Thursday, 15 January 2015

Creating Balance in the Classroom

Nothing that I am about to say is new or profound but it is something that is important to my classroom and something which, at times, gets overlooked: balance.

Scrolling through Twitter today, several practitioners have linked to Carol Dweck's Growth Mindset (a brilliant read). I am convinced that this should be the undermining of principle of any learning establishment. However, in a system that is defined by rising standards and increased accountability - how do we promote a positive mindset? Naturally, we focus on the aspects that we want to improve - but, in our aim to promote excellence, do we continue to nurture the emotions of the students (and the staff) involved?

This weekend I was given an interesting piece of information: the ratio of positive to negative experiences needed to produce a safe learning environment is 3:1. I then looked at my current coursework - although it finishes with a WWW and an EBI - am I promoting a love of learning and the strength to tackle the next redraft. Honestly, I'm not sure! Is the 50/50 balance responsible for the learned helplessness that can infiltrate our classrooms? Maybe...

So here is this week's challenge... Positive comments on the left, areas for development on the right with the aim of ensuring a 3:1 ratio. Results next week!

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Explain and Recover... or Explore?

Recently, I had the pleasure of accompanying my form group on a week-long camping residential. I was looking forward to it. The week was going to be a challenge (some of them were uncertain of the 3 day residential we went on last year) and, as an inner city school, the majority of them were alien to the concept of sitting outdoors - let alone adventuring in it. However, we were all excited – it was a challenge and we were ready!

We had spent the majority of the year preparing for our trip and I had already spent weeks convincing them that would return as more confident individuals with refined skills and different outlooks. What I hadn’t anticipated, was that this would apply just as much to my own skills.
On the first day, we were thrown into the ghyll. Dressed in flattering overalls and safety harnesses, we stepped into the freezing water and the look of excitement switched to discomfort in a matter of seconds. For one student, her face was etched with fear. I watched as she froze, squirmed and eventually squealed – refusing to take another step.

Naturally, I stepped in.

I listened to her. Talked to her and, together, we advanced through the ghyll. Progress.
Or was it?

Fortunately,  I was in the ghyll with another experienced instructor. He had watched this unfold and quite quickly asked for a word. He told the others to continue – including the girl who was struggling. He asked me to watch the girl as she progressed. In my absence, the rest of the group had begun to support her. By the end of the gyhll, she was jumping into the water and floating around in her life jacket. True progress.

If I had continued, the girl would most certainly have reached the end of the ghyll – she may even have jumped in. But, her success would really have been mine. I was explaining the process and returning her to a place where she felt secure. Would she transfer this to another activity? Probably not. After all, the skills were never hers in the first place

My colleague’s approach involved leaving her for a few more seconds – forcing her to look for alternate options. She explored the environment and the support options. She found her own way using tools that she could refer to for the rest of the week. These were transferable and the young lady excelled in activity after activity and she knew it; her beaming smile stood out across the week.
Then, I wondered about my classroom. How often do I help a student by walking them through an answer? As a practitioner do I explain and recover or allow them to explore? 

Unfortunately, I am almost certain that it was the first. Failure didn’t feel like an option… . In a classroom, when faced with perceived failure, students can disrupt, fail to complete their work or simply fail to attend. But, I’m now convinced – more than ever, that we must teach students to ‘fail’ if we want them to succeed.

Interestingly, following camp - when I asked the students if their work looked as though it was going to be as successful as they were in the ghyll. They asked to redraft their writing. Their self perception and thus their resilience had improved.
Admittedly, explorative learning is much easier when you are in the middle of a ghyll or sat on a cliff face. Quitting isn’t really an option so we are forced to find answers. But, can we transfer this to the classroom? Practical subjects do it all the time: no one kicks a football once and expects to become a Championship footballer and the idea of pressing a few keys on a keyboard and being labelled as Mozart is seen as obviously ridiculous. Yet, on paper, students often feel the expectation to master a skill immediately. 

I have already seen how cross curricular experiences can begin to break down this barrier but, without the privilege of a ghyll nearby, my challenge is to see whether these results can be replicated within traditional education. Will it work? I'm not sure, but I will have fun exploring - and hopefully the students will too!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Standing at the Cross Roads, Holding my Wooden Spoon...

The past fortnight has been a whirlwind offering a great deal of food for thought...

First, I signed up for a teachmeet and, after thinking carefully about what I felt I brought to the profession, I chose to speak about the strategies that I had used to track progress. However, just before I spoke - I saw a presentation from Chris Curtis (@Xris32) who swiftly turned my perspective on it's head. Having previously taught in a school in a category, I had become a master of 'progress in 20 minutes' and ensuring that students understood what they were learning and why and, although I have read many insightful and perceptive blogs that argue against this, I could also see the benefits that it had on my teacher.

A firm focus on the success criteria had ensured that I had crafted my own subject knowledge and, as a consequence, was able to provide opportunities for students to investigate and develop their own skills whilst understanding how to guide them in the right direction. Furthermore, I developed in confidence and am not afraid to challenge (and therefore support) students where they are not making progress. Previously, I may have shyed away from this - fearing that I was reason and, although I cannot overlook that a student's underperformance is still my issue, working in this manner also pushed me to question whether the student was pushing themself and therefore leading to constructive questions about my teaching style and levels of engagement rather than hiding behind my perceived lack of subject knowledge which I now realise was never an issue! In short, working this way allowed students to know their next step, own it and discuss it with an evolving language of learning. Just what we all want. Right?

Then why, as I listened to Chris' presentation did I suddenly feel as though I had got it all drastically wrong? I came into teach to help the youth of today to fulfill their potential. Quite rightly, I recently read that there is a danger in discussing somewhere meeting their potential as we don't actually know what this is - and, the more he spoke, the more I felt that this is what I had been doing. As a 3a your next step is to master using a greater range of punctuation (to be more precise, the accurate use of the comma as indicated on my learning snake). In some ways, I was pleased - I enjoy my perspective being challenged; in fact, I love arriving at a barrier and finding ways to overcome it. Yet, at the same time, I realised that my methods were removing this opportunity for my learners. There is no discovery or the satisfactory Eureka moment as they already know their next steps - and yes, of course I will try to teach the next step in a way that is investigative but have I undermined my own goal by showing them what I (and the national curriculum) had already determined their next step to be?

I was already exploring how to overcome this barrier in the classroom (a nifty metaphor stolen from Chris means that my students are now compiling a palette of sentence strategies so that they can choose the most appropriate option for them) but after reading a post from @OliverQuinlan this morning - I realised that my experience in the classroom is not that different to the current national picture. As teachers, although we may take comfort from the national curriculum levels - we too are in danger of being restricted.

When I read that levels had gone - I panicked. I had great plans to guideschemes punctuated with formative assessment to check rapid progress that were structured on the assessment focus and level system. Part of me thought - so what? Surely if it works then we can ignore this. But now I am thinking of my first blog post and the way that I pushed a group of talented students by handing them the wooden spoon. The twittersphere proves that we certainly have a talented group of individuals within the education system - and that doesn't begin to touch upon the thousands who are tucked away inspiring many within their own classroom. Therefore, I feel that we should embrace this opportunity. I'm not fully sure how...but I am now stood at the crossroads, holding my wooden spoon - trying to work it out. Here's hoping I rise to the challenge!

Miss M

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Tracking Progress: My Reflections

This year (I admit with my head bowed and a muffled voice) I feel that I have somewhat neglected my creative approach to the classroom. I hasten to add, that I have not neglected the classroom - but the glitter, songs and whatever other madness I have been responsible for creating (the lesson spent beneath the desks was a particular favourite) have been put aside as I have tried ensure that I have a thorough understanding of the key skills that my students will need.

In doing this, I have returned to and reflected on some of my tracking tools and thought I would share some of the strategies I have experimented with...

1) The Progress Grid
I am sure that by now thousands of teachers across the nation have been subjected to this. The student names are entered on the left and individual targets for progress are entered on the right.

 I've met many teachers who detest this approach. They find it timeconsuming and that the naming of students in this manner can make them feel ashamed in comparison with their peers. Although I found the ethics of this method difficult at first, I must admit that the students certainly engaged with the lesson as they knew they would be held account. It also helped to create a factual ethos - grades became a reflection of skills and it really helped me to challenge under performance. The fine detail of the progress grid also developed my understanding of the AFs drastically - and ensured that my lessons involved real challenge for my higher ability students.

Another advantage of the progress grid, is that it can be used as a basis for monitoring the progress of break out groups. When tackling subjects such as writing, where criteria can be more objective, I have found that students can complete a skills test at the start of the lesson that places them into a category. They then complete the relevant tasks to address their skills gap and reflect on their progress. I found that one Year 7, where the students possessed a strange collection of skills, really engaged with this as they understood that they each had different strengths and appreciated that the levels of support or challenge varied at an individual level of each student and for each learning objective.

2) The Tracking Snake
However, the independent skills test and investigation approach was not suitable for all students - particularly those lacking motivation. I also found that seeing their name in a box was demotivational and restricting for some pupils. The tracking snake was my response to this issue - it made the skills journey apparent and, more favourably, highlighted that all students are on the same journey (they just happen to be at different points).

I have used variations of this for a year now from bottom set Year 8:

to a higher set Year 11, and found that students are motivated by the fact that they can can see all targets but understand which are most relevant to them. In feedback, I cross off targets as they are achieved and am often ticking off higher ability skills - this is where the snake format is particularly effective as they begin to understand just how important the lower skills are. No matter how many higher skills they tick, their level is lowered due to the one that is missing.

Furthermore, I have found this to be an excellent springboard for the 20 minute progress check. The student friendly nature of the stages ensures that pupils can assess whether they are moving toward the next step and where students don't feel that they have made progress, I simply encourage them to write a question that would help - other students are then asked to repond.

However, upon listening to the reflections of another teacher - I found that I began to question this approach. As with all strategies the most important factor is how you use them, and although my students respond very positively to this strategy - I have begun to question whether it too could be restrictive in its current format as it may suggest that there is only one way to hit the criteria. Therefore, I offer this with a healthwarning - precise targets really do help the students but occasionally giving them a vaguer target to annotate with their own relfections may be just as successfully. 

A similar principle to the tracking snake but each target is organised under a skills heading. I used this across a year with a year 7 group - they referred to it during every writing assessment and "collected" skills as they were achieved by highlighting them. The advantage of this is that students can see the bigger picture without being overfaced. However, it is the layout that I find most appealing as it offers them a pallette of skills that they can choose from in which ever order they see fit. I can also extend the higher level pupils by placing blank boxes or including inspiration pages where students add their own strategies throughout the year.

However, the biggest lesson that I have learned this year is that the shape or format doesn't really matter - only that students are encouraged to reflect on the skills that they are enquiring. The strategies above are all teacher led and that is required to a certain extent but, if I'm honest, the proforma that has had the most impact is this...

It requires very little input - just a piece of marked work. I ask students to rephrase my target in their own words and then write it in the top box. This is then followed by ten minutes of classical music where students use their peers and resources around the room to write something that shows me they understand. It may be a redrafted sentence or a summary of a piece of research. I then walka round the room and award merits for progress.

Each one of these strategies has helped me differently - some have developed my understanding, some have developed the students understanding and some have developed their understanding. I hope they are useful and would be happy to swap strategies with anyone who is trialling something different.

Thanks for reading

Miss M

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Beware of False Economy

After a year out of the teachmeet scene - caused by a move to a new school, a car crash and chronic toothache to name but a few excuses, I have finally re-found the time to get involved with the twittersphere are more importantly the tweechers who are guaranteed to inspire...and I am so pleased I have.

Attending @Goldfishbowlmm 's English teachmeet has left me inspired. It always amazes me how spending 2 hours in a room of such talented people can leave you so many ideas that I wouldn't know how to find the time to implement them all - it probably won't stop me from trying though!

Here are just a few of the highlights:

@HuntingEnglish reminded us that it takes 10000 hours to become an expert - so why not prompt students to practise skills over and over by giving them a visual. Using small circles to represent each attempt, students will be aided to understand that skill acquisition is an ongoing process. Offer them space for reflection around the side and they will also realise just how far they have come. Genius!

One thought provoking approach came from @amsammons who introduced taxonomy of errors (inspired by @kevbartle). By pre-empting the errors that students will make when attempting a skill, it was clear that teachers will develop their own understanding of the skills whilst providing effective feedback in a minimal manner. An excellent tool for all concerned - read and follow @kevbartle for more.

@funkypedagogy lived up to her tag in an inspiring overview of slam poetry. Her presentation highlighted that students can engage with literature by being reminded that it is ultimately about them. The poetry shared was inspirational and demonstrated how speaking and listening truly is a core strand of the curriculum (a sore point at the moment - I know!) I am sure that slam will gradually trend throughout West Yorkshire and strongly urge you to get in touch if you would like to be a part.

If you have ever had trouble selling a context lesson, or ensuring that your students pay attention to key information then you could try embedding the information amongst a mass of lies (courtesy of @Englishalewis).

@lisajaneashes livened up an already entertaining morning with her thought bombs. Her adapted play-centre balls (painted black with a hole in the top and a bit of glitter for extra sparkle) - showed that we can drip feed nuggests of information, encourage collaboration and genuine discussion between students and have a bit of fun at the same time.

In fact, there were so many good ideas that I can't even begin to summarise them - particularly the insights offered by @goldfishbowlmm and @Xris32 who changed my perspective on vocabulary and sentence structures. Thank you fellas!

My point is, on being given the opportunity to attend teachmeets, I often hear people say "That would be nice - I simply don't have the time!" and in the past year I've been guilty of it myself. But, it is false economy. Yes there are books to mark and lessons to plan but nothing increases the pace of the mundane tasks more than being excited to get to the good stuff. Furthermore, you will probably attack it with a little more understanding each time. Thank you for a thoroughly worthwhile day to all mentionned above and all those who I haven't had time to mention (@c_j_read @miss_tiggr @Gwenelope @kerrypulleyn @beetlebug1) - I guarantee you have have made an impact on my classroom and the students will be thankful.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Taking Risks

Here is what my Year 9 class found as they entered English today... This was our lesson and it was theirs to take in any direction they pleased.

(Secretly, I had lots of powerpoints stored on my pen drive to refer to if all went wrong but I had challenged myself to take a risk today and was determined to see it through.)

The students were asked to write down any questions that they had about the box - after sharing them, they voted that the focus of today's lesson should be to find out what was inside. The challenge was set - they had an hour and a half to convince me to reveal my secret. (I breathed out a little - AFOREST worksheets lurking suspiciously on my desk...)

When asked what they could do to convince me a series of responses followed: stage a protest? Write a letter? Bribery? But then one student suggested that they should work it out by interviewing me - the others agreed that this would probably impress me the most. I warned them that they were only allowed ten questions and if they couldn't work it out -the box would remain locked and that was all it took.

The students (a lower ability group) spent the lesson writing, replacing and proof reading questions (I also refused to answer anything that was grammatically incorrect). Within the hour, they solved the mystery - justified their answer in full sentences and wrote a paragraph to explain what would go in their box.

When I finally revealed the contents - I asked students to explain what they had done to earn this information and was told that they had spoken using full sentences, explained their ideas and written in detail.

Today may not have worked - if it didn't we would have been an hour behind. Was it worth the risk? In the end, I didn't use a PowerPoint or worksheet for the entire lesson. the students drove themselves. The improvement in their writing speaks for itself! (They even set their own homework and are now bringing me an item of their own.)

The moral of the story? We can (and should) monitor and drive progress - but not at the expense of taking the occasional risk. The benefits are priceless...

The first extract is taken from the lesson before - the second is the work from the same student at the end of today's lesson.

Have I kept my integrity?

If I said the word 'progress' a number of possible responses may follow... excitement (I know exactly where I've taken my students today), fear (my students never seem to make enough),  or maybe even the feeling of being trapped (i'm forced to do this so I can't...)

I've been fortunate that my experiences have forced me to focus on the concept of making progress. It no longer brings me out in cold sweats and I can honestly say that so many aspects of my classroom practice have benefitted as a result: I do know where I want my students to be and I do know how I'm going to take them there. But, this week I was asked 2 questions and despite being good at my job - my reflections didn't sit easy...

1) Why did I come into teaching? I came into teaching to inspire my students. I want them to enjoy English. I want them to know that within my classroom they will learn the skills that will help them to overcome most barriers. Has this changed? No.

2) How do I keep my integrity? It was this question that caused me concern. What are my principles? Have I kept them?

My students make progress. This must contribute to my integrity. If pushed, I even think the majority of them would say that they enjoy it. Another indicator. But, do I inspire my students, that's not the same, is it? In light of the GCSE fiasco - my teaching has become so focussed on progress and the constant push forward that I realised I possibly don't always step back and facilitate opportunities to inspire.

Fortunately, this week I was reminded about the importance of creativity and now, I'm pleased to say, that I think my integrity in tact.