No dumbing down in SoWs. High level, subject-specific, technically accurate vocal from Y7. Must be embedded in the teaching. Everyday from the moment they arrive till the day they leave. Actually, really high level vocabulary is an equaliser between kids with high and low prior attainment.

@commaficiando: Specific vocab leads to specific ideas and thoughts and understanding what, for example, pathetic fallacy means is no harder than getting what ‘lemon’ means.

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

 

New Year Resolutions Update #1: Phoning Home

Yesterday I made four phone calls home to the parents of pupils who had made positive starts to their English lessons. It was an absolute joy to speak to their parents and share a good news story.

All week I’d been keeping a note of pupils who had made good contributions to class discussions, settled in well or produced excellent work. In my free period yesterday I made the calls. When I made this resolution for the new academic year I hoped I would find the time to keep it. Hearing the pleasure, pride and (in one case!) relief in the parents’ voices when I shared my news, I’m more determined than ever to keep it up.

One Mum said “I was worried for a moment then; I thought it must have been something bad.” That’s what I want to change. I don’t think communication with parents focuses on the ‘good’ often enough, certainly not from a subject-specific point at secondary level. I’m hoping to change that.

I’ll be sharing my good news story with my department as term progresses to encourage them to do similar. In the meantime, I’ll just bask a little in remembering the warm, fuzzy feeling I got after I’d made the calls. It brightened up a very hectic Friday, hopefully for those families as well as for me!

Writers’ Club

I’m on a mission to start a Key Stage 3 writers’ club this year. My intention is to run it on a weekly basis during a lunch hour.

I used to love creative writing at school and I just don’t feel we do enough of it with our students now. I don’t want to be levelling their writing all the time; I want them to love the idea of crafting a piece of writing for its own sake.

A plea on twitter via #ukedchat has pointed me in the direction of the NaNoWriMo website http://www.nanowrimo.org/ and also suggested half termly themes or tailoring it around available writing competitions.

Much food for thought already, but I would welcome any more suggestions!

29/8/11: I’ve done some digging and found the following website with lots of writing competitions http://www.prizemagic.co.uk/html/writing_comps.htm Not all of them will be appropriate but they might give us a focus to start.