Thursday, 17 July 2014

Embracing failure at the student & staff level

1) Why I’ve been trying to create a culture of failure in my classroom
2) What’s a ‘pre-mortem’ and how could it help improve teacher-effectiveness?

1)  Embracing failure at the student level

During an interview with Thomas Edison before his successful invention of the light bulb he said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

I’ve had my new classes for a couple of weeks now and all of them are able to finish off some of my sentences. This has in the past disconcerted me. In China after a term two of the boys at the back of one of my classes gained the confidence to interrupt me, as I was about to start an activity. “Ok, let’s go for it!” Tony and Never (they chose their own Western names) chorused before I could get the words out. I left the lesson trying to convince myself “I don’t say that all the time?” In Spain my students always seemed to walk between lessons painfully slowly in the heat of the midday sun. I soon began to overhear what sounded like “Mr Hurry up”. In France it was the other way round - it was me always getting caught slightly off-guard by the calls of my primary school children whenever I got out my ‘Excellent effort’ stamps. “Tampon, tampon” they used to call (tampon being the French word for rubber stamp.) In Uganda it was “Ok, let’s sing” – our students were always ready to stand up and sing; even when it was an increasingly lyrically-challenged attempt to shoehorn Maths into simple tunes such as ‘Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques’ which became ‘mean is average, mean is average’ (complete with hand gestures).

However I’ve started to try and embrace my apparent verbal predictability. “What don’t I mind?” I’ll ask before starting an activity, “if we make mistakes” will come back the response. “What do I want to see?” “Evidence of effort” the students reply.

To reinforce this I occasionally refer to the ‘quote of the week’ board (see pic. above) on the wall at the front of my classroom that invariably has a quote along the lines of “take risks, make mistakes’ – anon. “You only regret the things you don’t do” – anon. “Success always starts with failure” – anon. “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new” – Einstein.

I also regularly use mini-WBs in my lessons, not simply because they are a fantastic, quick AfL tool but because students are often uneasy about making lots of mistakes in their own books. Using mini-WBs removes this anxiety, as they know there’ll be no permanent record of their failures. Sure enough, over recent lessons I have started to see fewer and fewer empty whiteboards being held up.

I have no evidence to show that my students use mini-WBs a lot in my lessons. However, my department does spend a surprising amount on student whiteboard pens.

I’m always curious to learn how ideas translate across subjects. It was great to read LearningSpy’s blog on marking, where he discussed encouraging students to think of writing as drafting: “I have started referring to writing as ‘drafting’, as in: ‘I want you to draft an article on…’ This then encourages re-drafting.”
“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying.” - Michael Jordan.
To reinforce this classroom culture I only reward effort (see pic. below) and I start/end each lesson by getting students to write down one Maths-related success and one target from their lesson.


2)  The Pre-mortem – embracing failure at the staff level


It’s very nearly the end of another academic year and so I’m sure like many teachers, aside from occasionally daydreaming about the summer holidays we will be involved in completing school/departmental improvement plans and writing performance appraisal targets for next year. There is still much uncertainty and discussion surrounding the topic of performance-related pay but it is clear that the ritual of meeting for performance appraisal whereby staff set their targets with renewed enthusiasm at the beginning of each year and are reminded with a wry smile at the end of the year what their targets were, may be far less care-free in the near future. I have often questioned the effectiveness of such meetings, however once the year has started there always seems to be more pressing things to do than log on to a performance management system and ‘upload evidence’.

I’m always wary of well-meaning attempts to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and am far more comfortable discussing what teaching may be able to learn/adapt from other industries. It was with this in mind that I pitched the idea of the ‘pre-mortem’ to my head of department.
While many institutions conduct a post-mortem to examine why a given project has failed, Klein walks us through an exercise that can spot potential failures before things have gone wrong.”

Why a pre-mortem?

When we ask close colleagues for feedback they often avoid the negative. People are usually way too over confident at the beginning of a new project. The pre-mortem aims to temper this. A ‘pre-mortem’ is a technique aimed at freeing people who might otherwise feel that they may not look like a ‘team player’.

“During a ‘pre-mortem’ the demand characteristic becomes: show me how smart/experienced/clever you are by identifying things that we need to worry about.

During a postmortem - everyone benefits from the knowledge gained via the process except the patient (they're dead).”

The aim is to run through the process to find out what might go wrong before it goes wrong/the patient (project/product) dies.

Example dialogue

We're 3 months into the 6 months. It's obvious the project has failed.

There's no doubt about it. It can't succeed. 6 months later we don't want to talk about it. We don't even make eye contact. It's that painful.”

“Now, for the next 2 minutes. I want each of you to write down why this project had failed. We know it failed. No doubt about it. Write down all the reasons.”


        “1 item from each person's list - given to a catalogue of all the ways the project might fail.

        Now go round the room and each give one way/thing you could do to help the project/hadn't thought of before to try to make it more successful.”

I am, for the first time genuinely excited as we get together this week to complete our departmental improvement for us to be asked in advance to use our talents and experience to discuss why a project may fail and more importantly what we could do to ensure it doesn’t.

I’ll write a comment below the blog at the end of the week to let you know how we get on.


For anyone interested in reading about the research behind well-known success stories:


Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice - Matthew Syed

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - Carol Dweck

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Trialling Cross-Curricular Projects in Maths and English

With Literacy being a main focus throughout the school we wanted to consider ways in which we can implement Literacy initiatives across the curriculum. With this in mind we decided to trial a project across two subjects who normally would not be considered to complement one another with the hope that we can improve and implement this project in the future.

We identified a key stage 3 class that we both teach and spoke at length about what we wanted the outcome to be and what students can take from cross circular learning.

The class we identified was a year 7 class and with their transition into year 8 imminent, we also wanted to consider an entrepreneurial angle to tie in with the enterprise day that the students would encounter in year 8. 

Our initial planning phase began in maths lessons where students were given the opportunity to discuss their ideas on how they can improve the school. The class were divided into small groups (3 or 4s) and chose an aspect of the school they believed needed improving.


The Project in Maths (Harshini Selvendran)

70 have been enthusiastic, intrigued and been a pleasure to teach during the pilot project. We began by having a long detailed conversation on the potential improvements that could take place in the school. Estimating how much they thought it would cost and what obstacles would arise during the improvements. Period 5 on a Friday is usually disliked by teachers and a difficult period for students to concentrate in but not 7O, they were enthusiastic and full of ideas that even though we ran over the lesson and they were still excited. On Monday morning the following week I had students from 7O stopping me in the corridor asking me if it was ok ‘ to improve the canteen, to plant a flower bed, to put paintings in the hall’, they had left the lesson as was brainstorming all weekend without even realising.

The first brainstorm by 7O was ambitious. They wanted to get a contractor to break all the mobiles and re-build a new building in a ‘3D hexagonal shape’, I didn’t want to tell them this was impossible instead I created the classroom into an office, where each student had a role. I told them this is the first time this company will be working for Canons and will have to prove themselves so stay employed. One quiet voice from the back said ‘miss can we start small, like getting new chairs or tables’ one very confident voice said ‘but I want to create a new gym with new equipment’, the quiet voice replied ‘ where will you build this gym?’. The class stopped they were amazed someone so quiet voluntary spoke let alone argued their case. They all decided let’s start with something measurable and achievable that way the governors will be impressed. 

Once the groups had decided their improvement area I sent them to the location in the school, they were given measuring tapes and each person in the group had an objective. They would measure the actual area in order to calculate pricing. They investigated the current conditions and how much improvement needed. They all came back to the classroom twenty before the end, exhausted they were ready to feedback. One group created a really good dynamic in the class they told us how many lockers they were in the school of what size and asked a few students what would be a preferable size. However it was not that which amazed me ‘miss the metal from the old lockers can be used in art or DT so it doesn’t go to waste’, one student did say ‘ can we make a car out of it’ and soon enough the class broke into a loud laughter and the bell rang.

They broke up into their groups and brainstormed further they estimated how much time they will need to investigate the cost and the suppliers that can be used. One person from each group fed back at the end of each lesson so other students can give their opinions and help each other move their project further. Following week I took the class into the IT room where they were given time to research any costings and draw a 2D plan of their improvement.  Many groups compared prices with retailers, calculated the total cost and then decided where they could reduce cost. They had clear justifications of their decisions. As weeks went on I saw the class evolve into a buzzing business office within four weeks it all came to an end where they took their cost listings, 2D plan and their PowerPoints to English. 


The Project in English (Alice Swain)

In order to make sure the students took something away from the project, I knew that setting them up to work independently was integral to the project’s success. Having already conducted the necessary research in maths, students initially found it difficult to connect their work in maths to the tasks they would be completing in English, however, the groups’ final pitches proved that they understood and successfully linked their work across both subjects.

In English lessons, I wanted students to plan and write a letter to the school governors outlining their improvement plan for the school and then prepare and present a pitch to the class in order to persuade us that their plan to improve the school was the most feasible, productive and cost effective option. At first the students were apprehensive asking questions like ‘so Miss in our letters to the governors do we actually use numbers and stuff from maths?’ Yes, absolutely. I could see them starting to understand what we were getting at and from conversations with students they were beginning to see how two subjects that seem so distant from one another can actually sail with projects like this at the helm.

7O came to me confident and excited with the ideas they had come up with in maths and soon realised that they would need to master the skills they needed in English in order to make their project a true success. Without a strong letter and persuasive pitch, their idea wouldn’t come to life. We began by looking at how to format a letter and how to write persuasively, reviewing AFOREST techniques and how to use formal language targeted at a specific audience. When it came to planning their pitches, we watched some persuasive speeches together considering what was successful about them and then students spent time planning their own pitches trying to make theirs the most persuasive and engaging.

These tasks were particularly effective as it not only allowed us, within English, to consolidate and review learning from the Non-Fiction unit year 7s had studied at the beginning of the year, but it also allowed me to emphasise the importance of persuasive writing as the letter they would be writing would not be dissimilar to the task they would have to complete for part of the English Language exam paper at GCSE.

At the end of the week of English lessons we invited other year 7 forms to come and see 7O pitch their ideas and improvement plans. Over a double lesson, their persuasive pitches, confident calculations and the perfect mix of both numeracy and literacy assured us that the project had been a success, with the feedback from students only supporting this result further.

In terms of the students’ successfully achieving and attaining skills we have found that from a literacy perspective, within maths lessons, students are now better equipped to express themselves both verbally and in written explanations of answers. This has helped to bridge the communication in lessons between students and teachers. In addition to this, in both subjects the students had to consider their learning and apply their skills to a specific context with numeracy and literacy acting as the foundation for their success in the project. The students needed to come to English lessons with a knowledge of the numeracy and then apply this to a literacy setting, this encouraged the students to recognise the link between numeracy and literacy and the role it played in both their maths and English lessons. The students admitted they didn’t normally recognise if and when they were using numeracy in English or literacy in maths specifically so this gave them an opportunity to recognise how the skills are transferable across different subjects.

Luqmaan: “I truly enjoyed the project because it seemed so real. We didn’t use pretend measurements we actually had to go to the site we wanted and measure dimensions. Also, because of the pitch and how we used our maths, I actually felt like I was doing a job.”

Syed: “I really liked the project but I think it should have been more even because we have more English lessons with Miss Swain than maths with Miss Selvendran. I like that the teachers let us lead the project and didn’t interfere too much because it helped me improve my leadership skills I think.”


Thursday, 22 May 2014

Teaching 'An Inspector Calls'

Was there a PPT? A YouTube clip? Images? Music? None of the above. Simply paper, pens and copies of An Inspector Calls.

It was the second lesson in the scheme and I wanted an engaging and creative way of starting the play and getting to grips with the characters. For homework the previous lesson I asked the class to research any social or political world events between 1912 and 1946 (when the play was set and written). There were no constraints or limitations, I just asked each student to come to class with at least 3 events.

They arrived to class with slips of paper and quite eager to share their findings. Upon entering, they found the room rearranged with tables grouped in the centre of the room and enough chairs around. But I didn't ask them to sit down. Instead I told them to stand around the table and grab a coloured pen from the front. On the table was some flip chart paper with a timeline drawn on. Armed with pens, the students spent 10minutes plotting their events on the timeline. They had to move paper, pens and themselves to get to where they wanted and there was lots of discussion as they shared their findings. I sat back and watched. Some questions were thrown at me: is the invention of colour tv important? What about the Russian revolution? I just told them to get it all down and they did. In fact, at this point I was pretty invisible.

Once they'd finished we all sat around the timeline and looked at what they had produced: paper covered in different colours: wars, inventions, policies, tragedies. They hadn't just researched the obvious and, whilst I had asked them to think outside the box, I hadn't expected quite so much information. At this point I gave a brief introduction to the text, explaining the context and setting in a little more detail (we had covered Preistley's background and political beliefs in the previous lesson). The students then discussed which events they thought were most relevant to the play and why and they then created their own individual timelines to keep and refer to in their folders using the large one as a guide. I even got to drawing my own, something which the students responded really positively too, I think a sense of pride that I was using their work as a basis for my own, (I was teaching the same text to another class and wanted to use the current lesson as a model).

Next came the play itself. We started with the stage directions and the descriptions of the characters. The students created brainstorms for each character using evidence and then analysed the language and discussed possible interpretations. To get them started I encouraged them to discuss possible meanings and bounced ideas around the class, asking students to agree with possible interpretations, build upon them or challenge by offering alternative views (this ABC method is great and taken from @huntingenglish). Before the characters had even spoken, the students had a great grasp of personalities and relationships e.g. Birling was 'heavy looking' therefore he "was overweight and clearly well fed reflecting his wealth and capitalist lifestyle" but "maybe he's just a serious looking man with lots on his mind." Did I respond? No. Is there a right answer? Maybe. But the students were engaged and were eager to explore multiple layers of meaning and alternative views, something which I have been encouraging since September but which they only just seem to have grasped. The brainstorming continued as we begun to read the play and the students gradually took more control over the pace as their confidence grew. By the end of the lesson, it was the students who started stopping the reading to copy certain quotes and discuss multiple meanings while I worked to facilitate their discussions.

Five lessons on and we have only just finished Act 2 but this doesn't bother me. I'd rather them take their time now and get to grips with the text rather than spend frantic lessons before their exam trying to get them to remember everything they need to know. The thing that struck me the most after this lesson was how simple it was to deliver, making me question my practice last year when I taught off detailed PPT slides which explained everything yet allowed the students no opportunity to learn for themselves. Last year though I was doing the hard work. Now I'm quite enjoying being a 'lazy' teacher, guiding and encouraging their deeper exploration of this play.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Springing into A*ction

When asked to plan three sessions on English A* revision we knew we wanted to get the students to achieve flair and sophistication in their writing, but the question was how? How can you teach flair? Four of us met to discuss and plan our ideas for this and this post outlines what we came up with and how we delivered it to students in the revision sessions.

Creating a 'Spring' Theory:
The biggest issue for A* students is taking a risk, of moving away from structured paragraphs like PEELA (Point - Evidence - Explanation - Language Analysis - Alternative View) and creating a more sophisticated and interesting essay structure. My own top set students are able to write excellent PEELA paragraphs in isolation but ask them to write a whole essay and somehow they lose their way; the coherence disappears and they end up failing to actually answer the question. 
To share my concerns with the group I drew what their current essays looked like: 4 circles sandwiched between two triangles - each part complete on its own but disjointed from the rest. And, whilst our students are good at using connectives to 'link' their ideas, how effective is the word 'furthermore' if the point that follows doesn't link to the previous one? Despite being an English teacher, I couldn't quite articulate what I wanted their essays to look like so I went to the board again to draw my ideas. We came up with a structure that looked more like a spring with the essay being one complete strand looping around. These loops would take the form of their PEELA paragraphs but each one would need to link directly to the next (or former), not through the use of connectives, but by actually choosing certain points or quotes which could be referred to again, in a new and interesting way. And this is where we saw 'flair' come in, depicted through the use of flowers. These flowers could be alternative views or speculation or the effect on the reader. And then, to link these together we used bees (because bees pollinate flowers and therefore link ideas across the paragraphs). We came up with 3 different versions of the Spring theory which could be applied to the different English exams: prose, poetry and unit 1.

Hopefully, you can see from the PPT slides how our spring theory can help students structure and plan their writing. We worked hard to keep a consistent approach that could be used across texts but still with one aim in mind: clear, consistent writing which shows flair and sophistication. 
In Action:

We then delivered sessions to students aiming for A/A* using the spring theory. Some  found the concept easy, one punning, 'it's the beesknees' (I was pretty impressed!) whilst others found it harder to use. The day allowed for students to plan different responses using the theory and this practice helped them in their planning, structure and writing. With one group who were struggling, I explained how the theory was like an electrical circuit, the flowers and bees each being equally necessary components, that if left out or removed would break the circuit and cut off the flow of electricity thereby breaking the flow of the essay and the engagement of the reader. 

Here's what the teachers delivering the sessions had to say:

Alice Swain on Unit 1 Section B:

 "When it came to planning a spring theory session for section B of the Unit 1 paper, it was difficult to consider how you could teach the theory and get students to adopt it to approach a creative task. Our focus for this section therefore fell on the three most important parts of the spring theory: the main argument, the flowers and our bees, placing an emphasis on encouraging students to use their AFOREST techniques in imaginative ways and consistently link back to their main argument.
I started by writing an article myself, challenging Michael Gove’s proposal for longer school days and then we worked backwards, deconstructing the article together and exploring how the article posed a main argument which was consistently linked back to and interwoven throughout with the AFOREST techniques adding the flair. Giving students a model allowed them to see how an article or creative piece could be planned but still maintain a free structure as long as it considered one main argument throughout and discussed points which supported this main line of argument. From this the students then felt more confident to plan, in groups, their own spring theory preparing to write a persuasive letter to their local council arguing that the local youth centre should not be demolished in order to make way for a new Tesco.
Immediately the students identified three main groups (their points) who would be affected by this demolition, however, many of the students had failed to establish an initial main line of argument therefore running into difficulty when trying to think of their links between points and back to the task. The students then went back and re-considered their main line of argument, making it easier for them to look at their writing as a whole and plan a more coherent and logical piece of writing whilst still being able to write creatively. Their final plans provided an opportunity to showcase the spring theory as a concrete technique for creative writing tasks; one which students are more confident now using as a planning tool when approaching Section B."

 Sophia Klier on Poetry:

"As a group, we spent a significant amount of time discussing and developing our ideas about what we wanted to achieve in the A* sessions. We decided from the beginning that we did not want to simply revise content, but rather invest in developing the skills students would need in order to push themselves to achieve 'flair' and 'sophistication'. We also decided early on that we wanted a coherent system that could be applied across all different exam areas, over the entire day. I took on the session on Poetry. I wanted to spend time on both Section A (Conflict) as well as Section B, (Unseen), and decided to spend an equal amount of time in the session for each section. We began the session by applying the idea of Spring Theory to Poetry. We looked at one poem and applied the Spring Theory (specifically an argument/ point which runs through the entire argument, and thinking how to structure and analyse the points for their essay.) From this point we then used this to approach exam-style questions, which students worked on in groups. In the second part of the session, I assigned an unseen poem and also had the students plan an answer, again using Spring Theory. My conclusion is that applying Spring Theory was very helpful for the Poetry Exam. Instead of rushing in and simply beginning to write, it made students pause and instead spend valuable time planning and thinking coherently about their overall essay. This made essays much clearer with a more coherent structure. I am confident that students will be able to apply these skills during their exam."
Theeus Devitt on Modern Texts:

       "Teasing the nuance of an A* from an A* student is one of the challenges most difficult to concretely master as a KS4 English teacher, so it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I set about teaching the Easter revision classes with this newly devised spring theory. The session that I worked through was geared towards our students' two primary texts: Of Mice and Men and An Inspector Calls. The students have spent a long time studying both pieces of literature so their inability to achieve an A* was not a lack of knowledge, but the ability to expressive the knowledge in a cohesive essay robust with flair. 

I decided the best way to do this would be to break them into groups and have four separate questions at tables around the room. Each group developed a main argument which was the backbone the essay for the question in front of them: the string that ran through the essay, as well as three points to support that argument which would make up the body paragraphs of the essay. Once this was completed, the students moved from their first question to the next table, which had another group’s question and essay framework: main argument and 3 supporting points.  As a group they developed the next stage of the essays which remained at the table by finding evidence from the text to support the main argument and supporting paragraphs. Again they moved to a new question and essay at the next table where they explained how the evidence gathered by the previous group supported the main point established by the first group. At the final table the students were asked to link these already constructed paragraphs to the main argument with flair. Then as a whole class we picked apart each group's constructed essay plan to see how effectively they had utilized the spring theory."

Since these revision days, students have been able to use the spring theory in their revision and essay planning. I have also used the theory to help show students how to construct their answers and see links that can be made between paragraphs including structuring shorter responses for Unit 1 Section A. Overall, the department have found the theory extremely useful, so much so, that it is something we are looking to introduce lower down the school across all abilities.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Role-modelling learning

Once every half term at CHS, the Pedagogy Leaders organise a Teacher Learning Community (TLC) meeting for our staff as part of our continuing professional development. Staff have a choice of six TLCs to join, and we have already met for three sessions so far this academic year.

TLCs provide a unique opportunity for cross-curricular collaboration and discussion about stuff that really matters (AKA Learning and Teaching), and the group of staff that I work with certainly bring a lot to the table. What I really love is the diversity of experience in the group: different subject backgrounds, number of years in the profession, approaches to teaching, classroom priorities, positions of responsibility, shoe size… basically everything! These wonderfully quirky differences all contribute to highly textured and thought-provoking conversations about all things pedagogical. Over the course of the year, the aim is to share existing good practice and learn from one another by drawing upon others’ experiences, whilst paying close attention to improving literacy across the school and raising the number of A/A* grades.

One of our meetings focused specifically on ‘role-modelling learning’. In true Accelerated Learning Cycle style, the ‘Connection’ came in the form of two video clips from YouTube of how to make a tuna sandwich. Please feel free to get in the spirit and click on the links to watch them yourself!

Afterwards, we thought about the following questions: 1) How important is it to role-model learning? 2) What makes for effective role-modelling of learning?

Research has shown that modelling is an effective instructional strategy in that it allows students to observe the teacher’s thought processes. Using this type of instruction, teachers engage students in imitation of particular behaviours that encourage learning (Bandura, 1986). According to social learning theorist Albert Bandura, ‘learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action’ (Bandura, 1977).

Following the sharing of some useful input and personal experiences from members of the group, attention turned to five distinct types of modelling for the ‘Activation’ portion of the TLC:
  • Disposition modelling - teachers and students convey personal values or ways of thinking.
  • Task and performance modelling - the teacher demonstrates a task students will be expected to do on their own.
  • Meta-cognitive modelling - this demonstrates how to think in lessons that focus on interpreting information and data, analysing statements, and making conclusions about what has been learned.
  • Modelling as a scaffolding technique - teachers must consider students’ position in the learning process. Teachers first model the task for students, and then students begin the assigned task and work through the task at their own pace.
  • Student-centred modelling - teachers can often call on students to model expected behaviours or thought processes. In student-centred modelling, teachers engage students who have mastered specific concepts or learning outcomes in the task of modelling for their peers.

In pairs, staff were assigned one of these types of modelling, along with a clear definition of its purpose, and were given around 20 minutes to design a learning activity to be delivered in the style of their given approach. This task was quite open-ended, except for the fact that the activities needed to be something that they could actually use for a real lesson, rather than basing it upon a hypothetical classroom situation.

The end results were tremendously creative. The ‘Demonstration’ element showcased activities ranging from the modelling and eventual assigning of specific roles to students working collaboratively in an art lesson, such as a Resources Manager and a Timekeeper (inspired by @thelazyteacher and his handbook – thanks Jim), to the teacher showing eager students how to use a microscope correctly for the first time.
Even after the TLC meeting had come to an end, days later in fact, group members were clearly still thinking about the conversations from the session, and were kind enough to get in touch and share with me what they had been developing in their departments since we met.

Over in economics, for example, SWh commented on her use of meta-cognitive modelling to translate information in a text (past paper) to economic theory.  The students were required to explain clearly what economic theory would predict what will happen in a given situation, such as bad weather will damage crops.  There is a step-by-step sequence of events which can be demonstrated graphically, so this sort of modelling was adopted to talk through the steps while doing the graphs.

In another economics lesson, JGb showed his students a model answer, which was followed by a detailed discussion of what students would include in each paragraph and what graph would need to be drawn before it appeared on the board. The students then attempted a similar question which required the same structure in their answer, and the majority produced a good answer having already gone through the thought process of how to answer the question.

Now over to the MFL department. HTl and JGl had developed graded modelling activities for the purpose of scaffolding learning, aiming to simultaneously build up students’ confidence in using the target language and focus on consolidating their written literacy. Firstly, students were provided with a model paragraph describing their school in Spanish, and were asked to make it a higher quality paragraph by adding or improving the variety of connectives within the text.

Secondly, students were provided with jumbled sentences that they needed to re-order in order for the paragraph to make logical sense.

This was followed by a cloze text activity, further differentiated by either showing or concealing a choice of words to fill the gaps.

The final activity was more open-ended. Students had a set of Spanish sentence starters (with English translations) and were encouraged to invent their own endings, with the added option of using vocabulary lists or dictionaries to support them if necessary.

The wonderful thing about all of these superb examples of supporting and advancing students’ learning through modelling is that these sorts of things are going on in classrooms across CHS all the time. Of course, what had been discussed and demonstrated in the TLC helped remind staff of how powerful effective modelling can be in the classroom, and perhaps sparked a renewed emphasis on its importance and on-going development to help make marginal gains. But it was great to hear from the teachers in the group that this session had helped confirm in their minds that what they were already doing in their lessons was truly making a difference to support their students to make meaningful progress. The ‘Consolidation’ phase continues...

Ultimately, this TLC was not about requiring teachers to re-invent the wheel. Rather, it was an opportunity, a space, an hour of reflection, to help make explicit and reiterate the importance of the little things that we do instinctively every day; the things that regularly make a real difference to the learning that takes place in our classrooms.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Subject Specific Literacy INSET

On the first day back from Christmas break we had an INSET designed around ‘Literacy for Life’.  As one of the pedagogy leaders at our school I took a seminar on using key words to structure and develop writing.  I teamed up with a pedagogy leader from last year Rebecca Howard and not only did we co-lead the seminar; we are also co-writing this blog.

We wanted to make the seminar as accessible for everyone as possible and make staff at our school consider their own subjects’ literacy and what was important to them.   There are many whole school literacy approaches which are very effective but as a teacher in our school I thought the most important thing to me would be to consider subject specific literacy. Focussing on the specialist terminology and getting students to sound like a specialist in their particular subjects.

We started the session by getting teachers to write on post it notes, the key literacy aspects of their subject , and sticking them on ‘literacy umbrellas’ followed by a discussion on the key literacy areas to improve in their subject.

The discussion went from spelling, punctuation to structuring essays and student’s ability to read and understand questions. Staff also shared some of the best practice they used in their departments. Some of the most common ideas were exam question practice; having students review a range of exemplar answers, helping the students structure their answers; one teacher’s mantra was ensuring students always considered Clarity, Accuracy, Detail, often used in conjunction with PEEL – point, evidence, explain, link, repeating and reviewing key words through own teaching and the use of a key word glossaries; some had designed their own which they gave to students, some gave space to the back or front of the books for key words to be updated as and when. I knew there were going to be so many good ideas that people in the school had that I purposefully left extra time for tables to discuss and share with the whole group.

In our activation section I shared my conversations with other subjects around school and the types of techniques and strategies that other departments were using. These built on the best practice from the discussion and gave staff a whole school picture of subject specific literacy. Rebecca then shared the techniques she has used in History. 

Over to Rebecca:
As Tom has mentioned we considered the most valuable part of the session to be teachers sharing and discussing their own excellent practice in terms of literacy. Therefore we wanted to provide our session’s participants with an opportunity to discuss and share strategies and ideas after having scrutinised the collated resources from both Canons and current pedagogy, for example blogs and twitter links. With this priority in mind I contributed to the activation section of the session with a few strategies that we use in Humanities to develop, support and challenge students’ literacy skills.  Below is a summary of the main points made during the session.

When discussing a focus for the session Tom and I began with the idea of using key words and phrases to help develop students’ writing. Writing is a complex process involving several stages, as Geoff Barton (Don’t Call it Literacy! 2013) states, writing involves :

         Modelling (the teacher sharing information about a text)

       Joint construction (teacher and pupil working together to create a text in the spirit of collaboration)

       Independent construction (pupils constructing a text independently)

Barton also goes on to highlight five crucial areas that ‘every teacher ought to know about writing’:

  1. Remember The Matthew Effect: ‘ The [word/literacy] rich will get richer and the [word/literacy] poor will get poorer.’ Therefore deliberately teaching writing skills will decrease existing inequalities.
  2. Presentation matters.
  3. Demonstrating writing matters. This means modelling and demonstrating, making mistakes and correcting them.
  4. Structure matters. This means mastering paragraphs, sentence structures and connectives.
  5. Vocabulary matters. The precision and complexity of the words we use marks the difference between the amateur and the expert. Teaching complex words to pupils you may consider less able is crucial as they may be the ones who benefit the most.

I wanted to focus firstly on strategies relating to the last point: ‘Vocabulary matters’ and ways in which we teach students to value and develop their vocabulary in Humanities.  I am certain these ideas are neither unique nor the best, however they have proven invaluable to us in Humanities, especially for students undertaking the rigorous study of History where literacy and language mastery are the absolute cornerstone of becoming expert in the subject.  Some strategies we use in this area are:

1. Key words and glossaries

Highlighting relevant, complex and /or subject specific terms at the start of (and during!) every lesson helps to develop students’ vocabulary. All students use the back of their books as a glossary of key terms. More recently we have begun to use half termly glossary quizzes or key word bingo to further consolidate understanding and enhance impact by referring back to previous new words.

2. Key word boxes

We always endeavour to make more complex vocabulary explicit, visible and easily available to students when they are tackling a written task. We actively encourage students to use them in their speaking and writing.

3. Key phrases

In a similar way to key words we make more complex phrases explicit, visible and easily available to students when they are tackling a written task as well as actively encouraging students to use them in their writing after experimenting verbally.  We have found that new vocabulary and phrases can help students (especially our students, who mostly speak English as an additional language) to express existing ideas for which they do not yet have words. In addition this helps students to develop new ideas which they did not previously hold.  For me this highlights our crucial responsibility to commit to making such this a priority for our students.  (Inspired from James Woodcock’s Teaching History (119) article: ‘Does the linguistic release the conceptual?’)

In History, we want our students to think and write like expert historians, employing subject specific language confidently.  This required careful consideration and research into the kind of language and phrases expert historians use in order to share these with our students. We concluded that in order for students to be able to think and write like historians they often need to demonstrate an air of uncertainty about the points they can make from the evidence they have been presented with. They also need to be able to make appropriate judgements that they can substantiate.  

Below is an example of a resource developed to support students in developing such tendencies.

3. Key phrase mats resource: How to make beautiful (inspired by Berger!) judgements in History.

Making judgements that can be substantiated is a crucial skill we want our students to be able to develop. It challenging to weigh up both sides of an issue or claim and formulate a judgement therefore such skills are often seen at the higher end of mark schemes.

We find our students make such judgements cognitively yet do not always have the appropriate langue to be able to express their understanding. We wanted to give students appropriate and expert phrases to help them express such ideas for which they may not yet have the vocabulary.

In History  (as in many other subjects) a key feature of our questions require students to make a judgement on the extent to which they believe something, or how far they agree. Some common question stems are below:
  • How certain are you about…..?
  • To what extent….?
  • How much do you agree about…..?
  • How far does the evidence suggest….?
  • How effective/reliable?
  • What rating would you give?

In the vast majority of cases we found that students were responding with answers that demonstrated understanding but where mastery of academic language was missing.  Common student (verbal) responses to the aforementioned questions were for example:

  • ‘It’s about 50/50’
  • ‘About 50%’
  • ‘Half half’
  • ‘I’m 25% sure’
  • ‘It’s 100%’

Therefore to support students in developing more academic language and inspired by researched literacy mats including Dale Banham’s, we developed a literacy mat to help students get better at making expert judgements. We wanted it to enable students to consider the strength and validity of their arguments and the strength of the evidence they have been presented with. The result is the resource below, kindly spruced up and laminated by Dan Fowler. It has been such a valuable resource and we use it more than even expected. In an ideal world we want to move to having these permanently  stuck to the desks to consistently support speaking and writing.  To hear students in year 8 respond verbally with answers such as ‘ this profoundly indicates that….’ has been really rewarding. It has also made a positve impact in students writing and students often ask for them specifically. 

Please find below some visual examples of the resources we use. The judgements mat is the first item below.

Next we focussed on Barton’s second of his ‘Five things every teacher should know about writing’: Structure matters. A key theme of the INSET and good practice in general in terms of literacy appears to making strategies we already employ to support literacy that may be implicit, really explicit to students. With this in mind we looked at some Humanities resources that exemplify this, where scaffolding and sentence starters are used and explicitly referred to before students write to reinforce expectations.

Making the implicit explicit (Didau, 2013) : Scaffolding and sentence starters

We initially discussed how resources that we already use for writing can be easily altered to make the development of academic literacy more explicit through, for example, scaffolding, the use of sentence starters and giving examples of key phrases needed for particular purposes.

We looked at a basic and fairly typical resource used for writing, where students investigate a range of options in order to evaluate how effective something is.  We then discussed how we could alter this resource slightly to:

(a) support students in structuring their written responses
(b) encourage students to use more academic language

Please find the two resources used in the session below. The latter being more explicit and signposting exactly what is expected from students’ writing with sentence starters and encouraging them to refer to the judgements mat.

As I am sure you aware there was a lot to take in.  For the consolidation phase we had prepared many different resources from various places including literacy maps, journals, blogs, subject specific research material on literacy strategies and ideas on how to improve literacy in various subjects.  We gave staff a chance to peruse and then they completed a sheet on the area they wanted to improve and the strategies they would take from the session.  In hindsight I wish we made more of an effort to fully engage staff with the resources and it was something to improve on for next time.
The session was really useful for me and even though I was leading the session I was able to take a lot of ideas from other more experienced teachers.  I am going to increase the amount of practice questions we do and spend more time explicitly teaching the literacy of the questions, focussing on key words and students’ understanding of the question.  I am very passionate about subject specific literacy and think it is very important that this is improved alongside whole school literacy approaches.