Hitting rock bottom

Rock bottom 1

I wonder if you have students at your school who had no hope of getting a C grade?

The ones whose FFTs are Es or Fs. The ones whose FFTs are Cs and Ds but nothing that happened in Years 7 – 11 gave any indication of how that could be. The ones who have complex (or even simple) needs and find learning tough. The ones who are never in school. The one who set the fire alarms off. The ones who SLT are always talking to in the corridors and on the playground.

As much as I love results day – and I do. And as much as I loved watching the faces of my top set when they saw their double A*s; it was the faces of the bottom set kids that I found myself seeking out. Knowing that they would be reading a list of Es, Fs and maybe Us.

You see, as well as teaching top set this year, I also taught bottom set. Two hours a week, Wednesday and Friday last lesson. With a group of 12 kids doing an English Only qualification. You might remember me talking about them in this post.

On Thursday, I watched those few who turned up to collect their results realise that they didn’t get what they wanted. For some of them it wasn’t even close. These are the kids where teachers will say “Well, he got 17 marks (out of 90) and I didn’t think he would do that!” or “An F grade is accurate.”

Whilst these maybe true, I wonder what it is like at the age of 16 to know that something has gone so badly wrong with your life already – that you need to start again, at the local College.

Rock bottom 2

It’s these kids and days like last Thursday that force me to have a cold, hard look at what I did wrong. (I know it’s not all my responsibility – despite what my PRP measure might say).
I feel like I say it every year – we can’t have another year like that.

So here’s my plan:

  1. The early bird catches the worm Our KS3 curriculum is pretty tight, very heavily weighted towards literature and knowledge. Whilst I love this – I have to ask myself whether a different provision might be needed for kids who have some of the fundamentals missing. You see, these kids need to read and be forced to read a lot. So at least half of their lessons will now include reading practice (phonics, reading aloud, guided reading strategies and all sorts of comprehension stuff). It’s time to look again at my Trust Me You can Read project
  2. Test them early, diagnose early, sort it early Running side by side with the above I think I know need a more effective way to test and diagnose reading age and reading skills. I know Katie Ashford at Michaela has blogged about this – although I don’t know this programme yet – I want to. I need data on these kids every term, every half term.
  3. Get my team on board My team are amazing, but by in large they are literature trained. We are lucky that 3 of us have all also taught TEFL. But until I started learning about phonics two years ago, none of us really knew how to teach a child to read. When a kid joins in Year 7, no matter what might have happened before – if I can’t teach them to read, then too much of secondary education is already lost.
  4. Get whole staff on board It’s interesting when you talk about phonics in a secondary school, the only people who know what you are talking about are parents. And most don’t like phonics. This year I will deliver whole staff training on phonics, reading and spelling strategies for all subjects. If we get these kids using the same approaches to reading key terms in Maths and Science as they do to reading a novel, then we have a hope of getting somewhere.
  5. Get parents (and their kids) on board Parent information evenings are great – however, I would like to see more parent workshops, where parents come in with their kids and work together on some of the kinds of tasks that they do in lessons. Providing parents with a little bit of information and lots of hassle-free opportunities to support their son or daughter in reading is better than saying “they need to read more” at parents’ evening.

I can’t say now whether this will have a big impact. I won’t stick my head in the sand anymore. It is a 5 year plan – starting at year 7, so we will just have to wait and see.

And because we all love a motivational poster:

rock bottom 3

Thank you for reading

L

 

 

 

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Studying unseen fiction (part 1)

 

garden-gnome-523380_640One of the real pleasures of teaching CIE iGCSE Literature this year was preparing students for analysis of unseen prose fiction. Unlike the Language counterpart – the prose fiction selected by Cambridge have always unusual, interesting and challenging.

The new English Language GCSE sticks unseen fiction back in the game from this September and whether you have chosen a board that does contemporary or old, it will be something to tackle.

It’s a bit different, but the same as well.

different

Prose extracts whether they are from short or long fiction provide a unique opportunity to test students independent inference and deduction skills. After all, we aren’t in the room to clarify plot, character, themes and purpose. Nor is there the typical Unit 1 shouty headline and garish picture choice to help guide understanding.  Students are presented with part of a text, rather than a whole. They are literally in medias res.

How did I work it out?

Culture of strong readers

Now is this time – more than ever before – to look at the culture of reading in your school. It is clear that students who are strong readers – whether they read extensively for pleasure or not – will be more successful than those who aren’t. I have written before about the importance of developing readers who are confident. In this new exam, we cannot risk students who stumble through sentences struggling to decode individual words at the loss of whole passage meaning.

But how, here are a few things I have tried:

  1. Talk a lot about what I read. I don’t just mean the obligatory Miss L is reading posters. I have used whole school assembly time to talk about reading, struggling with reading, about books.  I regularly start my lessons with a book review, a mini-read (the bit just before the oh-shit moment is always a good one to read), a book trailer. Talk about books a lot.
  2. Article of the week. This is something else that I have written on before. The idea from Kelly Gallagher was first implemented to build cultural knowledge – to get students to think about current issues, to help them understand the world they are growing up. For part of the year – I did this. It resulted in some of the best classroom conversations I have ever had. See here for one.
    The idea is that each week you set an article for a homework task and students respond to it with some reflective writing. This can work just as well with prose fiction extracts and in fact, although I loved the discussions that resulted from the non-fiction articles I set, I loved even more the learning that resulted from the prose extracts.

Teaching unseen prose fiction – what, how and maybe why?

The process seemed pretty simple to me, at the beginning. We need to be able to pick up any extract and say what was going on, how the writer created these goings and why.

So working out what is happening in an unseen text is the first port of call. Basic comprehension seems obvious enough. Yet we don’t often tackle it in KS3 anymore, not cold, without any surrounding prior knowledge. In terms out that actions and events are easily misinterpreted.

Here is the process we came up with (minus the exam question hoo-ha):

  1. Read the text. Read it again. Read it a third time.
  2. Write a bullet summary of the WHAT covering – characters, events, relationships.  WHAT the writer is doing.

Seems simple enough doesn’t it? I challenge you to try it – perhaps even with this CIE old exam paper. Unseen lit paper – example 1 It’s amazing what different versions of the conversation between Dr Aziz and Mrs Moore I got. Were they arguing, were they flirting, are they friends, strangers?

We spent more time than expected get good and accurate at reading the WHAT in unseen texts.  This is where my prose fiction article of the week came in useful. But also 100s of paragraph long extracts as starter tasks.

Next came how – HOW is the writer are doing the WHAT?

    1. We would always start with dialogue for prose fiction, CIE are pretty reliable at choosing an extract with good dialogue.
      How does the dialogue reveal character, relationships?
      How does the dialogue move the action forward?
      How does the dialogue reveal history, background?
    2. Setting is another one that students can get their mitts on with relative ease – how does the writer bring the place to life?
    3. Mood is less easy if you haven’t done prior work on it. Mood in prose fiction is often connected with those awful vague adjectives like gloomy and eerie. I think mood and reader’s reaction are also sometimes confused.   This blog does a better job of explaining it –  I use the list of mood words here to study sentences and short extracts before we tackle longer ones. I have some lesson resources to share on mood shortly.
    4. Language, form and structure come more naturally – they are ingrained in our curriculum and students tend to be happy finding techniques. The above groundwork should ensure that they have something to say once they have found them.
    5. Themes and ideas can be another tricky one – while it might be possible to identify the theme of mortality or death in an extract concerning a funeral, it would be very difficult for a student to infer where the writer might be going with that idea.  We don’t have a long view.  We can hedge our bets “The writer might be suggesting” but before we go this far, we have to ask what are the expectation of analysing themes in an unseen text? It is not the same as looking at science and religion in Jekyll & Hyde.

Why – why is the writer up to all this?

To adequately look at themes and ideas, we must tackle the WHY. And if I’m honest – this was the area that I found most difficult. We are used to teaching the writer’s purpose, intention. After all every text has a message – we know that.   So tricky was the why, that it deserves it’s very own blog post. Soon, promise.

Thanks for reading

ps. You may want to ignore all of the above after results day next week.

 

Espresso Yourself

We heart school1

The first few hours or days back at school in September are hectic. While most schools encourage a full pelt return to hard learning – the sheer amount of admin that needs to be sorted means this isn’t always possible.

We are busy: sorting out seating plans, handing out new books, sorting out target sheets and stickers, homework schedules, SEN and TA resources.

Sometimes we just need a little bit of time.

For my new older classes – I like to gain 10 minutes or so with a few easy ‘get to know you’ activities.  But so I can muddle through the register and seating plan – I need this time to be quiet and calm.

Here’s one that I use for with my new Year 9 and Year 10 classes.

Espresso yourself blog

If you would like to use this – please help yourself: Espresso yourself

 

Book review: Raising Achievement by Caroline Bentley-Davies

Raising Achievement

The Teachers’ Pocketbook series is designed as handy overview of some the key areas of interest to teachers and school leaders. Raising Achievement does just that. Although it is easy to forget it is a pocketbook at all – so vast are the areas that Caroline Bentley-Davies manages to cover. At 128 pages including the myths of achievement; relevant research; metacognition; countless practical tips and a self-audit. There is nothing reduced or curtailed in this overview of raising achievement. Brevity and precision focus on the topic are what Caroline Bentley-Davies achieves and this is to our benefit.

The view here is holistic, there is no miracle cure for raising achievement – it cannot be done at the snap of our fingers, yet Caroline Bentley-Davies brings a lot of hope in her clear, strategic and practical approach. She covers honestly the issues for classroom teachers, students themselves, support teams, SLT and parents. The practical tips cover everything from first teaching strategies, to feedback, to revision. Sutton Trust and John Hattie are neatly segued into her practical thinking, as is Dweck’s Growth Mindset. While the case studies may be slightly obvious, Caroline Bentley-Davies highlights the gaps and errors we all make when we are hurrying through our curriculum.

Raising achievement is a thing, even in schools where results are good. There are always groups who are underachieving, they might not be pupil premium or able lazy boys, but they are there. It’s easy to think that if we just get on with good teaching then these groups should make progress like everyone. Right? No. It is clear from reading this book that I can look again at how I deal with the graffiti girls and sporting heroes in my school. But the best thing is – I don’t feel that crushing dread at the thought of tackling this issue, because now I have an overview of the ins and outs and some practical tips to try. I really like the idea of family learning – that’s first on my agenda.

I can honestly say I would never pick up a book with ‘raising achievement’ in its title. But I am glad I did.

I was provided a free copy of this book by the author in return for a fair review.

Always look on the bright side of life

 

Motivational posterLanguage is a wonderful and precious double-edged sword. It has the ability to build and create but can just as easily destroy.

I have a very distinct memory from my time as a secondary school pupil – it was an assembly. We were informed in clear and definite terms that things had changed and it was no longer acceptable to refer to someone as ‘coloured’. That term – too connected to South Africa, apartheid – now held such unpleasant connotations that we needed to drop it.  And so we did.

At various times in my teaching career, words have been banned. Words ‘like’ or ‘ain’t’ are popular – and when well communicated most students see the benefit of being able to express an idea without them.  I worked in Croydon when one famous academy chain banned a whole bunch of words, putting a sign up saying “we woz” is banned. The irony.

‘Basically’ is the classic student sentence opener these days. When students use it – I blame myself.  It’s a filler word, they haven’t clearly formed an answer because I probably didn’t give them enough thinking time.  So I stop, allow time and start again.

All of the above shaping of language seems acceptable, doesn’t it? It is either curtailing prejudice or you know, like, stuff that basically makes you look less cleverer. But who decides what is acceptable or unacceptable?  Where the line between hate-talk and censorship falls?

In 2012, the US Department of Education created a list of words that it wanted removed from classrooms.  It contains some hilarious entries – dinosaur (for creationists among us) and Halloween.  These silly additions belie the worrying undercurrent of some of the other words on the list.  Poverty. Abuse. Freedom. War.  Slavery. Terrorism. Homelessness.

The legislation of language is something that I find troubling in general.  Each year I have to retackle my thinking on it – the ‘nigger’ in Of Mice and Men (or the ‘bitch, slut, tramp, tart’ – although we don’t seem to mind that so much) – forces me to grapple with whether language should or can be censored. And if indeed whether language is the problem at all.

Banning words – one example would be the word ‘banter’ – does not stop teasing or cruelty.  Does censoring student language, help them change their behaviour? Is this what happened when we stopped using the word ‘coloured’? I don’t think so.

The opposite works equally. The muttering over and over of positivity does not necessarily result in rainbows and unicorns.  Singing ‘all things bright and beautiful’ does not the weather change. But I do know many, many people who find comfort in the language of positive thought (religious or otherwise) and are convinced that it can lift the spirits.

How do we decide what approach should be used and enforced in school?  Who should decide this?

I am deeply uncomfortable with banning words – I am happy, always happy, to talk about words and the power that words have.

I am deeply uncomfortable with the use of words to control behaviour. Even when this is designed for positive effect. I don’t like maxims or tenets or sayings – I understand rhetoric, please don’t ask me to use rhetoric that is so hollow, it is in fact empty.

Here’s what I will do:

Talk about words and why words are powerful.

Talk about why words should be spoken with thought.

Explore the responsibility we have for the impact of our words.

 

 

 

 

Summer Writing Prompt 4

We had a few days off!

Here is the prompt we used this weekend.

bank robbery

You are a customer lying face down on the floor during a bank robbery.  Describe the robbery from this viewpoint.

Credit goes to this groovy book for today’s prompt.

642

 

 

Summer of Writing (prompt 3)

We are back at school tomorrow – just 7 weeks left until we break up for the summer.  But that means today is really all about homework. So it was a genuine quick write based on this:

Bell Ringer writing prompts

If this chappie found his way to our house in London, I would be mightily concerned.

Happy Sunday, happy writing.

Mrs E

Revision Jenga

Jenga 7

Revision is a tricky nut to crack, especially for literature students where the topics for revision are as wide ranging as quotations from the text to feminist readings to historical context.

Jenga Revision is just one of the ways I help student memorise everything they need to know.

Here’s how I do it:

1. Get hold of your Jenga blocks. (you will need felt tips as well)
The cheapest Jenga blocks I have found are these mini Topple Towers from Poundland. Just £1 each.  The tower doesn’t stand much higher than 15cm. But that makes it perfect for small group work.
*Note – buy the cheapest ones you can – because these will be unfinished wood and easier to write on with felt tip!*

Jenga 2

2. Decide what you are going to write on them.
When I started out using this activity, I was totally laid back about what went on the blocks. A few years on and I’m a little wiser.  Here’s what I learnt:
Colour code the categories – so red for direct evidence from the text, blue for historical context, green for key literary terms.
Get students to plan / find the information first – no writing on the blocks until you’ve written it on paper (this can help avoid lots of repetition too)
Brevity rules! The blocks can only take 1 or 2 words – so precision is needed.
Neatly does it – some of those boys need to earn the right to write. Prove to me you can be legible, gentleman!

jenga 8

Jenga 3

3. Get working on making the blocks.  Depending on the number of texts to be revised, I will either allocate each group a different text or split the chapters or sections across a number of groups.

Jenga 4

4. Get your game on. Here are the rules of the game.

– Choose who goes first (tallest, shortest – I don’t mind).

– Person number 1 pulls out a block and uses the information on it to ask a question of someone else in the group. For example – say the block has the name “Crooks” on it. The questioner could form any question that will give them the response Crooks. The harder the question, the better. Which character in Of Mice and Men has their own chapter? Who does Curley’s Wife threaten to string up? Which character in the novel reads a lot?

– If the response is correct, then the responder is given that block to start making their collection. They then take the next turn.

– If the response is incorrect, then the questioner keeps it (for their collection).  And they keep taking turns and keeping blocks until someone answers correctly.

– The winner is the one who has the most blocks when the tower is completely gone. This encourages them to make the questions as difficult as possible.

Jenga 5

And that my friends is how we play revision Jenga!

Thanks for reading.

 

Long pin test

Summer of Writing (prompt 2)

bugs life

Fancy writing today? We did too.

Here’s our writing prompt from today – a bug’s life.

You are a bug on car windshield. Tell your story.

We are aiming to write between 350 – 45o words each time. Today we are focussing on being scientific and precise in our description.

Summer of writing (prompt #1)

me and kids

We are planning on doing loads of creative writing in our house this summer.

So to get the ball rolling, here is our first Summer Writing prompt.

Writing prompt 1

The 24 hour dance competition: Describe the sensation of dancing for 24 hours straight. Focus on what can be seen, heard and also what is thought and felt.

I’ll post some of our writing.  Keep checking as we will be putting up a new writing prompt everyday!

Thanks for reading