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Grid(un)locked-inspiring creative poetry analysis
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After 18 months in Special Measures and being constantly under scrutiny (a particularly devastating blow to our department – we’d just attained 81% A*-C against a target of 69% when it happened) we’re always looking for new and interesting ways to bring engaging ideas into our classrooms. This idea came about in February as we were bracing ourselves for another Ofsted visit and has been a massive success with Year 10 and Year 11.

Here’s how it works:

1. Students work in pairs/groups with a poetry grid and two dice (tip-use foam dice!)
2. Take it in turns to roll the dice and answer the question. Others can add to/ expand an answer to raise to overall level of response once they’ve exhausted their ideas
3. If a double is rolled, talk on the topic area for 30 secs without hesitation, deviation… (you get the gist)

It’s simple, effective and fun but there’s more to it than just being a grid with pretty colours. Firstly, the questions are all linked to the mark scheme descriptors for the exam. The one in the picture is designed for the AQA unseen question and I’ve also created an adapted version for the Anthology poetry. This allows students to respond to the poems in a way that is directly beneficial to the exam skills they have to demonstrate.

Secondly, The colours aren’t random. Each colour is linked to a different area: pink=structure, purple=feelings and attitudes/mood and tone, yellow=language, blue=themes and ideas, orange=talk for 30secs, green (without doubt the favourite with students)=creative connections and ideas (not directly linked to a specific mark scheme area but to access the poem in a different way and just maybe come up with something that unlocks the poem in a way they wouldn’t have considered).

Thirdly, the way they choose the question to answer is differentiated. Say they roll a two and a four. If they take the larger number horizontally across the grid and the smaller number vertically, the question will be more challenging than if they do it vice versa. All the questions require thinking about but I think that to access discussion and ideas at the highest levels students often need to ‘warm up’ and this is one way they can do it.

You’ll see in the picture I also made a vocabulary grid to use alongside the game. Eight of the boxes link to the question areas, one includes the tentative language (could, may, might, possibly) we’d encourage students to use when exploring Literature. Whilst the words on the vocabulary grid are pretty comprehensive, I also made sure they fully covered anything students might need for the ‘Relationships’ cluster in the AQA Anthology.

For Year 11 who have studied all the poems and are preparing from the exam, they have used the grid in a few ways. Sometimes we focus on two specific poems. This is particularly useful prior to writing a ‘powergraph’ (more on this another time but it’s transformed the approach for our more able students). I mentioned creativity earlier. Combining the questions with a pick-a-poem style (ie pick two poems randomly from a bag/spinner) has generated all sorts of links and connections that students might never have thought about otherwise.

In whole class feedback, there a couple of ways it can been taken further. I usually ask what the most perceptive point is that someone in a group has made so everyone can benefit from different ideas. I’ll also ask which question has promoted the best discussion in the group-it can vary for different poems. I’ll then give students extra time to continue discussions, possibly looking at questions mentioned in the feedback part but they can also look at questions of a certain colour if the dice have missed out any areas or even just choose a question they fancy.

One of the other benefits that my less confident students have found is that certain questions really help them unlock ideas. These are the questions they revise and when going into an exam they can consider them if they are stuck. Many of my Year 10s reported this was the technique that helped them the most in their recent Unseen Poetry mock.

It’s interactive, fun and relevant. The responses are genuinely worth it and encourage students to think in a way that isn’t gimmicky but genuinely higher level. That’s been my experience anyway!

I’m happy to email the resources via DM.

Aimee

LEGpO (or Po-Lego) – Genius Idea
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Like nearly all of my recent great ideas this one was magpied from twitter.  The genius (no inverted commas) behind the idea is Rachael Stevens @murphiegirl whose very clear explanation for it all can be found here.

I can, however, take ALL the credit for renaming it LEGpO or LEG-PO if you prefer, as opposed to PO-LEGO.  I know, I’m clutching at straws.  The simple fact of the matter is whatever you want to call it – it works.  It works brilliantly in fact.

LEGO is engaging – everyone likes it (and those of us who’ve received a tweet from @LEGOBennylike it just that little bit more).  If you’ve piqued interest in kids then you’ve already won – or at least you haven’t lost..yet.

Start off with two LEGO structures you made earlier (I know I should reference Blue Peter  here, but I was always more of a Children’s Ward/Press Gang kid) and from there on it’s straight forward.  You suggest what the structures could represent, and at this stage it is all very abstract – you’re talking about themes and ideas as opposed to specific poems.  ”If these represent two love poems what do we expect from them?” Students’ prior knowledge, suddenly flows back to them, “the perfect one is like a sonnet ’cause the form is rigid”, “yeah, but the other one is like ‘Hour’.  You think that’s gonna be a sonnet because it’s fourteen lines, but the rhyme scheme is off.” “That’s because they’re lesbians!” Like i said – straight forward.

Then the fun really starts.  You need enough LEGO to go around – I don’t suggest you leave it until the morning of your lesson to negotiate with your own children if you plan on borrowing it.  I had a very upset seven year old on my hands when I tried to help myself to his, he actually wanted to count out the number of pieces I was taking in case they needed replacing!

Armed with a copy of the GCSE Anthology and free rein to choose any poem they had studied, pupils created their own structures.  We did have to stop after a few minutes, in order to explain that building “the most awesome spaceship ever” was not on-task behaviour, despite the very strong argument that in ‘The Manhunt’ there are couplets and “this is a two seater!”.

Eventually, every group stood and presented their creations – justifying the reasons for their choices.  And that element of the feedback was probably the most useful.  By now they all considered themselves ‘Master Builders’ as well as ‘Poetry Experts’ and they grilled each other.  Each time a group presented the questions got tougher – as they tried to trip each other up.  Each time a group presented the reasoning became stronger and more closely matched to the requirements of a Band 5 response.

I noticed a tweet that described LEGpO as ‘genius’ (complete with the inverted commas of the skeptic).  Well, I really do think it is genius. I think anything that engages twenty-five Year 11 students who’ve already spent the whole day studying English, when the rest of the school have a day off, really is genius.  But then I would think that. I did , after all, build the most awesome two seater spaceship ever!

Entry and Exit Slips
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This week I tried Entry and Exit Slips.

I’ll come clean from the beginning: this was for an interview. I didn’t get the job. But it’s a strategy I would definitely use to get students to reflect on and articulate their progress and their learning. I’d definitely use it for an observed lesson again.

The slips themselves were simple. They had two columns, the ‘Entry’ part slightly smaller than the ‘Exit’ part, and they had a question related to the learning objective repeated in both columns. For this lesson, it was ‘What do you know about how to identify the meaning, ideas and emotions in a poem you have never seen before?’ (I’d been asked to teach Year 10 Unseen Poetry.) I’ve seen several templates which just use ‘Exit’ slips, getting students to write down what they’ve learned, but I wanted them one the same piece of paper, so students could compare what they knew at the beginning to what they knew at the end.

As the students were entering the classroom, I gave them the slips. This was a useful ‘Bellwork’ task, as it got the students doing something as soon as they came in. It also got them immediately thinking about the topic and objective of the lesson.

I gave students permission to write ‘I don’t know,’ and most of the students did that. Some wrote down things like ‘Pick out key words’ and one or two wrote ‘PEE.’ One wrote ‘Read it through,’ which I thought was a good start!

Then I taught the lesson, based around ‘Funeral Blues’ by WH Auden. As they were an able group, I challenged them to look for alternative interpretations and to engage with the emotions of the poet.

In the last 5 minutes, I asked the students to complete their Exit Slips. There was absolute silence as 28 students tried to articulate the strategies they had learned in the last hour. Across the room, the exit slips were filled. I read a few (chosen at random) out at the very end of the lesson, to celebrate achievement, but I have read them all since coming home. They are packed with strategies they used during the lesson, and, interestingly, each is slightly different.

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It’s a strategy I’ll definitely be using again, and an easily adaptable resource. Just what I like.

Mapping the Learning Journey
March 10, 2014
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Image by flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04Image by flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04

This week, I tried mapping a learning journey, as described by The Learning Spy. I did it with my Year 11 class, who were studying The Yellow Palm from the GCSE English Literature Anthology. They are half-way through studying the cluster, and I’ve taught them (on and off) for a long time. They are also my most able and best behaved class. I really like them, and I;m confident trying new things with them.

Showing them a visual representation of their Learning Journey gives them an outline of the lesson. This gets them to link where they have been with what they are doing and where they are going.

Mine looked like this:

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 14.36.39

I had it on the board when they came in. Although they are used to having a starter or some bellwork on the board when they come in, it needed some explanation, but they were soon able to join in: “So, then we’ll annotate the poem?” and “Why’s the same picture at the start and the end?” “Because we’ll answer the questions at the end that we had at the start.”

One of the most useful features of this technique is that it gives your students a sense of direction. They like knowing where they’re up to, and what’s going to happen next. It also gave them a sense of purpose: we used the Question Matrix at the beginning, knowing they were going to answer the questions at the end. Incidentally, I hadn’t used the Question Matrix before, but I’ll definitely be using it again, especially for the Unseen Poetry – their questions were excellent.

Yes, preparing the slide did take a bit of time, particularly finding the images, but I do think it was time well spent. Many of the images can be generic, like the ‘Activity Stations’ one, so that’s an easy thing to do.

I’ll definitely be doing the Learning Journey again.

Focus: Engagement
March 1, 2014
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Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/csufnewsphotos/9395701378/Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/csufnewsphotos/9395701378/

I’ve been teaching for nearly 10 years now, always in challenging contexts. My first school was more mad than sane, and managing behaviour in a broadly system free school took up more of my time and energy than I care to admit. When I moved to my current school, behaviour was better, but, more importantly, the systems were in place to support me and my students. I started challenging myself to improve my teaching without worrying about the impact on behaviour. I tried structured group work, independent research tasks. I had the kids out of their seats and moving around. In my previous context, this would have been simply frightening.

In 2011-12, two things really improved my teaching. Firstly, I introduced co-operative learning in to all of my lessons. All of my students, no matter their needs, were able to participate in structured group and pair tasks. Talk for learning became positive and constructive. My classroom became a more enjoyable place to be. Although sometimes my students will moan about having to get up and do Quiz Quiz Trade, within a few minutes they are laughing and learning.

The second thing I did was to improve my marking. For me, initially, I marked every book, every lesson. I had previously either ‘ticked and flicked’ or done detailed marking of assessments. I hated marking books, as I would try to do two weeks worth of work in a single Sunday afternoon. This transformed my kids’ work. They really appreciated the fast turnaround. I was able to pick up on presentational issues. My marking really started to inform my planning. Levelling work and marking assessments became much faster, and my feedback became more relevant. I got my kids to do the things I had asked them to in my feedback.

This year (I spent 2012-13 on maternity leave), I have developed this. This has been a whole-school initiative, but now, I mark in green pen. If it is a formal assessed piece, I complete my feedback on a table, which the student has stuck in for me.

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Underneath my feedback, which contains a ‘Do It Now’ task, I stick a yellow sticker. In the following lesson, the students complete the ‘Do It Now’ task, in read pen. Their response to marking is clear and obvious. You can really start to see the learning journey and the progress over time.

So my marking is pretty good. My behaviour management is pretty good (after years of refinement). My students make good progress. They are challenged, and the pitch and pace are generally good. This is all fine.

However, I think my teaching could be much more engaging. My students don’t really enjoy my lessons as much as they could. They aren’t memorable enough. So this year (and I do appreciate that we are now half way through it), I’m focusing on engagement.

I’ve got a list of things to try – all nicked from twitter and teaching blogs – and I’ll work my way through. I plan to blog about them on the way. I’m definitely not the most creative person in the world, and with a small child, I can’t be spending all weekend creating fancy activities. But I am prepared to spend a bit of time, energy and thought into making my lessons stand out from the rest.

Nurturing a Love of Learning #PedagooWonderland
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Once again it gives me great pleasure to write about the brilliant Pedagoo event #Pedagoowonderland held at Joseph Swan Academy on Saturday 7th December. For me it can only be described as an incredible Saturday in so many ways, but mainly because of my wonderful year 11 students!

I can’t actually believe it is a full six months since our last event, #Pedagoosunshine which was a resounding success. With this in mind we really didn’t want to rest on our laurels and were determined to build upon Sunshine and make it bigger and better. So we took all of the lessons that we learned from Sunshine and #Pedagoowonderland was born. Our primary aim in the true spirit of Pedagoo was to create a high quality professional learning event in a relaxed atmosphere where educators could collaborate, share, develop and grow. We wanted to inspire both ourselves and others and as always, learn exciting new ideas to take back to our schools and academies. We wanted it to be fun, social and the kind of event that people talk about for a long time afterwards and I hope I am not mistaken in saying that this is what transpired. I was truly humbled by the messages of thanks and congratulations across the weekend, yet for me it was the generosity of spirit and commitment of every single workshop presenter that made it so special.

One of the best educational books I have ever had the pleasure of reading is Sir John Jones ‘The Magic Weaving Business’ and in this he explores the fact that teachers are powerful script makers inside a child’s head. What we say to them makes all of the difference. This book made me cry (if you read a bit further, you will see this is a common theme!) It made me want to be a better teacher and actually a better person. I knew therefore when planning Wonderland that for me it was about making a difference, to each other, to our staff back at school and most importantly our young people. The central theme of the day had to be about, not just nurturing learning, but nurturing a love of learning and I think that this is what we saw on Saturday 7th December at Joseph Swan. In ‘The Magic Weaving Business’ Sir John talks about going the extra mile for the students and he says it should be for the love of it, because you care. How many extra miles did you see on Saturday? I know that I saw a lot; I know that I saw many ‘magic weavers’ on Saturday and I’m not just talking about the workshop presenters, but they were present everywhere. This is what I aspire to be- a magic weaver.

I’d like to share with you my experience of my own session, particularly for those who didn’t attend. The session was led by 7 students from my year 11j2 class. Every day that I teach them, they make me proud, but on Saturday they were simply outstanding, in the true sense of the word. I was blown away by their enthusiasm, right from the minute that I asked who wanted to be involved and most importantly questioned them about why they wanted to be involved. Their response ‘Well Miss we get to tell a load of teachers how they should be teaching us, why would we not want to be involved?’ Maybe the lure of hoodies and pizza also provided an initial appeal but I have to say they took charge of it all, right from the very beginning!

I feel that before I tell you where they ended up on Saturday, I should describe our very first meeting. I vividly remember almost skipping to their first English lesson, thinking great, they are a set 2 class, they’re going to love English (how naïve, for a teacher of 15 years!) One of the first questions I asked them was ‘Who loves English?’ and guess what… not a single person put their hand up. The second question I asked was ‘well who likes English?’- two students raised their hands. I remember being gutted and in full on panic mode arrogantly told them- ‘Well I can guarantee that by the end of year 11, all of you will like it, some of you will love it and a few of you may even want to become English teachers’ After the lesson, with clarity of thought, I may have sworn a little and thought, how am I going to pull that one off and why did I say it??? But I did and I knew I couldn’t let them down. I suppose looking back that was the day that I really began to consciously develop as a teacher. I had been in my last school 15 years and needed a new challenge (anyone that knows me, knows how much I love a challenge!) and here it was. I can honestly hand on heart say that I have learned so, so much from them- they have made me a better teacher without a shadow of a doubt. They are open and honest with me; they tell me when something’s not working or it is rubbish or they’d rather do it a different way. They keep me on my toes!

So we come to Pedagoo and their role. We met initially on a rainy Wednesday afternoon and I simply asked them 3 questions- what would your dream teacher look like in your eyes (and not physically!!!) what strategies have we used in class that have made you love learning and how have your attitudes to learning changed since Key Stage 3? I couldn’t shut them up! They had loads of ideas, discussions and Little Miss Bossy (Emma) took control of how it would be structured. After the initial planning stage, I met with them a few more times and have to say was surprised at their nervousness. However, I needn’t have worried, as on Saturday they were amazing. They absolutely took control over the session and absolutely ‘taught the teacher’ They dished out ‘Bank of Hutch’ money to the teachers they thought gave them a deserving answer, they questioned the teachers present and implored them to improve their vocabulary in ‘Pass the Paragraph’ They very strictly awarded and deducted points in ‘Hutch’s Hotspots’ They were passionate, confident, articulate and just amazing! I was so very, very proud of them (and again I had a tear in my eye) They may think I’ve taught them well, but I know they’ve taught me more than they will ever know. This post is therefore dedicated to my wonderful students- Emma (Little Miss Bossy), Logan (Mr Hungry) Levi, (Little Miss Sunshine) Amy (Little Miss Neat) Lidia (Little Miss Perfect) Billie (Little Miss Splendid) and Ursene (Mr Forgetful) who showed me not only who I am and what I do, but what I might become.

Here’s some feedback for you guys:
‘Thanks for such a wonderful session- what an amazing set of pupils’
‘An inspirational set of students. Thanks for your advice’
‘One word- fantastic! – forget the perfect teacher, you guys are the perfect students’
‘What an incredible bunch of students…’

Jane Hutchison (Assistant Head Teacher- Teaching for Learning)
Joseph Swan Academy

#PedagooWonderland

0530 on a Saturday morning is difficult, cold and after another long night of the ashes, very miserable. However, I was off to a Pedagoo event, packed with exciting speakers, thoughtful teachers, inspiring individuals and I was pretty confident that my chosen Saturday CPD event was going to be brilliant. It was…

The first thing that blew me away (after registering with the very welcoming pupils of the school) was the amazing building. It was bright, clean, tidy and very much the type of modern building I come to expect when I go ‘somewhere nice’. Just as our children know when they are being shortchanged as regards use of windows XP on old PC’s, they know it when they walk into a dingy building which is in desperate need of a paint job. Michael Gove said that the building and environment of a school makes no difference. I drive past these buildings at Fettes and Stewart’s Melville on the way to my school every day. Clearly, environment makes a difference.

The other thing about the building I loved was the use of images of Joseph Swan children working, often with ideas about how they work, or slogans/quotations about respect, reading etc behind them. That is something I will try and create in the next couple of weeks if energies allow as it looks so good and inspires.

Whilst having my complimentary tea and danish pastry (which would contravene the bring your own tea and biscuits policy of many councils) I set about reading my welcome pack. I loved the Happy Mondays leaflet which contained loads of great, ready to use, ideas for enhancing and reinforcing learning in the classroom. The Happy Mondays reference is because the teachers at Joseph Swan receive and e-mail every Monday, with a new idea or resource in it from their SMT. I love that idea!

MY first session of the day was in the Reading Room (and what an amazing space that is…) with David Hodgson. David talked about how we learn and how we can use techniques in the classroom to help children learn and remember how they learned things. As a primary teacher I get asked lots of questions from the children and my most frequent answer to them is good question. I don’t believe in throwing the knowledge confetti about for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’m not convinced the children will remember it whilst they walk back to their desks and secondly I (or A.N.Other teacher) will not always be there for them when they have a question or want to learn something. The things we did in his session were all practical examples of an NLP approach, and I was so impressed I bought his book for my Kindle this morning. He used this pupil feelings graphic in his session too which I find a useful tool to have by my desk in the class room. Something David said which rang a bell was that we should ensure our children ‘Have a get out clause for children when they don’t learn’. This is vital, so often our children get way more stressed than we ever do about a wrong answer. We need them to take risks, get it wrong, change it and get it wrong again, smiling all the time! That is a successful learner right there.

The next session was with Rachel Orr who is HT at Holy Trinity Rosehill Her workshop was about developing writing through Primary Learning and specifically using Pie Corbett’s talk for writing work. I had worked on a Pie Corbett workshop for writing day before (January 2007??) and it was amazing. I’ve bought a few of his books and love his approach to writing. There is a lot of material on the internet too to supplement his written work. I also liked the punctuation sounds and actions which children are to use when they are talking and can then reinforce the assessment process in class. Rachel has used Pie’s work in two differing schools now and shared with us examples of the successes her young writers had, and these examples cal be seen on her school blogs. Rachel gave us a disk with loads of fantastic resources on, many her own work (the learning keys are a great idea!).

During lunch I met some great folk including @spiceweasel77 who is doing some brilliantly exciting things with his class!

After lunch it was on to Hywel Roberts session. Hywel spoke passionately and humourously about creating contexts in the curriculum, allowing the children to view the learning they are given through their own filters and engaging children in their learning. I made loads of notes during Hywel’s session and later tweeted many of them. Here’s the quotations I tweeted:

‘It’s our job to get the World thinking.’

‘We need to dig learning holes for our children to fall into.’

‘we are the people who make sense of the curriculum we are given. ‘

‘Have a what’s great 2 mins at the start of staff meetings’

‘we need to induct our kids into learning’

‘all of these things are just doing the job we’ve been asked to do. That we’re paid for. ‘

I’ve got Hywel’s book and it’s a great read. I need to do more of this in my classes. It’s great stuff. I was incredibly impressed with Hywel and the way he works in schools.

Finally, my last session was about using enquiry based learning in maths. Stephanie Thirtle took this session, she is a maths teacher at Joseph Swan. (I’d love The Girl to have her as a maths teacher, lessons would be so interesting!)
We did some enquiry based openers which really got us thinking and she talked about the approach of letting the children work things out for themselves, rather than an I teach then you do model. I love the work things out idea and think the way she’s bringing it to maths in a high school works really well. Much of the rationale for enquiry based learning was on her presentation and clearly showed examples of enquiry based learning which we could use as one-off lessons or develop for a maths topic. Such things investigating square numbers, straight line graphs using algebra, and one which P7 will be seeing soon – 12 Days of Christmas maths.
Her room displays were wonderful and I snapped many of them on my phone and you can see them here. I particularly liked that ways she put maths into context making it real for the children.
That chimed so well with the session from Hywel previously.

I came away with my head full of wonderful ideas and a bag full of goodies!
So, what next…well before Christmas I will make some posters of children and their ideas about learning to go up in school and I will also make some musical posters for the music room.

After Christmas I will take loads more of these ideas and run with them. It’ll be different, fun and learning will happen.

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.

A Light That Never Goes Out
September 15, 2013
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Cross-posted from http://justtryingtobebetter.net/

This may or may not have happened.

He handed me his first piece of writing homework and, of course, it was illegible. ‘I’m not good at writing’, he’d told me. We’d been working on lists: Things I lost by the time I was ten or Things I’d been given by the time I was ten. He wanted to tell me about his hamster. He’d stayed behind to tell me all about it: how he lost it in his garden and feels sad about it; how he’d look after it more if he still had it. I told him to write it all down at home.

Being ‘not good at writing’ wasn’t a surprise. The notes I’d been passed from the ASN team told me that. He would feel better if he was given a laptop to write his work, something his previous teacher echoed. He had great ideas but there’s no point in him writing it in his class book as you won’t be able to read it. Better to type it up. He’ll feel better about it and you won’t need to struggle to decipher his handwriting. And I thought to myself, ‘No. It’s time to stop this nonsense.’

He’s twelve and the most important thing he has learned so far in seven years of school is, ‘I’m not good at writing.’ And that’s not good enough, is it? We might dress that fact up by giving him a nice laptop to do his work. We might constantly remind him that his ideas are great and he can express himself very well at times. Perhaps that’s fine when you are twelve. His work nicely typed up, perhaps pinned on the class notice board. His teacher might tell the other pupils to read his work because it was one of the best in the class.

But what happens when he gets to fifteen, sixteen, twenty, twenty five? Who is there to tell him that his ideas are great; when he realises that his inability to write legibly will exclude him from any number of things that others can do? So when we condemn some children to a life of illiteracy because it is difficult – not for him, although it is, but for a system which can’t find the time to help him with his problems- we cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility when he enters society after he leaves us. ‘I’m not good at writing’ does not sound quite so cute from an adult who has been through twelve or thirteen of formal schooling, does it?

I spent perhaps five times as long deciphering his handwriting that night as anyone else’s in the class. I returned class books and explained the feedback process and that everyone had their own improvements to make. Then I sat down next to the boy who told me ‘I’m not good at writing’. I asked him why that was. He said it was something he’d never been able to do. I sat with him and looked him in the eye and told him that I would do everything I could for him to get better at writing. He wrote out one sentence in large rounded letters. He looked at me and smiled.

Remember, this may or may not have happened.

Kings, Nuns and Team Teaching.

Long Live the King! No, not a post about the Royal Infant. This is about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and how he helped engage a less-than-motivated S4 English class. I’m an English teacher in Glasgow, but I’m a bit of a nomad at the moment. For various reasons I’ve no permanent base school, despite being a permanent teacher, and have been fortunate enough to work in a few different schools over the last couple of years. At the tail end of the summer term I secured a secondment for this session as a leader of learning for Glasgow, but the post wasn’t due to start until the 26th of August. In the meantime, the council placed me in Knightswood Secondary for a fortnight, as an extra body.

My remit was a bit of team teaching and a bit of development work, and one of the classes I was working with was a National 4 class in S4. From the first day I was in with them, they were hard work. Two or three disaffected characters made it nearly impossible for the rest of the class to benefit from the teaching, even with two teachers and a formidable PSA in attendance. I spent my first two periods sitting at a table with some of the worst offenders, doing my best to engage and focus them, which worked well with some, not so well with others.

As a department, it had been decided that National 4 would ‘shadow’ National 5, in that we would study a ‘set text’ from the same selection of authors used for N5 and Higher, picking a text relevant to the level. My partner teacher picked Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Elvis’s Twin Sister’, in which the poet imagines Elvis’s twin (who was male and died at birth) survived and was in fact female. The character is a nun in a convent, whose life both reflects her famous brother’s and is at the same time its opposite.

My partner introduced the background to the poem. So who’s heard of Elvis? A few hands went up. What do you know about him? He died on the toilet. He was fat. That’s pretty much it. So we put on a clip of a young Elvis, brimming with energy and charisma, singing blue suede shoes. They were hooked. They went away to research Elvis and his life, returning the next day to look more closely at the poem. We discussed the poem in detail, looking at clips of Madonna (whose quote –  ’Elvis is alive – and he’s female’, regarding K.D. Lang – is the poem’s epigraph) and some more of the King himself. We talked about the influence of his music, the enduring power of his legend, the significance of the poet making his sister a nun…the time passed in a flash.

Next day, I led the lesson for the first time, not sure how they would react – after all, my partner teacher had already had them for a year, and I was a random stranger who had plonked herself in their midst for a few lessons. I’d put together some textual analysis questions for the class, and this was going to be pretty old style – how were they going to react to me and the work? The answer is – brilliantly. The focus was total, and their buy-in excellent. We circulated as they worked to help, encourage and praise – and the praise was well-deserved. The more vocal elements of the class had gradually settled over the past few lessons, and this allowed the quieter kids to shine through, and dare to offer ideas and answers where before they would have stayed silent for fear of a spiky retort from the ‘bad’ kids. I looked around the room to see young people feeling good about their work, proud of their achievement, as they came up with answer after answer that was interesting, appropriate and original. I really hadn’t expected this, and their teacher and I were as delighted as we were surprised.

My final days with them saw us looking at report writing, asking them to take source materials about Elvis, extract the key details and present them in their own words. Next we had a bit of group discussion, with the groups given 8 possible paragraph topics on paper slips with some blank ones for their own ideas. The task was to order the topics into a suitable structure for a report on Elvis. I’d expected we’d be spending a lot of time focussing kids to the task and trying to encourage some of them to take part, but in fact everyone got involved straight away and the task was completed super fast. The class went away ready to get their final Elvis facts together and begin their reports the next week (although some had already begun and written a few sample paragraphs).

I was really sad to leave the class. After the first lesson or two, I was not looking forward to working with them for the two weeks, but things changed to quickly, and I’ve left them promising to send me their finished reports to see. My partner was, understandably, wary about having a strange person in teaching alongside her, but by the end of the time we were both so sad to see the end of the arrangement. I truly believe that the difference in the class was entirely down to there being two of us. We were able to share the work of teaching and motivating the kids, and keeping a lid on any dodgy behaviour. We were both able to plan and deliver resources according to our strengths, and if the arrangement had continued, we would have shared the load of assessment. I’ve done team teaching before, and that experience was one of the best in my career, and here yet again I’ve seen it having a huge effect on the learning and motivation of a class. It’s really unfair that we’re now having to change their dynamic once more, but there’s nothing to be done about that. If only there was the money in the system to build in an ‘extra’ teacher to each department, to let this kind of teamwork develop – where kids need this extra support to do their best, it really does offer an incredibly effective solution. However, with every penny being scrutinised and justified, it’s not likely to happen any time soon, more’s the pity.

As for Elvis, I suppose it’s testament to his enduring legacy that over three and a half decades since his death, he still appeals at least a little to Glasgow teenagers, and the poem was pretty perfect for National 4 – if anyone would like a copy of the textual analysis questions and report writing unit, drop me a tweet at @katiebarrowman