Author Archives: James McEnaney

Why sharing should be at the heart of how we teach

Following on from my workshop at Pedagoo Glasgow, this is a brief outline from my session.

Click here to view the Prezi.

The presentation element of my workshop had three sections, each of which is explored below:

Philosophy

If you work in the public sector, then your work should be public

  • This may be slightly controversial because, yes, it does apply to people writing ‘How to Pass’ guides as well, but if you work in the public education system, and your professional knowledge has essentially been funded by taxpayers, then whatever material you can produce to help students should be available to everyone, everywhere, for free.

If you help others, you help yourself, which helps the pupils

  • By opening up and helping others, we become more likely to be helped by them which, consequently, makes us better teachers who are better able to help our students (and, going back to the start, puts us in a position to be of more help to other colleagues). In all honesty, I believe that a focus on openness and collaboration could have more of an impact on teaching than lesson observations, taxonomies and learning intentions ever could.

Barriers

Time

  • OK – everyone is busy, and most people agree that the last twelve months have been some of the most draining ever experienced in a classroom. As budgets are squeezed teachers are pushed closer and closer to minimum time, and that’s not even including all the ‘extra’ activities that some teachers are expected to ‘volunteer’ for. Surely, then, setting aside time for sharing materials with others is out of the question? Well – unsurprisingly – I’d argue not; in fact, I’d strongly suggest that time spent on getting into the habit of sharing should be seen more as an investment than anything else.

Skills

  • There is an entirely legitimate argument to be made by some that they simply don’t have the skills to, for example, share all of their materials on a personal website, but there are two counterpoints to be made here: firstly, you don’t have to set up your own site to share your work (more on this later); secondly, in 2014, our pupils are perfectly entitled to expect an education system capable of engaging with them on their own technological terms – us teachers expect a whole host of support material to be available at the click of a button from the SQA, Education Scotland etc. and it simply won’t do any more to deny the same treatment to our students. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the development of these 21st Century skills can go a long way in relation to the new Professional Update process.

Confidence

  • It is perfectly natural for people to worry about the quality of their work and, as a consequence, be reluctant to put themselves out there for potential criticism, but it is clearly hypocritical of us as a profession to hide behind this excuse whilst expecting precisely the opposite from our students. Every day we tell them to be brave enough to make mistakes, that only through failure will they ever progress – why should it be any different for us?

Culture

  • In reality, the fact that this workshop even took place (and that events such as PedagooGlasgow are still well outside of the mainstream of CPD) is evidence of the cultural change that is still required within education, where too often valuable material is hidden away in store cupboards, pen drives or personal servers. As the world becomes ever more connected and accessible, it becomes increasingly important that the culture within the teaching profession keeps pace.

Examples

Social media

  • More than anything else, Twitter has had a massive influence on me as a teacher, allowing me to connect with a range of colleagues holding both similar and competing views to my own. The first piece of advice I was given on my way to becoming a teacher was: “Get on Twitter and join the conversation” – four years on I cannot endorse this suggestion strongly enough.

VLE

  • There are various options for Virtual Learning Environments around now and, aside from Glow (which I don’t use), Edmodo is probably one of the most popular – this service allows you to share resources with your pupils and specific colleagues, thus encouraging a more open and collaborative culture.

Online communities

  • I expect that I’m largely preaching to the converted here, but I really cannot overemphasise the potential value of joining groups such as Pedagoo.org ! The other community-style service that I mentioned during the workshop was www.nationalmoderation.co.uk – an open, online resource (created by me) for sharing assessment, exemplification and teaching resources for the New Qualifications under Curriculum for Excellence.

Personal / class / department websites

  • This is the area that I believe that the most potential as it allows us to easily share whatever we feel like for free. I few months ago I decided to share all of my Nat5 Course Materials on this site and, since March, a quite incredible amount of people have viewed and downloaded the resources that I have made available (so many, in fact, that the site became one of the top Google results for search terms such as ‘National 5 English’). Based on the comments and emails I received, a huge number of these individuals were students, which just goes to show how much value our pupils could find in teachers developing a more open culture amongst ourselves.

NationalModeration.co.uk – a new(ish) approach to assessment moderation

As requested by @fkelly , I’ve decided to throw a quick post together about www.nationalmoderation.co.uk – a service I created to allow Scottish teachers to share their own unit assessments for the new National Qualifications.

Essentially the creation of this website was spurred by one glaringly obvious reality – the unit assessments provided by the SQA are simply not up to scratch, and as a consequence everybody is creating their own material and hoping that it meets the standards. Ón the face of it, this may be no bad thing – if we create our own unit assessments then we can tailor them to our own courses and our own pupils, and surely that is good idea?

To give an example, I have consciously themed my entire National 5 English course around the concept of ‘Coping with Conflict’, selecting texts which can be woven together across the whole year (‘Spiritual Damage’, ‘War Photographer’, ‘The Man I Killed’ and ‘Bold Girls’) – now that I am no longer forced to use a few set NABs I have also created reading assessments which follow this theme, thus enhancing the pupils’ overall understanding of what we are studying this year (at least this is the idea).

Several months ago, however, I realised that if EVERYONE does the same thing then there will be hundreds – perhaps thousands – of unit assessments being created across the country and many of us will be replicating the work that colleagues are doing (or have already done). Frankly, we all work too hard as it is to be reinventing the wheel hundreds of times over, so a system for sharing material is essential.

Of course, Education Scotland and the SQA are providing something along these lines, but there are two reasons why I believe it would be helpful for a service which is independent of these bodies. Firstly, the websites of these organisations (especially Education Scotland) are – to be kind – not particularly user friendly, and I (like many others) don’t have the time or the willpower to fight my way through Glow to find material on a regular basis; secondly, I firmly believe that the only way for us to ever really become confident in the development and delivery of our own materials is for us to move beyond a dependence on official bodies to confirm that every little thing is up to scratch.

If – or, depending on your philosophical view of the amount of fluid in a glass, when – Curriculum for Excellence fulfills its potential it will be because of the incredible work of teachers, not Education Scotland, the SQA or the Education Secretary, and I hope that NationalModeration might play a small part in that development.

Basically, it works like this: teachers upload their unit assessments, other teachers moderate them by leaving comments, alterations are made as required and, eventually, gradually, standards become clearer and are met across the country.

At present the site only has English assessments but it would be great if other subjects could begin contributing materials as well (I’ll create however many subject specific pages are required in this instance). In order to sign up you must be teacher in a Scottish school (and verify this, usually by means of an official email address) – this means that the material can be kept secure, allowing us to continue to use it in our classes as our official unit assessments.

If you think that the site would be of any help to you as you continue to develop your approach to the new qualifications please do sign up – the more people are involved the more effective our approach will be.

The Poetry Bracket: Head-to-Head Elimination with Past Paper Questions

So it’s that time of year – revision is upon us! The problem at hand is no longer how to teach new material; instead, we’re looking for ways to ensure that the spectrum of texts, techniques and skills covered since last June are securely understood and readily accessible for all of our pupils.

One question that seems to come up a lot with my Intermediate 2 English class is how sure I am that they will find suitable questions in the critical essay section of their exam (an entirely valid concern). On Tuesday this issue arose once again, and once again I told my class that the chances of them not finding an appropriate question for Norman MacCaig’s Visiting Hour are as close to nil as makes no difference (we have, of course, studied other poems as well). The real issue, I reminded them, isn’t whether or not they can find one suitable question, but rather whether they can recognise and select the best available question (as over the past six years the vast majority of poetry questions have been eminently suitable for this particular text).

An hour or so later, during a free period, I started to really think this through, and I realised that if I could find a way to show them the importance of choosing the right question, then I would surely also be able to assess and develop their detailed knowledge of the text and its techniques (a non-negotiable pre-requisite of effective decision making in this context). A few different ideas came and went before the following occurred to me:

The Poetry Bracket

‘The Poetry Bracket’ at the end of the lesson, with 2008 Question 8 the eventual winner

 

This, then, is The Poetry Bracket, an idea adapted from American competitive sports. Here’s how it works:

Each of the poetry questions from the last 6 years is represented by the appropriate code (for example, question 9 from the 2010 paper is 10-9 in the top right corner) and each year is grouped together. This means that when you begin only the spaces on the far left and far right are completed, with the rest being filled as you work your way through a series of competitions between the various questions. Once you have made your ‘Bracket’ on the board, and handed out copies of the Intermediate 2 poetry questions from the last six years, you’re ready to go.

The first step is to select the most appropriate question for each particular year, with the winner going on to the next round of the competition. There would be a number of ways to complete this stage but I decided to use a whole-class discussion followed by a vote.

Once the best question from each year has been selected, the top three on each side of The Bracket must compete – once again I led a class discussion for this section, although this time I pushed the pupils much more to really argue their case, often pitting two pupils who disagreed directly against one another. By this stage in the process I found that most pupils – even those who had been reluctant to express their opinion openly and vocally in the initial rounds – were getting involved and gaining in confidence. At the end of this stage you will are left with two remaining contenders, and at this point the whole process becomes even more entertaining.

In order to debate the contest between the final two questions the room was split in three, with those strongly in favour of one option on either side of the room and undecided pupils in the middle; then the gloves came off. The ‘team’ on either side had to argue for their chosen question as persuasively as possible, with my only role being to facilitate this discussion by bringing different pupils into the debate to support team-mates or challenge opponents. In the end, the victors succeeded not only because they argued well for their own side, but because they demonstrated that the answer that could be written for their question would also – if done well – incorporate the question of their opponents. What matters, they realised, is not choosing the easiest question to understand or the most obvious choice for the text, but rather finding the question that would allow them to write the most sophisticated response.

At the end of the process it was clear that the intentions of the lesson – to improve pupils’ ability to select an appropriate question for their text whilst also enhancing their knowledge and understanding of the texts – had been successfully achieved, as the quality of discussion around appropriate essay questions had markedly improved from between the first and last stages of The Bracket process. Furthermore, in the end, the pupils did select what I would consider to be the best available question from a selection of the 18 available. I’ll certainly be using this approach again to enhance my revision process for poetry, prose and drama.

 

(This post has also been published on my own blog: I’ve Been Thinking)

Taking the reins off.

OK, cards on the table: I had every intention of writing this post at the start of December, but a series of unfortunate events conspired to get in my way. Now I’ve found a little time to write up one of my most recent projects and share what my S3 class were getting up to at the end of last term.

Having completed the study (including an Int2 level critical essay) of ‘Assisi’ and a discursive essay with my S3 at the start of the year I decided to move on to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. This decision involved breaking a personal rule of mine, which is to avoid teaching my own personal favourite novels, but I have a huge amount of faith in my third years and thought that they would be able to do justice to a text that I consider to be one of the most important pieces of literature ever published.

From the outset, however, I was determined to do something a little different with the novel; inspired by Neil Winton’s “What is Beauty?” idea, I decided to set my pupils a seemingly simple task: submit something on the subject of prejudice and/or discrimination. I made it clear to the class that they could submit just about anything so long as it was something that they were proud of and that they had clearly worked hard on; I also explicitly stated right from the start that I did not want to see drafts of their projects and that, while I would help people if they asked, they were not required to even tell me what they intended to hand in. Teaching English often means marking a couple of dozen essays that are all essentially the same, so I was desperate for as much variety as possible.

To be honest, I expected to encounter quite a bit of resistance – not to the task itself, but to the sheer amount of freedom and control being handed over. Pupils are so used to the idea of submitting drafts and receiving corrections that I thought they might feel a bit over-whelmed by the prospect of being expected to complete an entire project without any of that support – I was wrong! The vast majority of the class took to the task incredibly well and, having been given a specific time-frame (7 weeks) every pupil handed in their project on time (mostly via Edmodo). What really struck me was the remarkable enthusiasm amongst the students – in my opinion, this was a direct result of them feeling both trusted and respected.

On hand-in date (which, entirely coincidentally, happened to be on the same day as S3 Parents’ Night) I received Powerpoints, Prezis, Thinglinks, Youtube videos, posters, a model, some creative writing (one of these pieces is more than 7000 words long) and a model.

If you would like to see what a really good S3 class can produce when given the freedom to just get on with it you can visit: http://mys3class.wordpress.com

So where do I go from here? Well I’ve decided to push the concept even further, making use of the central idea as part of a poetry analysis and production project. This experience has strengthened my belief that you only really know what a student (or class) is capable of when you take the reins off and let them use all of their knowledge and skills independently. Within the next month or so I should have a range of submissions which explore a selection of poetry choices (again, the students will have a free choice as to what form their submission actually takes), as well as a collection of poetry produced by the pupils (all of which will be added to the blog linked to above) – I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thoughts on the NQT Year

My NQT year was absolutely superb, and not just because I secured a permanent job at the end of it. Having ‘ticked the box’ I was sent to Arran (a place I had only visited once for a less-than-sober camping trip) along with a friend from teaching training. Was I a bit nervous? Of course, but my excitement really did outweigh the nerves.

I was massively lucky to have been sent to Arran High – it’s a great school and my PT and mentor is a remarkable teacher. I was made to feel very welcome immediately and encouraged to do my own thing, which leads to my first piece of advice: take risks! I changed the whole Int2 course by introducing 4 new texts; I published a book of short stories with an S2 class (which can still be bought online…); I carried out debates with a less then perfect S3 class (in front of the HT). There were plenty of mistakes, but as i often tell my pupils you learn a lot from getting things wrong.

There is another key piece of advice that I would give, and this one might be a bit controversial: cynicism is not always a bad thing! There are times when a good teacher will have to protect their pupils from the worst excesses of a system run by politicians and bureaucrats, and sometimes that will mean upsetting people. Every new innovation is not automatically a good idea, even if driven by people who generally get things right, and it is important to be brave enough to recognise this.

Also, be ambitious! Great results stem from high expectations, and I personally believe in setting targets that are slightly beyond attainable to encourage constant progress. Your pupils are invariably capable of more than they think. This ambition shouldn’t be restricted to your pupils though. There are lots of great things happening in education right now, but a crippling lack of ambition still presents barriers far too frequently (ie. E-portfolios). If you’re going to do something, don’t just do it right, do it brilliantly – never settle for what is provided for you just because it is easier (ie. Glow).

Finally, have fun! Teaching is a superb job, and teaching teenagers is a privilege – as soon as you forget that the job becomes ‘just a job’, and if that’s all you’re looking for there are much easier ways to make a living.

#NQTLearn