Thursday, 1 August 2013

Mashing-up Literacy

I feel literacy in schools isn’t a major thing when it comes to the amount of work you have to do, as a lot of it is about publicity. Literacy is about PR for an often neglected set of skills that students have forgotten about. I have done a number of things as a coordinator to create publicity in the school: I changed the name of the Library. I took over parts of lessons. I have written to parents. I have given out ‘golden tickets’ for a non-uniform day to any student who presents work neatly. I have even changed how student write the date in their books. However, I knew from the start that I needed some big PR stunts to make literacy an issue and a priority. Stupidly, I had in my mind to do a whole literacy day. Now, the sensible voice in my head was screaming that I shouldn’t do it, while the voice with the devil horns was softly whispering that I should do it. I abhor shouting, so I ignored that voice and listened to the whispering devil.

There is a problem with calling things a ‘literacy day’ as it has the word ‘literacy’ in it. Even Geoff Barton agrees with this issue, as his great book, ‘Don’t call it literacy’, proves. As soon as you call something a literacy day, you lose about two thirds of the school population. Literacy in the students’ minds stands for lots of writing. Therefore, like a Labour candidate, I needed spin, spin, spin. I needed to learn from all those PR agents from the 1990s. I needed to rebrand it. Not New Labour, but New Literacy.

Several months ago, I attended a conference for ‘Outstanding Literacy in Secondary Schools’ and thoroughly enjoyed it - so much that they include my name (Why?) on the literature for the next one – which I sadly can’t attend. Anyway, there I was lucky to meet David Didau, Phil Beadle and Lisa Jane Ashes. For the first time in my life, I felt like a groupie, as I was surrounded by people I read about, or who had written books. There were several interesting talks and one, from Lisa, talked about ‘Manglish’. In it she described how in her school they had changed the curriculum to integrate subjects together. Hence, the title ‘Manglish’: Maths and English.

The idea floated in my brain for several months until my desire to do a literacy day. What if we did a kind of ‘Manglish’ day? What if we did lots of mixes? What if we ‘mash-up’ subjects for just one day? The ‘Mash-up day’ was born. Like ‘The Lion King’, I held up the new-born idea before the SLT and they said ... yes.
It's the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle The Circle of Life

This is how I presented it to staff:

What is a mash-up?

Definition: v. To take elements of two or more pre-existing pieces of music and combine them to make a new song. n. A song comprised of elements of two or more pieces of music.

The Mash-up Day is about making links between subjects explicit. Our students do not always use the knowledge from one subject to help them with the learning in another subject. By forcing connections, pupils will see the benefits of making connections.

·         To develop links across departments

·         To develop students’ ability to make connections

·         To provide a real context and audience for a piece of writing

·         To develop teacher’s confidence at  teaching literacy

·         To think creatively 

·         To get students working collaboratively with others in different year groups

There was quite a bit of confusion over the term ‘mash-up’; however, the teachers were very responsive to the idea, when they had understood the concept. But, where did the literacy come in? Well, the day had a clear structure and this is how it went:

Period 1: Subject mash-up

Period 2: Subject mash-up

Period 3: Written reflection on the mash-up

Period 4: Read the booklet made of their reflections

The mash-ups happened at the start of the day and they were the spring-board for a piece of writing. The writing could be anything stemming from the lesson. However, the writing had a real and genuine audience: the rest of the school. For once they were not writing for a fictitious MP or to the Prime Minister. They were writing for their peers. It was 'real writing' that would be judged by others. This, I feel, added a new aspect to their writing. There was, however, one rule: no names on the written work. At the end of the day, we would all read the booklets and see what others had done.   

The build-up to the day was amazing. I had made sure I had given staff lots of notice, so they could prepare, with time to spare. But during the preparation, you had staff fighting to work with each other. I felt sorry for one member of staff who uttered the words: ‘Who’s left?’. You had staffroom conversations about what mash-ups could be done. People kept chatting about it over the weeks. There was a general buzz as teachers were working together in a way that they had never done before. They were collaborating together and enjoying making a link. It helped, I think, that I didn’t make the connections and left staff to arrange the combinations themselves. Furthermore, as we were at the end of the academic year, there was less pressure, so people felt that there wasn’t major panic about missing valuable time.

The day started with an assembly by me. Prior to the day, I had been very vague about the whole day to students: a love a sense of drama. To start off with, I showed the school a mash-up video courtesy of YouTube and Popdanthology – great video. Then, I used a collection of my daughters’ handbags for a simple metaphor. With some handy volunteers, I got students to hold a handbag and represent a subject. I explained how lessons involve learning things (cue a plastic ball shoved into the bags) and that students often 'zipped up the bag' as soon as they leave a lesson. Today, they had to open those handbags and swap information between subjects. To sum this up, I informed them that the best students bring more to the table when answering question; they add life and other knowledge, rather than just repeat what is told to them.  

The combinations between subjects included:

Penglish – PE and English

Sciglish – Science and English

Frart – French and Art

Tecaths – Technology and Maths

Spanology – MFL and Technology

Half the fun was making up names for these new combinations of subjects. It was infectious as the students liked coming up with their own names.

It was a melting pot of ideas and teaching. The groups were organised via vertical tutor groups and that meant that each class was a mixture of 7s, 8s, 9s and some 10s. Roughly, each class had about 32 students in it, but there were two teachers, team-teaching, in each class.  It worked to build connections between staff and students.

The lessons that people had sounded really interesting and here is just a flavour of some of the things offered:

·         Food and Maths – Making cakes and up scaling the ingredients

·         French and Technology – Designing chocolates and packaging for a new chocolate to be sold in France

·         Maths and Technology – Throwing paper aeroplanes and working out the perfect trajectory for maximum flight

·         Science and English – Experiments with eggs and writing a crazy experiment

·         PE and English – Writing radio commentaries for a game they played in the first lesson

·         French and Art – Researching a French artist and developing French skills through art.

·         French and ICT – Designing a French superhero and creating their Wiki page.

I could go on as there were fifteen different mash-ups across the school. Some combinations were more successful, but as an experiment it produced some fruitful results. And, for me doing it, it was a laugh working with another teacher and doing some English stuff in a Science lesson. Plus, I have a booklet documenting the writing of the day. And, every student got a chance to read what others did in different mash-ups. Oh, they could proofread the work if they spotted any mistakes.

What the students thought?
The students liked the idea. They felt that it made them see things in a different way. Some were that keen that they wanted to mix three subjects at once. A small few thought it would be better if they could work with their friends – mmmm! As part of the evaluation process, the students got a chance to suggest their own mash-ups. Of course, PE was linked to every subject under the sun, but some interesting combinations were made such as:

·         Explore the history by looking at old games from the past;

·         Use Geography in a cooking lesson to explore different cultures and cusines.


My favourite quote of all the evaluations was:

‘It was great because you took a dull subject and made it more interesting by mashing it up with a more interesting subject.’

Staff thoughts
I think a colleague summed up the day when they told me that they really enjoyed it. I think the big thing, a problem in some cases, is that literacy has this big fanfare moment currently and in some ways people might feel that their subject is being neglected as a result. This mashing up of subjects highlighted the equal nature of all subjects. I keep going back to this question: What’s in it for me? That question is the first challenge that people have as literacy coordinators. The mash-up day meant that we were raising the status of every subject and showing students that we are working as a team. Literacy ran alongside every subject. It was and is a team effort.

For me, it was a resounding success. I have heard about other kinds of literacy days, but I am glad we mashed things up. Some of the suggestions I have seen have been quite ambitious and I think this little experiment worked as it was one small step to something bigger. Who knows what we might do next? I might look to Boris Johnson’s PR agent for some suggestions. I might even get a zip-wire and…

Thanks for reading and check out Lisa's blog here for more information on Manglish


P.S.  I am aware that 'mashing' refers to making a cup of tea in Nottinghamshire. Apologies if you came to this blog hoping for some advice on how to make the perfect cup of tea.  

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