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Writing with them & iPads as a tool for feedback – late to the party?

Do you ever get that horrid sinking feeling? That ‘late to the party’ feeling when it seems that everybody around you doing something that you’re not? Well, that’s pretty much how I felt about the good old iPad. Yes, I have an iPhone and yes, I was using it to take pictures of positive learner behaviours, projecting photos that I had taken on to the IWB, using the odd app etc. but with such a small screen and such terrible eyes…I really wasn’t doing it justice. We’ve all heard the expression ‘using tech for tech’s sake’ and I’m a firm believer in only using something if it enhances the learning experience for the pupils in the classroom so, when I recently gave in and got an iPad, I was understandably cautious. I had got it to use for work yes, but in spite of the mountain of amazing recommendations from others far more experienced than i (see @ICTEvangelist), I am still following the line of ‘cautious’ in my approach.

By introducing it into the classroom slowly however, I am finding that the simplest things are made far easier. Take revision with Year 11 for example. Having made it my mission to change their mindset when it came to drafting extended answers for the English writing exam (see my previous post Meat is Murder), we are getting through a good deal of past papers at the moment. In the spirit of channelling my inner year 11 pupil (scary at times!) and working to develop a Growth Mindset with the group; I have started to write with them, a fantastic tip from David Didau @LearningSpy , and it has developed both their learning and my relationship with the class in a very positive way.

In the vein of ‘exam papers are hard but they are worth giving your all to’ as opposed to ‘give up at the first 10 mark question’; I explained to the group that each time they were to write an exam answer, reading or writing paper, I was going to write with them. I too was going to ‘sit’ the exam. This was a novelty for them. Rather than me going round, peering over shoulders offering little or no input until the marking stage; I too was feeling the pressure of the silence, having to analyse the question, find the information and structure the answer. It’s completely different from writing model answers in the staffroom during your PPA’s let me tell you! It really was a great learning experience.

Rather than sitting at home or at my desk, creating model answers; for 30 minutes I was able to understand their experience and they loved it! With the occasional well placed utterance of ‘it’s a bit tricky that second one’ or ‘must remember to use the key words from the question here’ from me, it really enthused the pupils to know that we were ‘in it together’. Quite apart from that, the notion of me completing the exam with them removed the desire for those ‘can you just look at this and check it’s right?’ until the appropriate time, as I was doing the exam too and they ‘couldn’t’ disturb me. The subtle promotion of independence within this situation was something so simple yet so important. It is doing them a disservice to step in at every possible opportunity; after all, they won’t get that assistance in the exam. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t refusing assistance, we have been working on structuring responses for the better part of six months now, but in this situation, it can be too much of a temptation to ask teacher.

Having completed our allotted questions it was time to mark and feed back. During the initial attempt I used only the answers that I had written, photographing them with the iPad and projecting on to the whiteboard after which we marked them using the mark scheme, annotated key points and compared with pupils’ own work.

This technique of projecting your own work is beneficial for a number of reasons. On a human level, if you make mistakes (on purpose or not!) pupils are quick to correct them, suggesting improvements and learning from the errors – what not to do next time. We all make mistakes, that’s where the learning happens!

From a ‘time’ point of view; you are able to create model answers which can be used again with other groups, thus saving valuable planning time (we all need that!). From an expectations point of view, the answers, yours and theirs, can be used to raise pupil aspirations by explaining that only the best answers will be shown and analysed, therefor enthusing pupils to produce their very best work, ‘I’m going to get this just right so that mine will be shown’ or in contrast to remove the fear of feedback and move towards a focus on progress by using answers that aren’t quite there and building upon them as a group, visually, making improvements. I’m definitely a fan of the iPad, albeit a cautious one, yet its use to give instant visual feedback is a simple yet effective technique and I have found it to be great for exam preparation.

Although writing with your classes is not appropriate all of the time, I would really recommend doing it when you can as it promotes independence. If you are writing too it encourages pupils to independently work through any issues they might come across, using their own skills and knowledge to resolve them. You can always clarify misconceptions / misunderstandings at the feedback stage and most valuably, use these ‘moments’ to reflect upon and improve exam technique. It develops your understanding of the tasks you set – you see things that you may miss if you are ‘just’ planning it rather than ‘doing’ it. Finally, it develops your relationship with your class; they see that you are prepared to do the task rather than just dishing it out, struggle at times and then show them your work as well as theirs to critique. A useful technique for developing writing all round.

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)

Animation – doesn’t get more interdisciplinary than that!

I’m a huge fan of interdisciplinary learning. Making links between subjects makes sense to me. One of the things I love most about being a primary school teacher is seeing the inter-connectedness of things – the way links are made between what we learn about and our experiences: when we’ve learned and explored a new word which suddenly appears in many places; when we’re studying a project and stories in the news relate to it; when we begin to understand that we’re really not so different from one another, no matter what our backgrounds are. These aren’t just coincidences, it’s how the world works, and I see my job as a teacher as helping children to try to make sense of the world and to understand and enjoy our place in it.

It’s well recognised that simply asking children if they’re understanding and making these links isn’t always the most effective way to assess – that’s why Building the Curriculum 5 asks us to consider how to capture what our pupils say, write, make or do. We have to provide and teach children how to use tools to be able to do this though, and vocabulary will always be part of this. Many of us will be familiar with the child who says “I just can” or “I just can’t”. Building vocabulary is a huge part of my job, not just in teaching children to talk about their transferable skills (very big in my education authority just now) but also in terms of vocabulary to describe and understand emotions, to empathise and consider situations from different points of view.

I’m increasingly finding that animation is an incredibly compelling way for children to express themselves – to show their understanding, knowledge, and skills in a way that is challenging at whatever level they’re at. Filming a story is just a different way of telling a story than verbally, writing or drawing. It can involve all of these though, and I’ve found is most effective if it does. Working in co-operative groups allows the children to draw on their individual strengths, and collectively benefit. I’ve found that using a collage technique and animating it means that there are plenty of roles to be shared, and there will always be one that suits every child. The picture below shows some of the characters and backgrounds from my class who are currently making films on the subject of the Clydebank blitz during World War Two. The children shared out roles and some busied themselves with drawing if they wished, or searched online for images to print. Others set up the camera and experimented with the software before they all got together and shared what they’d done.

So other than covering lots of bases, why animate a story? I’ve found that the children are more readily willing to adapt and change their stories as they go along than it is with a written story, and in fact that they want to experiment with the order of scenes, and add in different angles and camera shots. (Not that I’m suggesting for a minute that animation is more beneficial than writing a story, because if they didn’t have experience of writing and understanding stories, they certainly couldn’t do this). As the children animate their characters, they consider how they are feeling and how they show this feeling in their movements and expressions. I’ve been hugely impressed with how children can be inventive with story lines: my current P7 class are using flashback, time travel and different narrative view points. I sometimes use storyboards, and sometimes don’t. Some of the most successful animated films I’ve worked on were made up as they went along! You can see one of these here.

Stop frame animation isn’t easy, it’s fiddly and takes effort and time – another reason why I like it! To persevere and get through all the process is worth it, because at the end there’s a film. Of course, the process is incredibly important too. As we film and edit, we encounter problems and have to address these. Some classes and groups I’ve worked with have had to spend some time looking at communication and conflict resolution skills. Before my current job, I taught excluded children and children at risk of exclusion to make animated films, and for them to see these films through to completion was a tremendous achievement, boosting self-esteem while allowing them to explore issues they were experiencing through their films.

This exploration of an issue or story through animation has been incredibly worthwhile. I think it’s very important that children have the freedom to explore this issue in a way that they want to. The learning intention for the film above was to make a film about choices. That was all. The group of 4 children decided to make it about good and bad choices, and what happened when you made them. Another group I worked with were told their learning intention was to make a film about friendship. You can see what they came up with here.

My current class are considering life before, during and after the Clydebank Blitz. They’re demonstrating their knowledge of historical sequence through the eyes of Clydebank residents while describing life during the war in terms of rationing, housing, daily life and coping with air raids.

So how did we do this? I know I said it was an effort and fiddle – it is – but it’s actually fairly straightforward. I use a computer, a webcam, I Can Animate and iMovie software. I’ve also made animated films entirely on an iPad using the same software. There are other ways too. I went on a short course to learn how to use the software. If you’re a teacher and know of anyone in your school with knowledge of animating, ask to watch them as they teach, or if they’d share their practise with some of the school team. If not, take a course. Anything I didn’t pick up on the course I’ve learned by using the help menus within the programs. If I can do this, any teacher can.

Animation is just an alternative way to tell a story, and there are many stories to be told. I really hope you’ll try this engaging way to help your pupils to tell theirs.

Marking at the speed of thought – video feedback.

At E-Assessment Scotland 2012 in Dundee I saw a presentation by Russell Stannard from the University of Warwick where he demonstrated his research on using video feedback with his ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students. Instead of writing comments on his students printed assignments, he created screen recordings with narration, and was able to show and highlight areas for improvement. Russell explained that he had found that video feedback cuts down on marking time, and that students liked it better than other forms of feedback.

Also at the conference was fellow educator, Ian Guest, and he tweeted to me ‘Could you use this in photography?’. Great minds think alike, as it had just crossed my mind that this could work well for giving feedback to photography students.

It took a while to find an opportune moment to try video feedback, but I have a small group of HND photography students that I thought I’d try this with. Opening their fashion photographs in Adobe Photoshop, I used screenr.com to record what was happening on screen and to narrate my critique of their work. It took me just a few minutes to record each critique (screenr has a 5 minute time limit anyway), which was much quicker than writing the feedback. It was almost ‘marking at the speed of thought’. Screenr saves the video to a website automatically, but I chose to use its ‘Publish to Youtube’ option which allowed for more flexibility in sharing the videos.

After creating the videos I published them on a website so that all of the students could access them. This meant they could access the videos easily, but also see the comments made on each others work. I felt that the students would benefit from seeing the critiques of their classmates’ work.

After giving the feedback in this form I asked the students what they thought. All of them said they liked this form of feedback better than written form, however one suggested that they’d like written comments too (perhaps suggesting a read/write learning style). Several were enthusiastic about receiving video feedback and claimed it was easier to understand what the feedback meant. Some students had difficulty understanding written feedback, and needed it explained verbally by their tutor. The video solved this issue. One student said they kept losing paperwork such as written feedback, so liked the idea of it being online. Several students liked the highlighting in the video that made it very clear what was being explained.

This was a very small scale study, but with promising results. I plan to try it on a wider scale now, perhaps with National Certificate level students, as I think it would be more beneficial with less experienced learners.

Here’s the first photography critique video I made – Photo critique (Youtube)

I’ve included some links for further investigation.

Russell Stannard’s research – http://www.teachertrainingvideos.com/jingInReality/index.html

Russell’s work with Brainshark – http://www.teachertrainingvideos.com/brainpod/index.html

Screenr.com – http://www.screenr.com/


Colin Maxwell


A tiny canon: Scottish literature in the classroom

This post can also be read at Raymond Soltysek’s blog,  http://raymondsoltysek.wordpress.com/

The other day, one of my PGDE students came up to me and pulled a couple of sheets of paper from her bag. “Raymond,” she said, “I wanted to show you this. We studied this story at Higher when I was at school.”

It was a copy of a story of mine, “Teuchter Dancing when the Lights Go Out”. I know that some teachers use “The Practicality of Magnolia”, but I was surprised by her teacher’s choice because the story contains more than a few swear words and a brief but explicit sex scene. How brave of him, I thought, and how original.

Education Scotland have published their Scottish set texts list for Higher and National 5 qualifications, and she got me thinking. There has been a vociferous campaign to make the study of Scottish literature compulsory in schools; there is a powerful lobby that says that Scottish schoolchildren should know about Scottish writers. And, in essence, I agree. However, sections of that lobby have also successfully pushed an agenda that prescribes who those Scottish writers schoolchildren study should be, presumably on the grounds that if there is no prescription, there will be no compliance. At that point, we part company.

The list itself is, I feel, a disappointment. It is not that I object to any particular text or writer; it is just that it is a tired rehash of the same old same old that seems to take more account of what texts English departments might have in their store cupboards than what actually might be relevant to pupils today who are studying in the context of the breadth of Curriculum for Excellence. I am particularly depressed by the drama list. Bold Girls may be written by a Scottish writer, but it is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles; hugely contemporary, n’est pas? Always a fairly insubstantial text, it gained currency by being the only option accessible to pupils who might struggle at Higher. Sailmaker by Alan Spence is set in the Glasgow fifty years ago and centres on a boy’s relationship with a father who works in the long gone shipyards; I used it with Standard Grade General classes in the 1980s. Tally’s Blood – a play I admit I don’t know – was written in the 1990s; The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was written in the 1970s; Men Should Weep in the 1940s; and The Slab Boys, set in a 1950s carpet factory in a town that hasn’t seen carpet manufacturing for decades, was written in the late 1970s, and is another that has miles of groaning shelves dedicated to it.

Now I am not criticising these plays – they all have merit – but in a golden age of Scottish Theatre, why is there not one play that has been written in the 21st century? Why have those who have constructed this list ignored David Greig, David Harrower or Gregory Burke? Why are school students studying the Irish troubles when Black Watch might actually connect with what they see on television every day? Where are the really big issues about Scottish history, nationalism and identity that could have been explored through the utterly magnificent Duninsane? It is as if the National Theatre of Scotland never happened, as if it has no relevance to “Scottish literature”.

However, the other genres are little better, I feel. Of all the prose texts, only two were written in the 21st century. And while Anne Donovan, Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig are fine short story writers, there are many, many others who are ignored. Where is Suhayl Saadi or Linda Cracknell? Where are Scottish adoptees like Bernard MacLaverty or Leila Abouela, both Scottish enough to have won a host of Scotland’s major literary awards? Where is the opportunity to pick up occasional brilliances like Beatrice Colin’s “Tangerines” or Michel Faber’s “Fish” – or, dare I say it, “The Practicality of Magnolia”. By prescribing these authors, the range and cultural diversity of Scottish writing is sidelined: there will be no other brave, original choices made, because “the list” will dominate. I cannot understand why Education Scotland didn’t simply trawl through the exam papers of students who write on a wide range of Scottish stories every year and publish a list of a hundred or so that seem to work. It’s tempting to think, looking at the list, that one of the major driving factors was saving money – what do schools already have on the shelf so we don’t have to listen to them asking for funding for new books – but that is hardly relevant for short stories, many of which are freely available online or cheaply available through the photocopier.

As for the novels, I love The Trick is to Keep Breathing, although it is again 23 years old, and James Robertson is a brilliant writer. Sunset Song is for some a classic, for others (like me) a wearisome trudge; again, where is the opportunity to look at the history of rural Scotland through a range of fantastic alternatives, such as Gunn’s The Silver Darlings or Alex Benzies’ The Year’s Midnight? I have yet to hear any teacher I know say a good word about the choice of Kidnapped for the list, including fans of R.L. Stevenson. The Cone Gatherers is a safe choice yet again: I can’t say much against it given that I helped create resources for it ten years ago that are still regularly used in schools, so I may get some in-service work out of it – but would I have been too unhappy to see a novel set 70 years ago ditched for the very best of A.L. Kennedy? I really don’t think so. Scottish literature we want our schoolchildren to read – and A.L. Kennedy isn’t on the list.

As for the poets, thankfully 5 out of the 8 are still alive. Once more, though, where is the imagination? I use a W.N. Herbert poem, Temporal Ode, with Higher pupils because I don’t think any other teacher in Scotland uses it, and because it’s brilliant. So once more, where is the encouragement to introduce Scottish kids to a smorgasbord of Graham Fulton, Jim Carruth, Liz Niven, Gerrie Loose, Gerry Cambridge, Roddy Gorman, Robert Jamieson, Alan Riach, Donny O’Rourke, David Kinloch, Kathleen Jamie, Stuart A. Paterson, Roddy Lumsden, Gerrie Fellows, Bill Herbert, Dilys Rose, Brian McCabe or John Burnside. Come on, John Burnside, for heaven’s sake!

It’s not really a question of who is on and who is not on the list, though; it’s a question of how having a list at all will direct the focus of teachers onto a narrower and narrower range of what pupils will come to see as “Scottish”. We saw it last time texts were prescribed for the Revised Higher, which left us chained to Bold Girls and the poetry of Norman MacCaig. In those days, pupils had to study a set author. For MacCaig, the list consisted of about 13 poems. Assessment consisted of either a context question – a whole poem or extract on which about 16 marks’ worth of questions were based, with the remaining 9 marks assigned to a general question asking about the author’s work as a whole – or an essay, which had to take account of at least two and usually more poems from the list.

When set texts were dropped, though, most schools found themselves with copies of the poems and units of study (many published by my old colleagues at Jordanhill), and so they continued studying MacCaig’s poetry. However, they no longer spent time studying 13 poems; instead, they trimmed that to three, or two, or even only one, and in the mid-2000s, the majority of schoolchildren sitting Higher answered a question using only “Assisi”, “Brooklyn Cop” or “Visiting Hour”. It got so bad, the Examiners had to change the nature of the paper to make it difficult to answer using the poems.

But teachers missed the whole point. In the set text days, studying one poem was never enough to get more than 15 or 16 marks out of 25, since in both forms, the examination paper demanded knowledge of more than one poem. But because it had been prescribed, because it had been given the exam board’s blessing, “Assisi” in particular became the default poem of choice for many teachers in the mistaken knowledge that such blessing meant it was adequately rigorous to get the full range of marks; I spoke to an examiner once who said that many of his colleagues called it “That fucking dwarf poem”. It was that seal of approval that damned a generation of Scottish teenagers to studying what is a short, lightweight poem – and I knew of some schools which studied only that poem – when they could and should have been swimming in a sea of the work of many varied, demanding, fulfilling Scottish poets. And history will repeat itself.

The thing is that the Scottish curriculum has always demanded the study of Scottish literature; it is in every guideline and arrangements document you can find. The issue, then, is oversight in schools, and that is quite easily remedied. Yes, pupils at National 5 and Higher should answer a question on a Scottish text; but why not any Scottish text, or, at least, one from a very, very long list of suggested Scottish texts. Then, teachers can talk about Scottish literature and can read widely around it: they can have professional discussions about the appropriateness of Scottish texts for the curriculum in their schools. And then, a department head can oversee the study of those Scottish texts in the classrooms of their teachers. The knock on effect that would have on interest in Scottish literature – and by implication, on publishing – could be enormous.

Ah, but would they do it? Well, if students have to fill out a box on the front of their exam paper that says “The Scottish text I have used in my examination paper is ……………… “ you can damned well be sure that teachers will train them to fill it out right. They already make sure candidates don’t answer on two texts from the same genre, and train them to within an inch of their lives on all sorts of aspects of the exam, some of them quite bizarre (“My teacher says I’ll fail my essay if I don’t have a conclusion”, many pupils tell me); so why on earth couldn’t they make it crystal clear to pupils that they must make sure they answer a question on text A, B or C because those are the Scottish texts they studied this year?

I’m afraid. I’m afraid that in a sincere attempt to ensure that teachers do study Scottish literature, Scottish literature has in fact been done a great disservice. No teacher will ever do “Teuchter Dancing when the Lights Go Out” again, and although that sounds as if I’m bemoaning my own fate, what disturbs me more is that it will be the fate of the majority of Scottish writers, many of them much more accomplished than me, because they have not made that arbitrary list of the chosen few.

The Full List

National 5 Higher
Drama:Bold Girls by Rona Munro 

Sailmaker by Alan Spence

Tally’s Blood by Ann Marie di Mambro

Drama:The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil by John McGrath 

Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Steward

The Slab Boys by John Byrne

Prose:Short stories (a selection of) by Iain Crichton Smith 

Hieroglyphics and Other Stories by Anne Donovan

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Prose:Short stories (a selection of) by Iain Crichton Smith 

Short stories (a selection of) by George Mackay Brown

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

Poetry:Carol Ann Duffy, Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig, Jackie Kay Poetry:Carol Ann Duffy, Robert Burns, Don Paterson, Liz Lochhead, Sorley MacLean (in English)


I’m not your Stepping Stone…

I’ve been reading a lot lately, both online in blogs and tweets and in things like TES, about Learning Outcomes and the varying schools of thought around their efficacy or otherwise.

Reading the supposed gurus (no names, no pack drill) and their published texts, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had to use them all the time and get the jargon  exactly right or no learning would ever take place.

I remember a lecture/tutorial thing from my time at Jordanhill (BA Sport in the Community, not BEd…) when we had a session during a block about coaching and the coaching process. Our tutor, a venerable ex PE teacher and Scotland Rugby Internationalist, asked us questions along the lines of “are Learning Outcomes goals we MUST get to? Are there stepping stones on the way? What might they be called? Are they objectives? Must we do things in a certain way and with a certain vocabulary to get the best results?”

He summed up, after we’d batted the idea about for a good ninety minutes, with something I still think is valid today:

It doesn’t matter what you call them as long as they tell you what you want to do, how you’re going to get there and how you’ll know if you’ve done it or not.

I also “studied” (attended lectures, rattled off an assignment) Marketing at the time as part of the course. They like their objectives those Marketing guys. That’s fair enough, people (companies, businesses, public sector organisations) are spending a lot of money to promote whatever it is they need to promote, so it’s only right that there are checks and balances in place to ensure they’re getting a fair bang for their buck.

One way of doing that is to ensure that any plan/campaign/initiative they devise has an associated set of targets. They like to call them “SMART Targets” – I’m sure you’ve heard of them. It’s an acronym. Now, for me, acronyms are generally hateful things but this one stands up well.

The exact nomenclature changes depending on the publication you read but SMART is generally taken to mean that a target must be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound
These, I hope, are pretty much self-explanatory but just in case here’s another wee version of the same. The crux of it is that things (whatever they may be) can’t work well or at any rate *efficiently* if you don’t have an agreed timetable for them to happen to.
Other acronyms, WALT and WILF are often maligned and, to be fair, I’m not keen on the anthropomorphism of them into “characters” but I accept that it’s good to have something to hang your lesson and ideas on.

I don’t always use the phrase “We are learning to…” with the class, sometimes it’s “we are looking at…” or “we’d like to know if…” but the bottom line is the same: it says what you’re hoping to do. I never have too many “WALTS” because then it gets busy, messy and difficult to evaluate but I do always try to flag up any accidental/serendipitious learning after the lesson.

For example, I might write up on the whiteboard during the plenary (tick!):

WALT “x…y…z” – we know we achieved it because “…(revisit WILF)” and We Also Found/Learned/Discovered….

In the Curriculum for Excellence this kind of “accidental learning” or discovery is the kind that I’m finding more and more of.

Today in Science with p4-7 we started off on vinegar and baking soda and ended up looking at the Giant’s Causeway. Don’t ask. It does however mean that, through the children’s own enquiry, we’ve now collaboratively mapped out some possibilities to explore in the coming weeks, everything from studying basalt to trying to organise a talk about the geological history of Ben Nevis.

If I’d put up a strict (ie must-be-adhered-to) list of objectives/targets/whatevers for yesterday’s  lesson then anyone sitting with a checklist would have failed the lot of us yet I’d argue we all got more out of the session as a result of discussions and “happy accidents”.

That’s not to say, of course, that we can ignore plans and pre-determined Outcomes – we must keep them there if we want to ensure appropriate coverage in terms of depth and progression – but they can’t be an enslaving ideology, they must be more of a guiding principle. Surely that’s not too much of a Mission (Statement): Impossible?


Testing Testing 1,2,3…

How should we be assessing our pupils? Why are we assessing and for who’s benefit?

I am currently teaching two S1 Science classes, being the sole teacher of one and teaching the other two periods from three. Several week ago, I announced to each of these groups in turn that they would shortly be sitting a written end of unit assessment for the topic they had just finished. The response from one of these classes left me thinking:

Why do we have so many Science tests?

How come we have had three Science tests already and hardly any in other subjects?

Both classes, in little over a term, have completed three summative end of unit tests as well as a skills assessment at the very beginning of their first year. What purpose have these tests served?

The skills assessment which pupils undertook allowed us to look at their problem solving skills and their ability to identify and perform tasks with common practical equipment. This will be used, in conjunction with a second skills assessment, to measure how the practical and problem solving abilities of this current cohort improves (hopefully!) over the course of the year. But what of the summative written tests?

Each topic thus far has been accompanied by its own test. 30 marks, split into knowledge & understanding and problem solving. There has been some remedial work carried out with each assessment, by way of reviewing answers which are incorrect and attempting to fill in gaps in knowledge but what are they measuring? For me, the method of questioning being employed is allowing those pupils who are able to remember facts and figures to flourish while it doesn’t appear to be doing much, if anything, to improve the confidence of those who may struggle with recall. Indeed these pupils are the ones who display anxiety when it comes to sitting these tests and receiving their mark in return.

How can we change this? How can we allow student to demonstrate understanding rather than questioning it? Science is a wondrous subject. It is a curricular area where pupils can easily identify with and are constantly reminded of pioneers who go beyond the realms of what was once considered possible to prove new theories and to test new ideas. Why shouldn’t their assessments match this and test the imagination, ingenuity and understanding of our pupils over their ability to regurgitate facts and figures?

With this in mind, I have come up with an idea for assessment. Having completed their unit assessment, both classes will now spend the next week working on a project. I believe engagement in this task will give a much clearer view of progression and allow pupils to demonstrate their gained knowledge and understanding of the current topic while displaying their ability to present information, use problem solving and analytical skills to make informed judgements and decisions.

I am very keen to see the outcome of this work and I am geniunly intrigued as to whether pupils who have struggled thus far with testing have been allowed to flourish by undertaking an alternative form of assessment in a much less pressured environment. Only time will tell, but I certainly hope they are as keen as I am to undertake the task.

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.

FiSH and Tips

(Sorry about the terrible title – try to find it in your hearts to forgive me!)

We’ve been looking for some ways to improve peer feedback in our marking and assessment. As a school we have agreed on a model that is based on:

1/3 ‘Flick and Tick’ (an acknowledgement of work done in draft books: notes, planning, etc.)
1/3 Self or peer assessment
1/3 Close teacher marking and detailed feedback

Which is all well and good but, as we know, the quality of student feedback can be patchy:

“Dis is mint!!! Luv it!!! <3 :-P

“I love the way you have coloured in Thomas Hardy’s moustache”

“This is well crap.”

So I loved the blogpost by @lisajaneashes here: http://lisajaneashes.edublogs.org/2012/04/ which detailed the idea of Kind, Specific, Helpful feedback framework originally developed by Ron Berger. I thought Lisa’s blogpost perfectly illustrated how students might grasp an understanding of it through the fishes metaphor. (You’ll have to read it really or you’ll think I’m barking, because fish feature a fair bit in this post).

So I took the Kind Specific Helpful idea to school and tried it out on a few colleagues, and, to make it clear, I thought it would be useful to demonstrate it by showing the process as we went along, using @lisajaneashes’ analogy of improving the drawing of a fish.

I drew a really simple fish (literally a one-line drawing with a dot for an eye)

And then I asked each person “What do you think of my fish?” Most people replied that it “seemed OK” (although one member of SLT did say “It’s a bit crap”. Way to boost my self-esteem, Alan!)

So then I asked “What do you think of it if I said it’s supposed to be realistic?” and each person this time agreed it wasn’t the best! (Al said “It’s even crapper than I thought then.”)

I said I needed some help to make it better… BUT they had to make their feedback Kind Specific and Helpful. (KIND, Alan, Kind.)

And then the process started whereby they acted – much like the students in Lisa’s blog – to give much better guidance.

So I drew another line fish – either on paper or on a whiteboard each time – and improved it using their advice, but they weren’t allowed to draw it for me; they had to explain to me what I needed to do and I would act on their KSH advice, e.g.

“Maybe make the mouth rounder and have bubbles coming out.”

“Draw some scales on the fish.”

“Do some fins.”

“Make the tail bigger and draw little lines along it so we can see its texture.”

After a little while, we had a much better, more realistic fish. And we compared it to the original version and agreed that it was 1) greatly improved and 2) the K.S.H. feedback had made it so.

Yes, OK, it’s not brilliant but surely an improvement, and you can see what I mean…

I went through this process several times with different colleagues and each time the process – and delight in the process – was great.

It was when I was showing it to some of my English colleagues that one of them had a bit of a brainwave. “If you changed ‘Kind’ to ‘Friendly’, it would almost look like FiSH feedback: F.S.H. rather than K.S.H.”. Brilliant!

I ran it all past some of my classes before embarking on some peer feedback and the responses and quality of feedback was fabulous. Other colleagues agreed when they tried it with their own classes, in a range of subjects.

So then I designed a poster using this as the framework for use in classrooms in every subject. We introduced it across school and now everyone knows what ‘FiSH feedback’ is so it’s now part of our vocabulary.

I’m indebted to @lisajaneashes for kindly allowing me to ‘magpie’ her thoughts and write about this as an example of how other teachers’ ideas can develop and grow from one idea to another.

Cross-posted from Ed-U-Like

Testing the water #PedagooReview
December 22, 2012

Feeling like a naughty student who has tiptoed into the office to steal coke from the bottom drawer, as a PGCE student I’m perhaps the least qualified person to be posting on this site, but I delivered what I felt was a good lesson. It was one that showed progress, differentiation and reflective learning. But, more importantly, I enjoyed it and got to crack one of my now infamous fat-teacher jokes…

The premise of the lesson was to give my Y9 students the opportunity to improve their PEA paragraph responses to the novel Stone Cold, focussing specifically on Reading AF5. They had produced several PEA paragraphs over the previous fortnight which had been quality marked with suggestions for improvement.

Connecting the Learning

As usual, my students were greeted by my cheery self at the door, at which point I handed them a PEA Paragraph Progress Pack (alliteration, I know). On the board were a series of rewards students could earn within the lesson based on their effort (I had seen this done by another teacher attempting an ambitious lesson, and lets face it, the opportunity to introduce chocolate into a lesson is always a good thing…).  Within the PPP packs there were two questions about the novel, and a number between one and four on the top of the pack. Beneath each question and answer box was a table of AF5 success criteria for levels four, five and six. Students had to complete the first question in silence with very little support, although they could request hints and tips sheets to aide their structuring of the answer and some key literary terminology. Once students had completed the question I asked them to mark their work by ticking off the AF5 success criteria they felt they had met in their responses, as we had spent the previous lesson discussion their APP grids. Students seemed to enjoy the opportunity to critique their own work; however upon reflection they were perhaps overly generous. In hindsight I would have asked them to mark their initial responses AFTER the ‘New Information’ section of the lesson.

Learning Objective

Today’s mission was split into two key objectives to cover all aspects of what my students were learning:

What are we learning?

  • We are analysing how Swindells uses language to present character in a way that meets at least level 5 criteria.
  • We are identifying ways to improve and develop our analytical responses.

How are we learning?

  • We are working independently to improve our work.

Why are we learning this?

  • To make us all super-groovy, AF-smashing cats…

New Information

Perhaps the weakest section of my lesson, as confirmed when my tutor described it as ‘too much chalk and talk’. There was, however, no chalk. My intention here was to model to the class how we as teachers mark their work and identify the feature of AF5 to determine their current ‘working at’ level. Due to the time restraints of the lesson I made the error of simply showing the students responses on the board, and highlighting their differences to show them how to build their answers from level four through to level six. This would have worked so much better if I had given the students copies of the sample answers and asked them to mark it, but the students did (eventually) understand how to engineer their responses into the higher banding. Its at this point that I should have asked students to mark their initial responses, as they now had a much clearer insight into how to mark their work and how to identify the success criteria for AF5.

Searching for Meaning

This is the part of the lesson I had been most excited about, at the time I was absolutely terrified that it could become a HUGE disaster if the students lost focus and drifted completely off-topic. Around the room were four student support stations (another literary device, I know), each numbered one to four. Students then had to go the station which corresponded to the number on their pack, thereby creating four completely randomised groups. Students were given five minutes at each station to collect information that would help them improve their responses and in particular help them push into the level five and six success criteria. Students were able to personalise their learning to their own specific needs in light of their self-assessment and earlier quality marking feedback. The four stations were as follows:

  1. The Term-Table: This consisted of about a dozen key literary terms such as onomatopoeia, metaphor and rhetorical questions. Students were able to learn about what the terms meant, the sorts of effects they can have on the reader, and they could also see several examples of each term, some taken from their novel, Stone Cold.
  2. The Levelator: This was another opportunity for them to study how student responses are marked. I had put A2 size PEA paragraphs on the wall, all in response to the same question. I had then quality marked each paragraph, highlighting the AF5 criteria which had been met, as well as features of style that were worthy of recognition. Students used these examples to compare their own work to, to see if their answers could be improved using the formats on the wall.
  3. Dictionary Corner: Students were given dictionaries, thesauruses and learning mats here, primarily to give them an opportunity to focus on their style. I encouraged students to reflect over their work to see if they could broaden their vocabulary and thereby improve their style. It also gave them an opportunity to clarify any terms or vocabulary they were unfamiliar with.
  4. Interactive Question Map: Without question everyone’s favourite station. On the IWB I had created a mind map of topics that students may wish to ask questions about, anything from integrating quotations to analysing language was up there, students were able to touch the question they wanted to ask and then be taken to a page explaining how to tackle the issue. If students were still uncertain they could touch the information tab which would take them to a worked example. Students found this really useful, as alongside the complete personalisation it offered them, they were able to discuss with other members of their group how it had improved their understanding.

Students were totally engaged throughout the carousel, and were making sure that they squeezed every last drop of useful information from each of the stations. I also saw a more holistic transformation of my class. They had gone from a group of severely apathetic individuals who didn’t remotely care about PEA paragraphs, to a cohort of active custodians of their own learning, keen to share how what they were collecting was helping their understanding, and probing me for further information to drive them onto the higher criteria.

Demonstrating their newly acquired loaf

Once each group had visited every station they were invited back to their seats and given a few moments to reflect upon what they had collected and relate it to their initial PEA paragraph response at the start of the lesson. They were then asked to complete the second question in the booklet; using the information they had collected during the lesson to improve their responses. Again the activity was carried out in silence to make sure they focussed solely on demonstrating their progress. Once they had completed the question they had to mark their answer using the same success criteria from the start of the lesson so that they could see if they had made tangible, measurable progress in meeting the AF5 success criteria for levels five and six.

Reviewing and Reflecting

Students were given an ‘Exit Passport’ to complete in which they reviewed new things that they had learned, things they found easy and difficult and something they were still unsure about so that I could inform the planning of my next lesson. Students were given the merits promised at the start of the lesson as a reward for their fantastic work and then left, each ever so slightly more competent and confident with their AF5 abilities. For those 60 minutes, every one of these pupils became one of my groovy, AF-smashing cats…

This was by no means a perfect lesson, there were flaws just about everywhere. But in terms of a review of my pedagogical year it was a great lesson, as my students learned a huge amount about my subject, as well as huge amount about me and my pride at taking two seats up on the bus (allegedly…see earlier reference to fat-teacher jokes).  I also learned a huge amount about them, perhaps more than I’d learned in the entire two weeks I’d been teaching them. I also learned a huge amount about what goes into to making a successful lesson, as it was arguably the first lesson in which I was able to act a professional, reflective practitioner.

Now where did I put that Christmas gin…