#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.”

Father’s Day: a poem for fathers

It’s Father’s Day. I thought I’d share my favourite poem about fathers.

Unsung by Kei Miller

There should be a song for the man who does not sing

himself – who has lifted a woman from her bed to a wheelchair

each morning, and from her wheelchair to her bed each night;

a song for the man recognised by all the pharmacists, because

each day he has joined a line, inched forward with a prescription

for his ailing wife; there should be a song for this man

who has not sung himself; he is father to an unmarried son 

and will one day witness the end of his name; still he has refused

to pass down his shame to his boy. There should be a song

for the man whose life has not been the stuff of ballads

but has lived each day in incredible and untrumpeted ways.

There should be a song for my father.

Beautiful.

I was privileged to hear Kei Miller read this, and other poems from his anthology A Light Song of Light at The Blue Coat in Liverpool.

Go and find his poems. They are worth it.

A review of the anthology is here: http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/summerreads2013alightsongoflightkeimiller.aspx

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.