Thursday, 28 November 2013

Cross-curricular transition: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

       "Early in the summer term I was approached by Mary Campbell, Head of Year 7, to set up and collaborate on a KS2-3 transition project. Being an English teacher the first idea which came to mind was a transition book. Whilst doing some work experience in a Barnet primary school prior to starting my PGCE I had seen transition books working well. All students in year 6 across the borough studied Kensuke's Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo. During this time they read the novel and created a portfolio of work which they would take with them into year 7 (if they were going to a secondary school in the same borough of course). I wanted us to do something similar but, apart from the sheer amount of work it would take to get all primary schools on board and the late time in the year which we had begun to think about it, our students did not all come to us from the same borough. Instead, we decided to do something slightly different. I liaised with our librarian and we discussed the novels which students most often studied at KS2 and what texts might be appropriate for such a project. We decided on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and then we set about writing a proposal to SLT to secure the funds for buying in enough copies for every student joining in year 7. The proposal included our aims and objectives for students, parents and staff. We wanted as many subjects involved as possible on a two week project based around the novel. It would make transition into school more fluid and students would share a common experience no matter which school, borough or country they joined us from.
      A week later the proposal was accepted and we started putting things into action. An initial meeting was arranged for all Heads of Department, KS3 Co-ordinators and Year 7 tutors where we discussed the aims and objectives and talked through potential activities and any issues/questions which they had regarding the project. Most subjects attended and staff were really enthusiastic about getting on board. I set up a folder on our shared drive where we could save and share our ideas and we went away ready to plan lessons for the novel within each of our own subjects. Staff who had attended the meeting went back to their own departments and shared the project aims and the proposal was emailed out to all staff. 
      Next came sharing the project with the students. Our new cohort came into school for an induction day in the summer term. On this day each student received a copy of the novel and an instruction sheet. Their tutors read through this sheet and explained what they were expected to do. Students were asked to read the novel and complete one of two activities: write a review of the book or produce a piece of artwork/illustration based on a particular scene/chapter. An abridged version of the novel was provided for EAL students who would have difficulty reading the novel. In the evening of this induction day, students parents came in and, as Head of Year 7, Mary communicated the project, it's aims and the summer task to parents encouraging them to get as involved as possible and beginning to gain parental engagement before these students had even officially joined us. 
       When students came back to school in September nearly all of them had read the novel. Those who hadn't were honest and without having to tell them to, they quickly realised the need to get it read. It wasn't just in English where their learning was centred on the novel, it was in lots of subjects including Maths, Science, History, ICT, Textiles, MFL and Drama to name but a few. Without reading the novel students could not access the work as well and so they soon wanted to catch up. Over the course of these first two weeks, students worked on many projects based around the novel and produced some outstanding work. In the third week, parents were invited in to our usual meet the parents evening but this time with a difference. Each form set up an exhibition area to showcase their best work and share what they had done with their parents. The exhibitions were really impressive and parents and students had a great evening talking about their work and discussing their first few weeks at school with their new tutors.
       The transition project was a fantastic way to start the year and I feel that students really benefitted from the process. The novel gave them a common ground and they were able to access the novel in a range of ways and in a range of subjects. We will definitely be running this project going forward and have feedback from staff and students to allow us to amend, improve and adapt for future years."

- Athena Pitsillis, English KS3-4 Co-Ordinator.

"Any child moving from primary into secondary school would find the move quite daunting and unnerving for the first two months of the school year, especially those who are on their own with no friends from their previous school following them.  My idea behind this project was to get the children engaged in an activity during the summer holidays and involve most subject areas to plan an activity to coincide with the transition project to be delivered in the first two weeks in September. The book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, was an excellent choice, and it worked. The departments involved delivered creative and engaging lessons that were received with excitement from the children. I talked to quite a few of the children about the project and the feedback was very positive.  The children had one thing in common because they had read the book, it was the centre of most lessons; they had something to contribute to each subject, to discuss, to argue over and to celebrate their achievements.  
      It also had helped quite a few students with their confidence, not just academically but socially, making new friends in their form and most of all reducing the fear of starting a new school. After the two weeks, the students had to display their work to be on show for the parents' 'Meet the Tutor' evening. The task was for the students to develop visual communication skills, by working in teams to display their work on a 170cm x 200cm display board. The best displays were rewarded with Vivos.  The day of the parents meeting the students were buzzing with excitement, organising themselves and planning their work. The atmosphere was electric.  The children were instructed to do the work on their own, but form tutors were deeply involved, leading to a fierce competition.  The outcome was stunning. Parents and the school staff were extremely impressed with what the children had achieved and positively commented on the standard of the work. 
      As Year 7's HOY I believe that the summer project was a success. It supported the children in the first month of secondary school. It helped the forms bond together and helped the children to settle comfortably and with ease. Behaviour has been excellent.  The project was a focus for all: children, parents, teachers and the school staff. I just want to say thank you to Athena, for seeing through my vision and thinking in the same path." 

- Mary Campbell, Head of Year 7.

"When Athena first asked me about my thoughts for this project my initial thoughts were ‘Wow, how are we going to teach the Holocaust to year 7 students?!’  How to teach such a sensitive and moving historical subject to 11 year olds was a hot topic of conversation amongst the humanities teachers.  We debated over how to teach this to students and what depth we should teach it in. However, once planning began my fears as KS3 humanities co-ordinator decreased immensely.  It became apparent very early on in the planning stages that the priority in the humanities lessons would be giving the students the contextual knowledge they needed to be able to understand the novel at a deeper level as well as providing some deeply important historical knowledge at KS3. The department planned 2 lessons following Canons pedagogy which centred on the question of ‘why was there a boy in stripped pyjamas? The lessons culminated in the students responding to the key question in an extended style response and thus acted as a baseline assessment for our year 7s.  
      As a department we were so surprised and thrilled with the level of enthusiasm that was displayed amongst year 7 students in their humanities lessons, so surprised that some teachers ended up spending 4-5 lessons on the project (mainly due to the vast number of questions students had about the Holocaust and the Nazi influence in Europe).  Not only did the transition project evoke a huge amount of enthusiasm, historical curiosity and empathy from our students, it also seemed to act as a calming influence on them in their first few weeks at secondary school.  It is certainly something we are planning to do again and striving to make the project an even more successful venture next year."

- Lexi Mawson, Humanities KS3 Co-Ordinator. 

"On the whole, Year 7 students thoroughly enjoyed reading the story over the summer holidays. A handful of students felt that the project became a bit repetitive across different subjects, but the vast majority enjoyed the cross-curricular nature of the project, and liked learning about broader themes of the story from different perspectives. In particular, students appreciated how different subject areas were working together, and it helped them to grasp the relevance of the story across the wider curriculum.
History, English and Maths were the subject areas in which students seemed to enjoy exploring the themes of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ the most. Other subjects where they enjoyed learning about the story also included Technology, ICT, Drama, Art, Science, Textiles and Spanish.
      Our students have provided us with some great ideas of how we can improve the project for next year’s cohort:
  • more practical activities in lessons (making models, painting, designing);
  • repeat the project but with a different story;
  • more options for home learning activities;
  • activities to be even more challenging;
  • open-ended tasks to allow students to be more creative.
From the staff’s point of view, most teachers found it easy to plan and deliver a lesson/mini-project focused on the story (particularly English, Technology, Drama and Maths). It was more of a challenge to deliver lessons about the story in other subject areas, particularly right at the start of KS3 Schemes of Learning.  However these subject areas are planning to find opportunities later in the year to make links back to the story.
Staff, much like the students, saw the benefit of establishing clear links between different subject areas across the curriculum. They felt that students were enthusiastic and engaged throughout the duration of the project, and thought that it was good for students to see that different departments are working together towards a common goal. It gave students a sense of consistency and unity, providing them with a common shared experience to speak about to help settle in to high school.
Our next steps will involve seeking out feedback from parents, and subject leaders from across the school will reconvene and share experiences of project, which we hope will lead to setting in motion plans for more cross-curricular projects in the future."

- Tom Megit, MFL KS3 Co-Ordinator. 

Saturday, 16 November 2013

GangA*star INSET day: Self- and peer-evaluation

Canons High School GangA*star INSET day – Thursday 3rd October 2013

Self- and peer-evaluation session

One of my very talented colleagues from the CHS English department and I, a Modern Languages teacher and Pedagogy Leader (@tommegit), organised and ran a workshop for staff at CHS as part of the INSET day which was focused upon challenge and stretch (with the ultimate aim of increasing the number of students achieving  A/A* grades), and our particular focus was on self- and peer-evaluation. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear different staff members’  perspectives on these different forms of evaluation, coming from a wide range of subject areas and distinct classroom experiences; so wonderful in fact, that it has inspired me to reflect on it now and share it through the Canons Broadside blog!

After an excellent introduction to the aims and desired outcomes of the day’s INSET by one of our high-achieving Year 13 students, who already has an impressive set of exam results and qualifications under his belt, staff went off in groups to take part in two themed workshops that they had chosen in advance. Each workshop focused on a particular area of pedagogy that could be viewed as an integral part of helping students aspire to achieve to the highest standard. The hope was that these sessions would get us to delve deeper into the thought process of what it is we are doing as pedagogues to help our students to be the best they can be; to push them beyond what is expected of them by others, beyond what their minimum target grade says they ‘should’ be getting. We want to inspire our students to aim for the top and to strive to be better than they are expected to be.

Elsewhere around the school, thought-provoking workshops were taking place, each focusing on different aspects of teaching and learning that we felt played an important part in meeting the needs of our high attaining students. The themes of the workshops covered a good  mix of core teaching techniques, including scaffolding, questioning, group learning, investigation and enquiry, the use of SOLO taxonomy and the ‘Flipped Classroom’. Actually, looking back on the range of sessions that we had running during this INSET day, I’m very jealous that I couldn’t go around to see all of them! But in actual fact, I was extremely lucky myself to be part of some of the most stimulating conversations I’ve ever had about teaching and learning, and sharing our thoughts on how we go about supporting the students we teach to be successful evaluators in their own learning.

To get the ball rolling, staff in our workshop wrote down on their mini-whiteboards (an old favourite of mine!) one thing that they found particularly useful when receiving feedback from another member of staff, more than likely to be a line manager, after a lesson observation, for example. That could have been a specific comment that they had received in the past, or the way in which the feedback was given. Some staff prefer it when they are given practical tips and examples of good practice that will help them move forward. Others prefer more of a coaching technique, whereby they are encouraged to formulate their own ways forward after a reflective discussion with their observer.

What all staff seemed to agree on, however, was that in order to get the most out of an appraisal situation, there needs to be dialogue, discussion, two-way communication, questions, more questions, and fundamentally, agreement between both parties. Everyone is different, and individual preferences will vary, but it is good to identify some common ground when investigating what makes for productive evaluation. And by and large, teachers know what is expected of them by their students, by their colleagues, by their line managers, by published teaching standards, and by other external bodies (not mentioning any names!). But can the same be said for the children we teach?

Discussion moved on to identifying the strengths and limitations of teacher-, peer- and self-evaluation. In groups of three or four, staff gave well-balanced interpretations of when and how each should be incorporated into our lessons.

The groups who concentrated on teacher-evaluation identified the key advantage is that we, the teachers, are the subject specialists, the experts, meaning that we are suitably equipped with the appropriate knowledge to provide relevant, targeted feedback and feed-forward to our learners, guiding them in the right direction. Furthermore, when we provide the feedback, it is relatively quick, and it provides us with an opportunity to check progress, which then goes towards planning our future lessons. However, it came across very clearly from our staff that this was perhaps not the most effective form of evaluation in terms of the students really learning from feedback comments.

So how might peer-evaluation be better? Staff felt that it is beneficial to allow students to get together and discuss want is going well and what can be improved. A striking resemblance to what staff said made for effective evaluation in their own professional development. The key difference here, though, is that perhaps our students don’t know how to give high quality feedback on their peers’ work. Often, students can be overly generous or particularly stingy when marking other people’s work, and many are influenced by complex social relationships that naturally occur within every classroom setting. This went on to raise the question, ‘How important is it to model peer feedback’?

Finally, as far as self-evaluation is concerned, similar points arose from discussion. Allowing students to evaluate their own progress can lead to better literacy and articulation, it can help students to review their efforts, and improve their self-esteem. But all of this is reliant on the clarity and purposefulness of the success criteria with which they are using to evaluate themselves and/or their peers. It is evident that students need to be trained in giving constructive feedback that will help themselves and others to move forward in their thinking, in an effort to move them away from giving superficial comments such as ‘Your handwriting is very neat’, or ‘You have written a lot. Well done’!

Many teachers have noticed that students tend to focus more on what they have managed to get right or do well in their work, and tend to ignore what it is that they have got wrong, or have neglected to include in their work. Whilst it is obviously important to acknowledge on what has been done effectively and praise the positive elements, it is equally important, indeed essential, to require our students to explore what can be done to raise the standard of work towards fulfilling the top bands of success criteria, in order to challenge our students and provide them with the opportunity to be as successful as they possibly can be.

So how can we train our students to close  the gap between their original piece of work (first draft) and a higher quality piece of work after acting upon feedback (final draft)? At this point, I’d like to recommend reading two excellent blog posts that discuss these themes further: the first posted by Tom Sherrington, Making feedback count: “Close the gap”; the second posted by Harry Fletcher Wood, Closing the gap marking – give them a read, they’re very insightful!

As our group discussions developed, teachers were full of wonderful ideas of how to get students to provide, as well as act upon, constructive feedback for improving their work. Ideas included role-modelling constructive feedback dialogue, sharing model answers with a clear feedback commentary, sharing key success criteria with students, allowing them to be the examiners by providing students with mark schemes, and training students as experts or ‘lead learners’ in particular areas of work, based on their own strengths.

One colleague went into more detail about using expert groups of students and ‘lead learners’. Imagine setting up the classroom so that, on different groups of desks, you have different groups of expert students focussing on one particular area of evaluation (e.g. checking correct use of subject-specific terminology, checking the structure of paragraphs, checking grammar and punctuation, checking that relevant sources have been used to back up an argument, etc.). Pieces of work can then rotate around the different groups of experts, and on each rotation, they add Post-it ® notes with a targeted piece of feedback from their particular area of expertise to help the recipient improve their work on re-draft. This is an idea that I am keen to develop in my own MFL classroom, particularly with my GCSE classes when, during Stage 2 of their Writing and Speaking Controlled Assessments, the teacher is no longer permitted to provide students with support.

An issue that we discussed surrounding these ideas was that, potentially, providing students with mark schemes and success criteria can back-fire owing to the formal and often ambiguous language used in these sorts of documents. If, for example, one of the bands in a mark scheme explains how to award a certain number of marks for “an appropriate response”, well, what on earth does appropriate mean or look like?! It can sometimes be a challenge for teachers to consistently and accurately interpret some mark schemes, so I truly feel for our students on that front. It simply highlights the importance of making these kinds of documents accessible to our learners by adapting the language in mark schemes and success criteria so that it is more student-friendly and less alien.

We felt that it was essential to ensure that success criteria is well built up for students, allowing for clear progression and encouraging more complex compositions. It needs to be framed within a real context, in order to bring a piece of work to life and for it to carry more meaning for the students. They need to be able to interact and engage with the criteria rather than feel threatened by it. We discussed how adding SOLO Taxonomy symbols (pre-structural, uni-structural, multi-structural, relational, extended abstract) to each band of the success criteria could help students to meet this end. We also felt that we need to let our students practise marking on their own, then discussing the thought process behind their marking with a partner or small group, encouraging them to find evidence from the piece of work to support their decisions, before sharing it with the rest of the class (think, pair, square, share). Although this can be a daunting experience for students the first few times they try this, the group believed that having open forum discussions in this way will help raise their confidence and make them feel more familiar with and comfortable using marking criteria.

As the workshop was reaching its conclusion, I asked the group to write down a reflective comment or further question to consider on their mini-whiteboards as a way of consolidating what had been discussed around using different evaluation strategies to stretch and challenge our students, and I’d like to round off this blog post by sharing some of their extremely high quality reflections:

·         ‘If students are not trained properly how to peer-assess then this may affect the quality of the feedback and feed-forward’;

·         ‘It is important that time is dedicated to training students to peer-evaluate effectively. This should start at Key Stage 3’;

·         ‘Self-evaluation should be built in Key Stage 3 so that they can be trained for Key Stage 4. This will help push the A/A* students to think about their work’;

·         ‘Is giving model answers to students a good idea? Does it challenge them or does it help to spoon feed? I am undecided’;

·         ‘Asking us to consider the pros and cons of self-, peer- and teacher-evaluation made me realise how essential the first two are in ensuring students really understand how to improve – they involve thinking and doing, rather than receiving ‘wisdom’ from the teacher – active rather than passive learning’;

·         ‘Need to make criteria student-friendly. Close the gap. Key words in a good answer. Illustrate the criteria’;

·         ‘Allowing more time to share and reflect on the feedback when it’s been given’;

·         ‘Evaluation is effective in increasing the number of A/A* grades – the issue is that we need to take a variety of approaches to evaluation. Sometimes self, then peer, and of course teacher. Peer-evaluation and use of the micro-teacher very effective!!’;

·         ‘Making time at the start of the lesson to respond to marked work’;

·         ‘How do we make grade criteria easier to access for our students without removing challenge?’;

·         ‘Ensure students act upon feedback by regularly revisiting and reviewing their progress. Small achievable targets leading to incremental gains for all students’.

This variety of reflection reminds me of the challenges that face our school, or any school for that matter, in ensuring that we, as practitioners, have the time and space to digest this food-for-thought and consider what best suits us as individuals in our own unique teaching situations, whilst at the same being provided with the supportive frameworks to allow us to learn from, and with, each other.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Questioning techniques that worked for me

I recently took part in an inset, based on a Teachmeet style of sessions.   There were 8 different sessions that were focussed on improving challenge in the classroom, particularly for the most able in each class.  I took on questioning as I had been told previously in a lesson observation that I scaffold my questions well.  I nodded my head and acted like that was my intention.  Like any teacher, all I wanted was to just get more out of the students and enhance the level and quality of discussion.

I thought long and hard about what I would want as a teacher at my school coming to my session, I researched blogs, journals and internet articles on the subject and put together lots of techniques that teachers had used successfully in their lesson. The issue was that I hadn’t used any of these particular ones, like Blooms and Hinge’ and felt a bit of a phony standing up and saying how great these were when I hadn’t actively used them.  I started to speak more to other staff in the school, ask them about what they do and how they challenge the most able.  The conversations I had were really insightful and gave me a lot of good information. A lot said they don’t use techniques per se but open ended, higher order questions, getting students to explain their answers, reflect on what others have said and let the discussion flow, asking meaningful questions when they were needed. Again, I thought if I stand up there and say this, it doesn’t really give staff something concrete that they can take away.

One teacher talked about the ‘ABC’ technique. This is where you pose a question to the class, select a student to respond,then ask other students in the class, whether they agree, buildupon or challenge the response.  I thought this sounded a great idea and something similar to the basketball technique (student led discussion which moves around the classroom with little or no input from the teacher – you can actually use a basketball whilst doing this but my advice is not to do it in an ICT room).  I tried it in my classes and found it workedwell. I made sure students were informed of the technique first before carrying it in.  also adapted the technique to involve all students in the discussion, for example, students had to listen to a person’s answer and ensure they noted down something for each ABC point.  This encouraged students toconsider all points and put together a well-reasoned argument. It actually started as something of a ‘connection’ or ‘starter’ and ended up being something that could structure a whole lesson. We practiced the technique in a discussion format and then students had a different question and had to build an answer around the technique in written prose considering all sides of the argument.  

The technique went down well in the inset. There were a few issues with subjects that are more fact based and teachers were asking how it could fit in there. My response was that this technique is not used for surface level knowledge, stuff students need to know, but when they need to analyse and evaluate. I use it at the end of topics in GCSE PE for example, we had just finished role models, sponsorship and the media and I posed the question, ‘is Cristiano Ronaldo a positive influence on young people?’ Students made notes under each section and then practiced their extended writing, including for and against arguments, including key words and linking together the three topics and how all can have a positive and negative affect.  

Another technique I introduced in the inset was something I named ‘Closing the gap’.  The technique encourages students to analyse their own answers in comparison to an exemplar and plan their own route for improvement and progression.  It is not a questioning technique that can be used in discussion, more a technique for how students can improve how they answer exam questions.  I am sure we all do something similar, this is just a technique I have found useful and it gives the students more autonomy over their learning.  Students are given an exam question.  The students will then write a response to the question. Instead of taking it in and marking it, you give students a perfect answer with highlighted key words or key phrases.  The students then analyse their answer with the one on the board and mark their own work. Afterwards, students then write WWW (what went well) and EBI (even better if) on marks they have achieved, key words included/missing and gaps in their 
knowledge and understanding.  The idea is that when you come to mark the book you are able to review targets and track whether students are making improvements on their exam writing.  This technique can also be done as peer evaluation or as a group activity.  It also enables students to know where they are in relation to the top grades and track their own progress.

It was my first inset and I really enjoyed it. I don’t think there is too much I would have done differently apart from maybe going to speak to more teachers about techniques that they have used which are effective in their classrooms, particularly maths.  I am far from an expert in questioning and these are only techniques that have worked for me in my lessons.  I hope this blog has given you some ideas or at the very least made you reflect on the questioning strategies used in your lessons.