Sunday, 22 March 2015

I am literally summarising this

Summarising is one of the new components of the new English Language GCSE and it is something of a neglected skill in English. All too often, we are looking for layers of meaning and not the bog-standard-it-is-staring-you-in-the-face meaning. We infer this. We deduce that. We have so many phrases or words in English to describe the opposite of what is obvious. To make it sound sexy, we use the word ‘explore’ in English marking. If they are not saying the most obvious thing in their writing, then the student is some kind of Indiana Jones type, exploring the hidden depths of a text.

I think the rest of the world is a bit fed up of this constant search for different interpretations of what is hidden in the text. Speech is now littered with words like ‘literally’ and ‘basically’ to assert that nothing else should be read in what we are saying. Keep your mitts off the meaning of my words. When I say, I was ‘literally’ unimpressed, I mean, I was unimpressed and nothing else. So, don’t read anything else into what I have said. No double meanings. No hints. No implications. Nothing.  

The new GCSE paves, as does the current iGCSE, the way to this focus on summarising. Yet, there are some elements on the current GCSEs that allude to summarising. Literature GCSEs and Question 1 on the AQA language paper are particular papers where there is an indirect need for students to summarise what they have read. The only problem we have with those questions is the difference between retelling the story/text and picking out the key aspects.   

Take Question 1 on the Language GCSE paper. The question is: What do you understand about X in the article? For most students, they just write what the article is saying in their own words. However, summarising is a bit more than that. It is reducing everything to few key bits. It is reading the whole texts and deciding what in it is the wheat, and what is the chaff. It is sifting. It is refining. It is evaluating. Understanding a text from a summarising point of view is more than just a simple case of recall. Unfortunately, the question expects them to infer some stuff as well – except in this case they call it ‘engagement’.  

My problem with the current exams is the insistence of ‘plate spinning’ in answering a question. If we had simpler questions, like summarise this poem, then we would have students understanding what they need to do in an exam. Instead, we have large, incumbent questions which try to address fourteen assessment objectives in one single question. The question is testing students on fourteen skills, yet only uses a ten word question to direct students to showcase them all. You could say that it is my job to teach them about the objectives, but I’d say: isn’t it better to teach a student to do one thing really well than fourteen things badly? Questioning on papers helps or hinders success.  

Instead of writing the question like: What do you understand about X?

It could be: Summarise this text in four paragraphs using quotes and make sure you read between the lines and make some connections between different parts of the text.

So, what am I doing with this current summarising mess? Well, I am telling students that their answers should have 50% summary and 50% inference. No, I am not really. I am getting them to use words that are not in the text to summarise the text. Take poetry. I am preparing students for the conflict poetry section in the AQA anthology. The danger of writing about poetry is default setting of describing what is in the poem and not explaining what the poem is about. Therefore, I have started getting students to summarise a poem in only a few words.


'At the Border, 1979' is a sentimental, nostalgic and spiritual poem about the pain of leaving home as a result of a conflict.


To get student to this stage, I have provided them with a grid like this.



The great thing about this approach is that it steps up their writing quickly and instantly. We move instantly to summarising key aspects of a poem and start making some ‘evaluative’ comments. Look at the first line of a typical student’s work about a poem and they rarely get to those levels of opinion. Often, students plod through the basic meaning of a poem and the well-rehearsed context of it.

This approach I am going to try with Question 1, but with a difference. Instead of providing students with a list of words. I am going to get them to come up with their own words to summarise a text. Boil it down to five key words.  When you make strawberry jam, the end product looks a lot different to the punnet of strawberries that you had at the start. It isn’t the same colour, but keeps the same flavour.

Literally, thanks for reading,


P.S. Summarise this blog entry:

The writer is frustrated with the vagueness of the current exam questions and assessment.

The writer looks forward to the new GCSE structure.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Marking - The Circles of Correction

One of the frustrations we face daily in marking is that students don’t read our corrections. Their eyes search avidly for the final level and comment, but the rest gets no thought at all. Nothing. Zilch.  The time spent tireless correcting the incorrect use of ‘their’ or ‘a lot’ instead of ‘alot’ can often be useless. It is merely a PR stunt for anyone looking at the books. Parents can see that I have read the work and spotted the errors. Teaching observers can see that I have picked up an exercise book and actually looked at it in the last few weeks. But, what students do with the work is another thing.

Now, there are lots of approaches that people use successfully and unsuccessfully in the classroom to combat this issue. Some might hide the level until the student has read all the work. Others, might get students to complete some action based on highlighted mistake. The problem becomes a simple case of fixing things. I have marked several drafts of work for students and the difference between the first and second draft is the correction of the errors I have highlighted. There’s been no other thought process involved.

Marking policies for years have included marking keys to: (A) help teachers mark quickly; (B) help students decode what their teacher means. I don’t mind having a marking key, but, to be honest, they can be a bit like the ‘Da Vinci Code’. You need the equivalent of the Enigma machine to work out that a student needs to use paragraphs and check that he/she uses capital letters correctly. It makes the student work, but maybe not it the way we want them to. They work out what is wrong and then shrug their shoulders. Yeah, I knew that.

This year, I started circling errors. I such a lazy teacher. Can’t even be bothered to say what is wrong with their writing. Yes, that’s me! Hands up. I read the work. Comment if I like something and, if there is a technical error, I will circle it. Then, I circle the next error I spot. And so on. I measure the amount of circling I do, so their piece of work does not resemble someone with chicken pox. Finally, I write a comment and a target.

When I return the work to students, I get them to do two things. One: write down next to the circle the mistake. Two: write down the correction. The students work hard and I don’t. They have to solve what is wrong with the aspect highlighted and fix it. Rather than simply decode a key, they are engaging with their mistakes and going through the thought processes - which they should have done when writing it in the first place. The two parts to the circling are important. Identifying the mistake is crucial. They need to understand the mistake made. What rule have they broken? Then, the student writing the correction reinforces the correct way of doing things.  If they can’t work it out, they ask the person next to them. If that person can’t work it out, I step in and help them.  


I find that this approach has really helped me with my marking and with how students respond to marking. You could spend three lessons looking at contractions and still find errors with them in the work produced, but this way, students do seem to be less blasé about making mistakes. They know that it will come back to haunt them. It really does help things to stick. After all, it is them trying to learn from their mistakes - by themselves.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Working 9 to 5 – the way I want to work and still be living

I did not wake up one day, have an epiphany and decide to become a teacher. Nor, did God (or any other deity, including Zeus) visit me in a dream and tell me teaching was my thing. Nor, did I fail at something and so I thought, ‘What the heck – let’s teach!’. Nor, did I come from a long line of teachers; a bit like Russian dolls; each one getting progressively smaller. No, I stumbled into teaching. I fell into it. Ten years later I wrote this blog.

I felt I needed to say, before, I carry on with this blog, that I have done other things than teach. I have worked in the ‘real world’, as they like to say. I have worked with only thirty odd days of holiday a year and no long holidays to punctuate my life. But, I am growingly worried about the way teaching has changed over the last ten years. Some days, I’d like just thirty days where I don’t have to think about work. However, that isn’t the case for teachers these days. Before, in the ‘real world’, when I finished work, I actually did finish work. I locked my work brain away and safely stored it until eight o’clock Monday morning. When I left work, I physically, socially, spiritually and mentally left it. Alone. Abandoned. Hidden. Yet, teaching, in part, all those years ago was a bit like that.

Firstly, I am now on-call all the time. I used to be your typical teacher and I’d be out shopping and then I would be occasionally hit in the face with some inspiration for a lesson. Then, until six o’clock on a Sunday I would not think of school. Yet, the beauty of email and the speed of communication and the ease of a sending a message have combined to mean that I can get emailed at any time in the day.  Oh, about anything. Instead of me being an unattainable figure, I am a teaching equivalent of the 24 hour help desk. Got a problem: email the teacher. We are only a few years away from having text messages or phone calls out of work hours. I don’t begrudge resolving problems and I have no issue with speaking to parents. But, I question the accessibility of teaching staff. I am entitled to my weekend, even if I do spend a part of it blogging about teacher stuff.

Occasionally, I have had some issues with my daughters’ school. Instead of emailing, I will usually wait to speak to the teacher on the playground or make an appointment. It has never instantaneously resolved the problem, but nonetheless it was usually resolved in time. Messages are instant, but solutions are not. And, some things are not easily resolved with an email. A phone call is needed. 

A colleague of mine has students email her homework so she can mark it at home over the weekend. I question when her relaxation time actually takes place. Sitting by a computer, waiting for the emails and responding to them isn’t really my fun idea of a weekend. She feels she must do it, or in some way she is letting her students down. She might say it is really easy and it really helps, but I question the long-term effectiveness of this approach if the teacher is constantly thinking about work and not recharging.

In a response to the email dilemma, I have done what most sane people do. Don’t go on my school email account after five o’clock, or at the weekends. The problem comes when you like to be prepared. I am a born scout. I always like to be prepared for the next day, so checking emails is always one of those processes. But, since banning the emails after five o’clock, it has meant that I don’t have to those eleventh hour surprises just before I am about to go to bed that leave my brain swirling with thoughts like a washing machine on the rinse mode. In fact, it leaves me more time for marking.

A person recently moaned to me that they had a hundred and eighty piece of work to mark. My response to the individual was a bemused look. I think there is unwritten rule in education that non-English teachers should never moan to English teachers about marking. Enough said. We won’t moan if you don’t moan. Anyway, the raised levels of accountability in teaching has left us with a tsunami of marking. I never count how much marking I have to do; I just look at it all forlorn in a corner and occasionally poke it with a stick. I teach just over one hundred and fifty students. That is one hundred and fifty books that need marking on a regular basis. Add assessments. Add GCSE Controlled Assessments. Then, add the fact that these students produce lots of work over several lessons.    

It always saddens me to hear people describing their Saturdays or Sundays on Twitter. One pile of marking down. Off for a walk and then on to attack another pile of marking. It is like the weekend is there purely to help teachers cope with the marking load. But we all know what is driving this: Ofsted. Because, they will look at books.  We were all led to believe that no-notice inspections would make things better. But now teachers have this perpetual state like ‘over sleeping after not hearing the alarm clock go off’. A perpetual state of worry. A perpetual state of insecurity. You know that no matter how quick you are, you are still behind by at least an hour. So, the weekend becomes a marathon for marking. Long bursts of marking whole sets of books unproductively, because you are tired. If you don’t do it, then you have an albatross around your neck for the whole weekend. The guilt of someone opening an exercise book and finding that, gosh shock horror, it has been over a fortnight since the book was last marked.

Of course, there is dedicated PPA time in schools to do all this marking and speaking to parents. But, for most of us, it is the equivalent of watching all the ‘Lord of the Ring’ films, including the ‘Hobbit’ films too, in a two hour stretch. You can’t possibly do it. You might watch the opening of a film, but you never get it all done. So, you do a bit after school, but then you want to beat the traffic. Finally, you do a bit a home, at night, and are too tired. So, where does it all go? The weekend.  

Then, there are the changes. New levels. New GCSEs. New KS3 curriculum. New texts. These things don’t suddenly appear in readymade systems and units. They have to be planned, organised and designed. The lovely Government provided us with tonnes of resources and a week off teaching to deal with this major overhaul of the English education system. No we got a PDF file instead. So, where does that planning go. Oh, yeah. The free time that isn’t used up by marking.

Ten years ago, I did not access my emails at home. Ten years ago, I did not endlessly worry about what I had and hadn’t done for an Ofsted visit. Ten years ago, I had a good idea how students would do in the exams. Ten years ago, the curriculum wasn’t always changing. Ten years ago, I felt that the students worked hard. Now, ten years after all that, the teachers work harder than the students. All this drive to raise the academic quality of teaching has left us with frazzled, tired and questioning everything.

I love teaching.  We all do it to help students and but mainly I do it for the perks, like copious amounts of red pens and… the treasury tags.

Thanks for reading,