Sunday, 27 November 2016

Tell me why I love Fridays

I don’t always write about it often, but I am a Head of Department and every so often I feel the need to share something that has worked for us. Last year, I was really concerned about work load. A new GCSE brought new problems and new issues. I remember my first driving lesson: it was a sweaty affair. I worked much harder in that first hour lesson than at any other time during my lessons. Your brain is constantly thinking. You are constantly moving. The new GCSE have brought a new workload. More planning. More resources to find. More resources to make. More effort on marking because it is all new.
I decided to make a change. A significant change. I decided that we would get all year groups, apart from Year 11 for obvious reasons, to do some old school composition. Every year group would do the same task on the same day. We would all do the same thing and treat it in the same way.

Example:
Persuade teachers that you are the best student in the school.
 Students had to include the following things:

       A link to a historical event

       A line from a famous song

       A quote from a well-known speech

       A simile 

       A fact
They also needed to include the following word somewhere.

Indisputable  - it is true and nobody can argue with the fact

Mrs Jones’s cooking is indisputably good.
We call the whole thing the 200 Word Challenge. We tell students to write for 25 minutes and they need to write only 200 words. I spend the 25 minutes moving around the class marking and advising students.

For the second half of the lesson, students peer assess the work using this format:

Peer Assessment
[1]Highlight and label the following
A link to a historical event
A line from a famous song
A quote from a well-known speech
A simile 
A fact

[2] Circle any errors.
[3] Write down what they need to do to improve the content / structure / writing.
[4] Sign and date it.

Finally, I get students to respond to the peer assessment with this:

Correct each circled mistake and write a quick explanation of the mistake – spelling / I missed a letter / I forgot a comma 
And, in the last few minutes, I read out some of the best examples to the class. I read them rather than getting the students reading them so I can place gusto and drama in the reading. If there is a really good one, I share with the next class so it can inspire and direct them.

I then repeat this for every lesson on a Friday. My Friday planning is done months in advance. Each week has been prepared. For the rest of the year I do not have to worry about planning on a Friday. The department doesn’t need to plan or prepare work for lessons on a Friday. I don’t need to worry about cover work. A simple PowerPoint is all a cover teacher needs. In fact, with this one approach I have reduced planning and preparation down by a fifth. The department tends to relax by Thursday as we have Friday sorted.
We have done this for a second term and it is surprising to think of the results. Each student has completed over twelve separate writing tasks and each one has a different purpose, audience and content. They have argued which is the best colour. They have continued on from a line in ‘Great Expectations’. They have written the opening to story. They have write a new report. They have written a comical how to guide.

Their books are full of writing. Lots of writing. Their books are also tell a story. They tell the story of how they are getting better. Take our Year 7s. The students in Year 7 tended to turn everything into a story. Week by week, they’d all transform their writing into a story. I have had head teacher speeches written as part of a novel. After a term they got it.  This week, I had one boy in a middle set produce this as an opening to his writing persuading teachers he is the best student in the school:

In the beginning there was nothing just darkness. Then the galaxy was created. Tiny molecules came together and created life. Living things evolved and now there’s me, the best student. Other students should stop trying to be the best because I am. They should let it go, turn away and slam the door. I don’t care what they are going to say. Let me rein on. Mathematical problems never bothered me anyway.

My knowledge will have students falling to their knees like slaves forced to build pyramids, for it is one small step for me and a giant leap for common student kind. Here’s just a fact to show you how smart I am. Fasten your seatbelts. If you fall off a 40ft cliff, you die. I know, mind blown.

I have numerous examples like this. I had a great description by a boy who described my classroom as some kind of Gradgrind copy. Another boy, wrote a poem about the forgotten soldiers, when the rest of the class wrote a story about someone being forgotten. It has been a delight for me to see students rise to the challenge across all levels of ability.
Now, here’s the thing: the students love it. They love the unpredictable nature of the task. They love the routine. They love the freedom of the writing. Yes, I have had one or two students have a mental block with a task, but usually they come back with renewed vigour the following week. They love it. The teachers love it. I think we have suffered ‘connection’ issues in English. We have felt that everything has to be connected. If students write, it is usually writing something connected to the main topic. You are studying ‘A Christmas Carol’ so the students will write a carol, a Christmas card, a description of life in the Cratchit house, a ghost story and so on. Four hours a week on the same topic for seven weeks can make lessons particularly beige. More of the same thing.

Another interesting aspect is about the response from the different genders. Both have liked for particular reasons. Girls seem to like for the creative writing element; boys, however, have liked it for the lack of rules. Yep, you heard me right. There seems to be a lot of theory about boys needing structure and clear routines. In fact, all the examples from students above are from boys. They have responded really well to composition tasks. Why? Maybe, because the way we have written things in lessons has been a little bit ‘female’. We tend to spend five weeks preparing for writing. We might spend a week planning. A week looking at how others write. A week looking at techniques. A week drafting. A week writing. Maybe, a more masculine approach of writing is doing it off the cuff, in the moment and doing it now.

When I think about how I write, I notice that I write very quickly and with very little preparation. I might have a thought or idea in the week, but that’s all the planning and drafting I do. What do you mean ‘you can tell’? I don’t agonise over things – maybe I should. I sit down and write. In a way, the exam system promotes this ‘masculine’ way of approaching writing. The coursework promotes the ‘feminine’ way of writing, slow, steady and thoughtful. You’ll note I am using inverted commas when referring to the gender, because there will be one person who will say I am female and I use the masculine approach to writing. Plus, I am also hesitant to fully commit to such a generalisation as it being a clear and concrete trait.

We know we have a problems with boys, but I think in part how the work has been structured could have, in part, created this problem. Boys are usually impulsive, yet we have structured work and writing to work against this impulsiveness. Instead of getting boys to get an idea written down, we have asked the boys to hold that thought for a bit longer… and a bit longer… a bit more longer… a bit more… now get it down. Is there any wonder that boys have struggled in school when they have work cognitively and behaviourally in different ways? It is like asking Usain Bolt to race people in a mobility scooter and he has to ride in one too. The frustration. The anger. The resentment that must create.  We are asking boys who want to do it now to go up on a mountain and sit and ponder the meaning of life. Remember ‘Karate Kid’. Education has been asking boys to ‘wax on and wax off’ and paint the fence, when they just want to jump over the fence and go kick a football with their friends.

Look at all the rubbish we have had to deal with lesson observations. We have been asked in the past to make things more active for students, because boys like active stuff. We have been told to put quizzes into lessons, because we know boys like competitions. What if it is simpler than that? How boys think.

In my department, the boys are writing more than they ever have done before and they are enjoying it. The weekly writing task will lead to another assessment in the year. We are going to ask students to turn their best 200 word writing task into an assessment later in the year. They’ll have a range of examples to pick from. We will do that other kind of writing – the slow and methodical writing – across the year.   
If you could reduce your work by a fifth wouldn’t you tell the world about it?  Oh, and if it benefitted the boys, wouldn’t you also scream about it?

Thanks for reading,
Xris


Term 1


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
Describe a setting from two people’s perspective
Perspective
Week 2
Write an opening to a head teacher’s speech persuading students to improve their behaviour
Persuasive writing
Week 3
What is the most important colour in the world? Why?
Extended thinking
Week 4
Write the opening page to a novel entitled ‘The Forgotten’

Creativity
Week 5
Creative writing inspired by a picture

Creativity
Week 6
Write a news report on yesterday’s English lesson – it must be sensational 
Newspaper featured




Term 2


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
A humorous ‘how to guide’ on something dull. How to use a paperclip? 
Voice / tone
Week 2
Students continue on from an extract from a novel
Style
Week 3
Describe a character from a story from three different perspectives
Perspective
Week 4
Persuade teachers that you are the best student in the school
Persuasive writing
Week 5
Describe the journey to school as a wild adventure
Creativity
Week 6
Intelligence is far more important than strength and beauty in life.   Discuss.
Extended thinking


Term 3


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
Create a short story that is told backwards
Perspective
Week 2
School doesn’t prepare students for life. Invent new subject for school. What would it be?
Extended thinking
Week 3
Take one aspect of English or another subject and try to make it interesting for a text book
Creativity
Week 4
Create a small script for a short play entitled ‘The Challenge’
Features of a script
Week 5
A cartoon character has died. Write a speech for its funeral.
Tone


Term 4


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
Write a magazine article exploring the dangers of…
Tone
Week 2
Describe a setting – change the mood halfway through the extract
Creativity
Week 3
Write a monologue exploring why someone committed a crime
Dramatic monologue form
Week 4
Write about a time you felt lonely
Empathic writing
Week 5
Write for thirty minutes on the topic of horses.
Extended thinking
Week 6
Write a response on the emotion ‘jealously’
Creativity
Week 7
Write a television programme review – it must be humorous
Tone


Term 5


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
Write the last two paragraphs in response to a piece of non-fiction read
Style
Week 2
Describe a supermarket on a Saturday morning
Creativity
Week 3
We are all born equal. Discuss.
Extended thinking
Week 4
Using the style of one poem as a guide, write a poem inspired by a place, person or feeling
Style
Week 5
Write a letter requesting that your parents are given a pay rise
Tone


Term 6


Task
Area of focus
Week 1
Write a review of a place you have been on holiday to
Tone
Week 2
Describe an activity, but don’t use any words associated with that activity 
Style
Week 3
Write speech for a new political party
Persuasive writing
Week 4
Describe a building in an interesting way
Creativity
Week 5
Write about anything and in any style
Creativity
Week 6
Describe a famous event from an unusual perspective
Perspective
Week 7
Describe a place during the day and during the night
Style
Week 8





Saturday, 19 November 2016

Behaviour: Homepride Education or melior est canis dominum


There seems to be a lot about behaviour at the moment and I thought I’d add my oar, and boat, to the ocean of arguments.

I think we have a problem with three things in education: pride; shame; and respect. Western culture, and British culture, loves an underdog. In fact, that is the motto written in invisible ink on the Education Bill: Melior est canis dominum. Why is the education system based on this principle? The amount of money, funding and care given to education and especially education in some parts of Britain is criminal. We like people to achieve things despite the odds. Despite the fact that the classroom has a leaking roof. Despite the fact that there isn’t enough money to fund textbooks for everyone. Despite the fact the child rarely has a cooked meal at home.

Western culture is full of this idea of turning something good out of nothing. For a start, we have the ‘American Dream’. The idea that no matter who you are or where you are from will not be a barrier to success. We even have some guy turning water into wine. Everybody is at it. We have loads of celebrities. J.K. Rowling. Richard Branson. Alan Sugar. We love them. Look at these people; they had nothing, but look at them now: they are so successful. They are seen as a measuring stick in our culture. That too could be you. They were the underdog. Look at television and you’ll see that we are inundated with people who are quickly transforming their lives. We do it for normal people. X-Factor. We do it for celebrities. I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. We do it for all kinds of people.

Everybody in society is now an underdog. Everything is a fight. Everything is about challenging the master. The dogs are fighting back. Look at our political situation at home and abroad. The underdog has won. Why has this happened? Well, in part, I think it has happened for the same reasons we have a problem in education. People have been undervalued. They haven’t had a voice or discussion in the political debate.  The problem with the ‘underdog’ idea is that everybody then is the victim of something and there is always a tyrannical master to beat. Some Americans felt they weren’t heard and so viewed themselves as victims and turned on their ‘tyrannical’ master.

Our education system tends to echo and embody this ‘underdog’ idea. Treat teachers and students as dogs so therefore only a few will succeed. Treat everyone like a master and you give everyone a chance to succeed. Look at how education has been funded. The best funded areas are doing really well and they are seen as the masters. The underdogs, like my county, are the worst funded regions in the whole of the UK and in comparison they are doing badly. Look at the way grammar schools are being suggested as a new model for teaching. That builds in, officially, a transparent system of master and dogs. It is openly making our education system fit this ‘limited success’ model. Some will succeed. You’re not telling me that the introduction of a grammar school in a town or city will not absorb the best students and the best teachers in the region. What does that leave behind?

Now, we are always compared to other countries and other education systems. It is interesting to see that we have attempted to inherit some aspects of school from other countries. But, the one things we miss is the mind set underwritten behind culture. It is one based on pride and shame. In some cultures, it is incredibly shameful for a child to fail. Alternatively, it is an immense sense of pride for the child, parents and family if they succeed and achieve. They never see themselves as the victim. They see themselves as an important part of their family and culture. Their work is part of their life. What they do in the classroom has ripples in their life? They know those ripples. Their parents know the ripples. The value of education is so important in other countries. Parents know and feel this. Children know and feel this. It isn’t grit and it isn’t resilience; it is a sense of duty, pride.  

The problem we have in society is that people don’t see the relevance and importance of education. We have students who walk into a classroom and feel they are owed something. They feel they are automatically in the right. They feel they are the victim of something. They have an emotional detachment to education. The teacher is the master and the student is the ‘underdog’ to defeat the master. The teacher isn’t a person, in their eyes.

Let’s take this principle: your behaviour / work in school will give either shame or pride to your parents and family name. In a way, we need parents to accept the behaviour of their child. I think parents need to express and articulate shame or pride. I think parents and children need to talk about the shame or pride associated with the behaviour of the child. Instead, we have this terrible situation where some parents are on the attack all the time. They attack at every moment. In honesty, they are saving face. They see themselves as the victim, the underdog, against the big nasty masters, teachers.

We are members of the Facebook generation. We are quick to boast and even quicker to attack and criticise something or someone. That sadly has meant that we have very poor self-awareness. Added to this is a lack of connection to the real events. We have created distance rather than connections.

My daughters know that to be sent to the head teacher’s office for their behaviour is the most shameful thing. They know the shame it will bring them. They also know the pride I have about one of them being close to getting a pen licence. They know their behaviour and work in school has an emotional impact and ripples on me, and the family. Could one of the reasons private schools are so success be the fact that students and parents have a clear idea of what is at stake in their education? The children know how much has been spent on their schooling so they know the connection between parent and school.  

We need to stop people, students and parents seeing themselves as the victim. We should be a team, working together to enable success. We should discuss the shameful things and build up a student's sense of pride. Pride cannot exist in isolation. You need an awareness of shame to have some sense of pride. This all starts at home.
I am working class and proud; I don’t watch football, smoke or own a flat cap, but I have a working class ethic and attitude. I am never a victim. I am not the underdog; I am a person with a strong sense of pride and a healthy fear of shame. Between those two things, I’d like to think I have created respect. One thing for sure is I never thought that ‘respect’ was a god given right for me. I have always worked hard to earn people’s respect.

Thank you for reading,

Xris

P.S. I apologise if the Latin is wrong. I’m working class – you should applaud the fact that I know it is Latin.