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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 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)

.

Excuse Me? Can I Have a New Tail to Wag My Dog?

I’ll probably not make many friends by writing this post but it concerns something that has been burning inside of me for a while. Exacerbated by the increasing ‘doom and gloom’ scare stories over the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland, I really feel the need to let this one out. Strap yourself in. Here goes. If you were to ask me what my concerns were over the eventual qualifications system of CfE in the upper stages of school then I would have to say, at this point, I don’t really care. There. I said it. I feel better already.

Alongside the dreary negativity which is churned out whenever the subject is raised in the media – a negativity which does not compare with my experience – there is an almost gleeful exuberance at times when a teacher, a parent, an individual expresses their hatred of the new curriculum. Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t perfect. I’m no cock-eyed optimist. There is still a long way to go to really assess its success. I just don’t think it is constructive to constantly snipe at something which is here and here to stay.

As for qualifications, the amount of times I’ve heard teachers say to me that if we teach the children well they will pass any exam we put in front of them suggests that others would agree with me. That concept, however, seems to be slipping away now we have the opportunity, in many ways, to put it into practice. This needs to be a time where, as individuals, we are embedding our practice with outstanding, challenging, creative teaching. We should be developing the wonderful things we already do, enhancing those things with real life experiences and stretching, bar raising tasks.  And, for the most part, I think that is beginning to happen. For example, no English teacher I know sees the Curriculum for Excellence as an exercise in dumbing down, an excuse to avoid the prickly subject of grammar, or proclaiming spelling to be a thing of the past.

However, before you label me as some idealistic lefty who thinks examinations are outdated – you might be right but that is not what I’m saying here – I do think the qualifications will have their place. But if we are to wait until they are embedded before we can be comfortable with change then what does that assume about the profession? That we do indeed teach to the test? That we do indeed believe that passing school exams is the be all and the end all? If that is so I think we may well miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

A teacher said to me the other day, ‘why can’t they just tell us what the exams will be like so we can just get on with it?’ My heart sank.  If we teachers are truly to make the best of the most significant change in curriculum probably in most of our careers then we need to forget about what the examination may become and start to ensure our classrooms are challenging, creative, collaborative spaces which raise the bar for every student in our care; and we need to start now. Our society deserves young people who are successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and an effective contributors. It is our job, our duty, our raison d’etre to ensure that happens.

At this point I can understand that parents and pupils want to know about the exams; schools should always be working closely with them for the best possible outcomes for children. However, as the curriculum is not new any more – it is what we now do every day – my questions is this: do teachers really have to?

Games-Based Learning CfE

I am a Secondary English Teacher, but first and foremost I am a Teacher. In my past ‘life’ I was a Software Engineer so I am a Bachelor of both the Sciences and the Arts.  In a way I am an embodiment of the tenets of Curriculum for Excellence – I should be, because I hated my schooling: it didn’t fit me, nor I it;

Around this time last year I was near to completing the excellent Postgraduate Diploma in E-learning at Edinburgh University; Digital Game-based Learning was one of the six modules of study that focused on the learning and teaching benefits to be gained from existing and bespoke software applications.

I stumbled upon Silent Hunter III, a World War II software simulation game for the PC, and purchased it for about 2 GBP from Ebay.  I did some thinking (and playing), noting that fans were creating montages of scenes from the famous Das Boot film, overlaying in-game footage with an accompanying narrative in the form of subtitles and posting these (as they do for many other games – especially ‘COD’, from my experience of all-boys Standard Grade classes) on Youtube. (#1 & #2)

Confirmed for me was what I had suspected in the re-definition of what is a ‘text’ formalized in the Curriculum for Excellence: Literacy and English – Principles and Practice (LTScotland, p. 4).  Here lay the opportunity to do cross-curricular with – at the very least – History, Geography and ICT.

So, for the past few months – most of which has been a very enjoyable, with the odd difficulty here and there – I have been trialing my development with an excellent S2 class and a very helpful Computing Teacher who facilitated in providing a room with enough PCs; the Technician deserves similar praise in installing what became 15 copies of S.H. (10 of which were at personal expense and all from Ebay/Amazon Marketplace) and the two ‘Single Missions’ I created using the program’s ‘Mission Editor’: dropping merchant ships in the Atlantic when recreating Patrol 4 (12th April – 22nd May 1941) against HX-121 and HG-61; placing a plethora of vessels, Swordfish aircraft, mines and a wolf pack of U-boats at the Straits of Gibraltar for Patrol 7 (27th October – 06th December 1941) against OS-10.

Pupils have immersed themselves (pun intended) in the life of a Kriegsmarine crewmember on board the U-96 during two of its Atlantic Patrols.  They have consulted non-fiction texts, personal accounts, diagrams, German Navy Grid System maps, clippings from Das Boot and re-creating (with the help of u-boat.net and Google Maps) two actual patrols undertaken by U-96 between April and December 1941.  Pupils responded through functional and imaginative responses, and choice was a key consideration, using non-fiction texts with diagrams as well as pure narrative to convey technical information; I plan to offer the same ‘carousel’ approach next year.  Pupils have read about the hydroplanes, but when they get a chance to command the ship itself and use the ‘external camera view’ they really see the causal connection – the planes in operation and the ship surface/submerge.

Assessment? I think that a metaphorical form of assessment suits Literacy Outcomes very well, adopting one that fits the context of the aspect of study.  For instance, a ‘Ranks and Awards’ metaphor was used to good effect, whereupon pupils progress from Submarine School and begin their careers across the ranks of Seaman (Matrose), Able Seaman (Matrose-Gefreiter) and Leading Seaman (Matrose-Obergefreiter); ‘Award Badges’ were also awarded when the pupil displayed competency or understanding in a particular activity or technical element. 

Outcome? Technical difficulties hampered the collation of in-game footage – a consideration for next year, should technical difficulties persist, would be to have a bank of event clips to cover all aspects of their narrative structure - but pupils superimposed their narrative against still images within Powerpoint.

Pupils have been working in collaborative groups (2-4) and thinking in the four dimensional space of their character’s ‘world’, both boys and girls alike experienced the frustration at plotting a convoy … undertaking watch… encountering a clear-blue horizon and a silent hydrophone; I have seen the most unlikely candidates express distress and excitement at an oncoming destroyer as it fills their periscope view.

With crews not exceeding 44 men for a Type VIIC submarine, the class teacher can have pupils draw names of actual navy men that served aboard the U-96, giving them an additional dimension to their imaginative and functional writing activities.  I am scheduled, with the History Department committed and perhaps offering in parallel a similar activity based on the Destroyer Command simulation game; other departments have expressed real interest but I think will need more convincing.  The plan is to fully implement what will be a 12-week unit during the January-April 2012 term for the next cohort of S2.

Today, complete with a couple of bottles of port for the aforementioned colleagues as tokens of my appreciation, I say “Auf Wiedersehen” to the excellent cohort from S2 (who, of course, signed and sent ‘Thank You’ cards) as we change timetable, and they enter Standard Grade and I contemplate the Microsoft Project plan, the directory of digital resources, the Revell Model Kit, the keyboard layout, the Leverarch folder of texts, the Kriegsmarine Map on the wall…

For my next project – English and Science – Orbiter!

National Qualifications – Mythbusters

Click on the image to visit the SQA Mythbusters page.

There is a new page on the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) website which is a start in addressing the FUDsurrounding the new National Qualifications.

The page is called New National Qualifications — Mythbuster, and has explanations of why the roll-out of the new National 4 and National 5 qualifications are progressing as they are. Well worth sharing, and don’t forget that you too can add you tuppence worth on the CfE Feedback page.