Teaching is better than marking

If you had to make someone learn something, would you decide to teach them it, or write a short comment on a piece of paper and hope that they learn it? Yet that is not too far away from what we do with marking. After reading students’ work, there are often better ways to address areas for improvement than with individual written feedback. Most involve teaching.

The modelling lesson

If I mark a set of essays, it is rare that every student has an entirely unique target for improvement. More realistically, there are about four or five targets, most of which are identifiable after a handful of books. Many students will even need all of those targets to improve.

Instead of wasting time writing all of these targets out in books, lump them together and model a response which meets the targets. Particularly useful for extended writing or longer mark questions, you can ensure that you model how to meet these targets, directing questions to the students who made particular errors. For example, to the one who forgets to use quotation marks, start to write the quotation and ask them “what’s missing?” and “why do we need these?” I have exponentially increased the amount of modelling I do this year, and feedback modelling is an important part of it.

Intervention groups

As I mentioned above, students tend to have similar targets. It’s very likely that marking identifies ‘batches’ of students with the same targets. Because it’s quite inefficient to write the same comment multiple times, why not just teach them in a group? It’s often worth looking at the errors that seem to persist despite feedback in books, then teach them. For example, things like comma splices are much easier to explain and model than give written advice for.

Int1I have written before about our in-class interventions at DKA, and this is just the same, but after marking. It helps if you create the classroom culture where students are able to work independently while the teacher concentrates on groups. Classroom layout can also play a part in making this easier, and spaces where you can work with small groups and still have a good view of the class are recommended.

Student work lesson

When you read work, take snapshots of excellent examples, then display them one by one and unpick them with the class. Pupils love working out who each belongs to and it’s great for the person who wrote it. It’s also useful to look at these examples and see what can be improved. It feels safer to offer constructive criticism on a good example from a pupil you have already praised. The best models will have examples which reflect the common errors of the class. In half an hour, you can read a set of books, work out the areas for improvement, choose the examples and then plan your lesson.

Marking proforma

marking-proformaThis is something I have seen used by @Mrhistoire, @mrthorntonteach and @jofacer which I have been using when marking homework. I am asking KS4 students to write an essay a week so this has been essential in making that manageable. I read their essays, complete this and simply teach the key errors. One thing I am aware of is that students might spend a long time on their work so to see it come back with no written comments could be disheartening. By making a big deal of the ‘appreciations’ and giving public praise in class and in our morning line-up, positive behaviour logs, phonecalls home and the appreciations bulletin, I think this will be ok! Students get a copy of this, highlight their names and then I teach what is in the second box.

Live marking

Let’s say students are writing for half an hour. In that time, teachers can get around every student and have a look at their work. Teachers are pretty good at spotting a misconception with a ten second glance around the room at mini whiteboards, so you can bet they’re even better with much longer looks at books while students work. Often, it can be addressed there and then, allowing students to improve instantly. Or perhaps you can use a marking proforma like the one above, and you won’t even need to take the books in to mark! If timed right, you can have all students complete a task, decide the next steps and teach them what they need at the end of the lesson.

All of these methods work because the teacher looks at the work, identifies what needs to improve and then targets it through teaching. The elephant in the room is that leaders expect to see written feedback, schools often have inflexible marking policies, and therefore some of these methods become less efficient because we have to make them visible. It is hard to see the desire for written feedback go away completely, but with some of these more efficient, less time-heavy methods, the argument may start to be won. Teachers can then focus on the best way to give feedback- teaching.

Further reading: Look at the excellent work they are doing at Meols Cop High School: Stop writing feedback comments…and see what happens!

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Structuring persuasive paragraphs

Structuring persuasive paragraphs

In a previous blog, I wrote about the need to study persuasive techniques, not just spot them. It’s something I have been revisiting lately from a writing perspective because I am still encountering work which is peppered with persuasive techniques which don’t do anything except stop the writing mid-flow. On one hand, I like the fact that students are using techniques, but using them isn’t enough. One way to shift the approach to persuasive techniques is by focusing on how they can be used to structure paragraphs and build ideas.

Let’s start with something that appears in 90% of persuasive writing: statistics. Students can’t pronounce ‘statistics’ properly, but that doesn’t stop the proliferation of percentages. Instead of just using statistics, we can try to think about how figures can be used to structure ideas, like in this example from AIDS activist Mary Fisher to the Republican National Convention:

I would never have asked to be HIV positive, but I believe that in all things there is a purpose; and I stand before you and before the nation gladly. The reality of AIDS is brutally clear. Two hundred thousand Americans are dead or dying. A million more are infected. Worldwide, forty million, sixty million, or a hundred million infections will be counted in the coming few years. But despite science and research, White House meetings, and congressional hearings, despite good intentions and bold initiatives, campaign slogans, and hopeful promises, it is — despite it all — the epidemic which is winning tonight.

The number starts small, then grows. It is a structure also used by Malala Yousafzai in her speech to the United Nations:

There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for their rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goal of peace, education and equality. Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I am just one of them. So here I stand, one girl among many. I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights. Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.

This technique, which I am going to call ‘statistic stacking’ works well enough on its own, but in each instance above there is a response to the numbers. In the former, the weight of numbers is used to show that the disease is winning, whereas the numbers in the latter are used to emphasise that Malala is just one person in many- and there is a nice use of anaphora to end the paragraphs too. The points are stronger after the statistics.

Now let’s focus on another staple of persuasive writing:  the rhetorical question. On their own, they can be clumsy and stop good writing in its tracks. But combined with something else, a rhetorical question becomes something quite special and functionally very useful. Look at this section of J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement address, and what follows the question:

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

Another question is asked in Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

In both examples, the question is asked at the beginning of the paragraph and the rest of the paragraph serves as the answer. The question is the foundation that the rest of the paragraph is built on. In J.K Rowling’s speech, the question is answered with a series of lists. In King’s, it is answered with anaphora. Question>anaphora is a structure of paragraph that works particularly well and which students can learn. The main idea is to ensure that the question is dealt with in some way. The question may not be the start of the paragraph- it could even come at the end, perhaps as a response to a list or anaphora.

Edit: Thanks to @JamesTheo for the feedback. The first example is hypophora, where a speaker asks then answers their own question. The second is procatalepsis, where the speaker states the opposing case and then offers a rebuttal.

The last idea I will explore on structuring a paragraph is the extended metaphor. Unlike the previous examples, metaphors are an underused element of persuasive writing, seemingly because imagery is more readily associated with narrative or description. But metaphor and analogy can work well in persuasion, such as in the extended metaphors in Barack Obama’s victory speech:

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. But above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

Here’s another one from an article on Brexit:

At this stage, most people contemplating divorce are motivated by two things. First, they see only their spouse’s defects. Secondly, they fantasize about an idealized alternative future. Often, though not always, this involves a magically perfect new partner. But the most important motivation is the dream of freedom. No more nagging! No more unwelcome guests! All that money saved!

The metaphor carries the weight of the argument. With practice, students could get quite skilful in building these kind of paragraphs, or even whole texts. Schools are prisons. Smoking is poison. Fast food is an executioner. Find the common ground and build a paragraph around it.

So, instead of teaching some of these techniques in isolation, look to see how they can be the focal point or the foundation of a paragraph, how they can work in combinations with other techniques, and how they can punctuate an argument.

Paragraph pairs

Paragraph pairs

Writing isn’t just a series of paragraphs, one after another. Well, it is, but these paragraphs are not just tacked on to each other. They follow on, they build, they look back, they contrast, they develop ideas. By focussing on the relationships between paragraphs, not only can we improve students’ understanding of structure for the reading paper, but also improve their writing. One way to do this is by looking at two paragraphs together- paragraph pairs.

Here is a paragraph pair from a speech from Barack Obama on gun control:

I was there with Gabby when she was still in the hospital, and we didn’t think necessarily at that point that she was going to survive. And that visit right before a memorial — about an hour later Gabby first opened her eyes. And I remember talking to mom about that. But I know the pain that she and her family have endured these past five years, and the rehabilitation and the work and the effort to recover from shattering injuries.

And then I think of all the Americans who aren’t as fortunate. Every single year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns — 30,000. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost brothers and sisters, or buried their own children. Many have had to learn to live with a disability, or learned to live without the love of their life.

The first paragraph on its own is tragic, but needs the second paragraph to show that it is not isolated or simply personal; the second makes clear the wider point, but is made more effective because a concrete example has preceded it.

We all know students who include every single persuasive technique that their mnemonic tells them to, but whose writing is stilted and clunky. In moving from thinking ‘I must include an anecdote’ to ‘I must include an anecdote so I can then look at the wider point’, we should see an improvement in the structure of writing. We might even label this technique something like anecdote-wider point or specific-general.

Here is another paragraph pair, this time from Treasure Island:

The next morning he and I set out on foot for the Admiral Benbow, and there I found my mother in good health and spirits. The captain, who had so long been a cause of so much discomfort, was gone where the wicked cease from troubling. The squire had had everything repaired, and the public rooms and the sign repainted, and had added some furniture—above all a beautiful armchair for mother in the bar. He had found her a boy as an apprentice also so that she should not want help while I was gone.

It was on seeing that boy that I understood, for the first time, my situation. I had thought up to that moment of the adventures before me, not at all of the home that I was leaving; and now, at sight of this clumsy stranger, who was to stay here in my place beside my mother, I had my first attack of tears. I am afraid I led that boy a dog’s life, for as he was new to the work, I had a hundred opportunities of setting him right and putting him down, and I was not slow to profit by them.

In some ways, these paragraphs work like the Obama example. We have specific details about the mother, the inn, the boy before a wider realisation: “It was on seeing that boy that I…”. On the other hand, the reaction is personal. What can students take from this? In narrative writing, instead of simply describing setting and chronicling action and dialogue, they could describe something and then have the narrator react. This helps them to structure writing of course, but it also elevates the writing. We could label this focus-reaction or external-internal

It isn’t just consecutive paragraphs that can work in pairs. Some of the most satisfying pieces of writing have openings and endings that somehow link. This could be a sentence, word or phrase repeated, like from The Man in the Brown Coat:

Opening: I am writing a history of the things men do. I have written three such histories and I am but a young man. Already I have written three hundred, four hundred thousand words.

Ending: Already I have written three hundred, four hundred thousand words. Are there no words that lead into life? Some day I shall speak to myself. Some day I shall make a testament unto myself.

When writing descriptions, I often tell students that the ending paragraph can just be the opening paragraph but with changes. A change in the weather, in the time, in the mood or atmosphere. In other types of a writing it could be a question asked in the opening (literally or not) that is answered in the end. Obviously it helps if this is planned in advance, but it is a strategy for those who struggle to end their writing- they can just refer back to the opening. I have written a little more about endings here, but this is one of my favourite examples of a linked opening and ending, taken from A Tale of Two Cities:

Opening: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Ending: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Once you start examining texts closely, there are so many possibilities for paragraph pairs:

  • Setting-reaction to setting
  • Description of character 1-contrasting description of character 2
  • Action-consequence
  • Setting-flashback to first memory of setting
  • Paragraph arguing the consequences of doing something-paragraph arguing the consequences for not doing something.

Other than this, pick up a book, an article, a report and look at some paragraph pairs. Better still, ask the students because they’ll find lots of interesting ideas too.

Further reading: John Tomsett’s post on structuring essays contains the fantastic idea of Janus-faced sentences.

Navigating the islands of poetry

Every poem is an island. To get to a poem requires sailing out from the mainland of routine language. Some poems are close to shore, others much further away; on every island it is possible to feel remote and at home. A poem is defined by the rugged shore of its right-hand margin, cutting it off from prose.

Robert Crawford

When I think back to my first encounters with poetry as a boy, I realise that I often understood poems, yet I simply didn’t get poetry. Later as a teacher, I have spent an awful lot of time working on how I will teach individual poems, but not nearly enough time on how to teach poetry. If I continue the metaphor above, I have focused on the island but not the archipelago, or the…er…ferry journey (this is why I’m not a poet). With the prompt of this month’s #blogsyncenglish, I thought it was time that I did. So, how do we get to a point where a poem is no longer something remote, something that only exists in isolation?

Sequencing- building a bridge

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

T.S. Eliot

An example of a poem that I have ‘taught’ recently is ‘Tissue’ by Imtiaz Dharker. When teaching this, there was just so much I had to tell students and with that came a number of shortcuts. A poet was reduced to “Born in Pakistan. Brought up in Glasgow. Conflicted.” Teaching the poem in isolation led to these kind of generalisations. (Of course, it wasn’t completely in isolation, because I was teaching it as part of the conflict cluster. AQA can dictate that it is in the conflict cluster but what it has in common with The Charge of the Light Brigade I am not sure.) I felt that my teaching of the poem was fine; my class knew the right things to write about and understood the main idea. But it was just a poem on its own.

I don’t have time to teach any other poems by Dharker, but wouldn’t it have been much better if we’d studied more of her poems earlier and appreciated a body of work that this was only a small part of? Could we study other poets dealing with similar themes? Would there be a special combination of poems we could study in sequence that would mean that we arrive at ‘Tissue’ ready for it? If a poem is a specially constructed puzzle, can we give them the clues beforehand, and if we can, what are they? For starters, a more comprehensive grasp of metaphor would have helped my students with this particular poem.

Whether our ultimate goal is to prepare students for literature exams or whether we just want them to develop an appreciation, perhaps a love for poetry, we need to think quite carefully about the sequencing of poems.

The sequencing of learning about poetry should start early. It need not be dictated just by the poems selected by an exam board, especially when these might change, but it does need to be selected consciously. And not just a poetry unit each year where students study a bunch of interesting poems, often favourites of the teacher, or perhaps collected together under a common theme. Then they get to year 10 and rattle through poems in the anthology before we finally make sure that we give enough tricks and mnemonics to cope on the unseen poetry questions.

I’m honestly not sure about what the ‘correct’ sequencing of poetry should be. Should we, for example, start in year 7 with Shakespeare’s sonnets and move towards contemporary poets in later years? Should we start with simple poems? Should we start with poems of a certain structure? Should we rattle off one of each kind of poem in an introduction to poetry unit? These are important questions to ask and ones which a new curriculum gives us a chance to answer.

Relevance- spotting landmarks

Poetry is common. The stuff of it is common, even commonplace. Poetry comes from what we as human beings have in common. It puts us in living touch with our shared realities.

David Constantine

This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt.

Audre Lorde

Because poetry is often shrouded in ‘high style’, it can be difficult for students to have this illumination, particularly when a poem is usually brief. Students can seem to ‘get’ other texts more readily because they spend time finding what they have in common with characters and how the themes affect them. It is never hard to empathise with characters, but isn’t it strange that we can find more in common with a citizen of District 12 who kills a bunch of fellow children than we can with a poet pondering their own mortality?

I’m not an advocate of making everything relevant in the classroom, but in many ways poetry is so valuable because it is universal and relevant. If we can somehow tap into this and help our students to identify the connections, they will navigate the islands of poetry fearlessly. I know that a child may not quite need the reminder that we all do of the fleeting nature of time, of the inevitably of death etc; starting a lesson with “we’re all going to die…which is why this is a GREAT poem!” might be ill-advised. Yet because much of our poetry deals in universal truths- even if these truths can themselves change- we can expose students to great examples of poems that do connect.

There are obviously lots of ways to navigate individual poems, but with a little thought we can at least ensure that they arrive on the island with a map.

Teacher Workload Reports: initial thoughts

I welcome the reports into teacher workload and I hope that school leaders read them and implement some of their recommendations. Here are my initial thoughts on the data, planning and marking reports:

For leaders, not teachers

These reports are ultimately for the benefit for teachers, but if you have no control over your school’s policy, you will find little practical inspiration from them. The problem with workload is that it is often closely linked with your school and your leadership team. In the marking report, it is stated: “If the hours spent do not have the commensurate impact on pupil progress: stop it.” Yet if you are the NQT who does this, you are possibly going to fall foul of the next book scrutiny. You can see that there are only two recommendations specific to teachers in the marking report, two in the data one and two again in the planning, which reinforces the idea that the audience is not actually classroom teachers.

However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the advice is aimed at leaders and institutions. Teachers are very rarely the sources of their own workload problems. They are at the mercy of the “policy” and the “initiative”. I appreciate that the marking report states:

Evaluate the time implications of any whole school marking assessment policy for all teachers to ensure that the school policy does not make unreasonable demands on any particular members of staff.

The Data report:

Take measures to understand the cumulative impact on workload of new initiatives and guidance before rolling them out and make proportionate and pragmatic demands.

When I filled in the survey myself, this was something that I wrote about. Lots of things are good things to do, but they take up time. It is up to leaders to make these choices. There is a vagueness in what is meant by “unreasonable demands” and I am sure different people will have their own ideas about what this means, but it’s so important that we ask this question.

Broad advice

I do feel that this sense of imprecision runs through all of the reports. For example, the marking report recommends ITT students develop “a repertoire of assessment methods” and teachers use “a range of assessment techniques” without being precise about what these look like.  If you are a teacher struggling with the marking workload, being told to use a range of techniques isn’t helpful when those techniques are not clear.

There are definitely principles that everyone should get behind and there are not many parts of the report that I disagree with. For example, the suggestions of making marking “meaningful, manageable and motivating” seems sensible.  These terms are then defined in more detail, so can serve as a very useful starting point for any marking policy.

Once something is said to be good practice, it can take on a life of its own, so I appreciate why these reports need to be careful. It is much easier to say what shouldn’t be done than to say precisely what should (except posters). There are some case studies on the blog and there will hopefully be more, although this one recommends different coloured pens and writing VF for verbal feedback in books so perhaps we should be careful with these too.

I really like the line in the planning report that “there should be greater flexibility to accommodate different subject demands and needs, as well as the specific demands of primary phases.” It is important to acknowledge that there is much variation in subjects and phases, not just with planning but other demands too. Should an English teacher teach the same load as a maths teacher? Should a teacher who has predominantly KS5 have the same teaching load as one who teaches mainly KS3?

Workload issues in the planning report

The planning report has good intentions but some of its recommendations seem to lead to more time:

School leaders should place great value on collaborative curriculum planning which is where teacher professionalism and creativity can be exercised.

I agree that shared planning can be beneficial, but where does the time for this come from? It has to come from somewhere. Similarly, the demand to create “a fully resourced, collaboratively produced, scheme of work” as a default is a noble one but I can assure you that this is a time-consuming process and someone has to do this. I’m not arguing that this shouldn’t be done, just that to create a really good scheme of work that can be used by anyone takes time.

I have always struggled with the fact that there are not some free central resources that all teachers can access. Ones that they can adapt for their context, change and share back. TES can be useful, but there is a massive quality control issue- try to look for a lesson on similes (smiles/ similies) and you’ll see . Also, the idea of teachers selling their resources runs counter to a profession where we should be interested in helping each other. This happens on Twitter of course but I feel that the DfE should appoint teachers to make schemes, perhaps as a summer project, or recruit experienced, recently retired teachers to do it. Even just creating a quality controlled shared site would be a start.

On textbooks, I agree with the recommendations that we should use them but it is not a “mistrust of textbooks” but a lack of good enough ones that I am more concerned with. Textbooks are a huge investment when curriculum content changes so often, so the DfE should look at ways to make this commercially viable.

All in all, I think the reports make sensible recommendations that will impact positively on workload. We just need more concrete examples of what should be done.

 

5 questions to ask about your CPD

I couldn’t claim that we have all of the answers to CPD at Dixons Kings. However, I feel that we certainly ask the right questions. Here are 5 questions to ask that might help your CPD to be that little bit better.

Is everyone getting what they need?

Schools have priorities. Departments have priorities. Individuals have priorities and interests. We have biases and preferences, the things that we like to do and the things that we want to share. A balance has to be struck, of course, but if teachers leave a CPD session with nothing, then it simply isn’t worth their time.

At DKA, we split our teachers into two CPD sessions during the week and break these up further where necessary. While it is ultimately our decision on the overall content of the CPD program, it is informed by various factors to ensure that it is as personalised as possible. (On top of this, teachers get individual development through the coaching program.)

Are we sharing the right ideas?

When those who lead CPD say that something is the ‘right’ or ‘best’ way to do something, it is likely going to start appearing in classrooms, so we have to hold things up to scrutiny. In the past I was told that learning styles should be catered for, and I did it. I was told that teacher talk was bad, so I eliminated it. It’s all very well to blame others for this, but I have also given bad advice. I still shudder at the memory of the podcast I recorded on ‘showing progress’, or my suggestion in a blog that you could write feedback in code to ensure students engage with it…

Fashions and concepts of best practice change, so it is perhaps inevitable that some bad advice will be given. To avoid it, you always have to consider whether what you are sharing is received wisdom, a ridiculous fad, an inefficient drain on teachers’ time. Even when something makes sense, is it adding to workload? Last year, I ran CPD on my own, but this year I have benefitted from sharing the work with a colleague, Simon Gayle. He is brilliant at calling out any nonsense that I come up with, and vice versa. We hopefully filter out 99% of the possible nonsense, and any that we do share at least we agree on!

How do we ensure that it sticks?

If a focus for CPD is chosen, it needs to remain the focus for enough time to allow it to become just a part of practice. One session isn’t enough. You can’t just ‘do’ something or launch an idea, expect everyone to do it and then move on the next week. The individual sessions too have to be constructed in a way that people don’t just forget things as they walk out. This might involve tasks which ensure reflection or discussion, or even quizzes.

We organise our CPD around a half-termly focus. Last half-term was questioning, next half-term is revision & memory. We therefore plan a series of sessions which we hope develop a deep understanding not just of what teachers should do but why they do it. Another approach that we have is to practise anything that we can, have the theory one week and then follow it up with the practice.

How is it different for …?

It’s hard not to see teaching through your own lens. Teaching to me has always been English teaching and I used to believe that teaching was just a bunch of generic transferable skills. I think that there are definitely a range of things that all teachers can work on, but there are many things that are unique to their subject discipline. For example, you could share some modelling strategies with all staff, but the head of maths shouldn’t model how to do a backflip. You have other considerations like heads of year who may suddenly have all of their free time taken to deal with an incident, teachers who don’t have their own classroom, non subject specialists, split classes- and the list could go on. You can’t put on a session for cat-lovers born in February, but you can at least consider the impact of what you do on as many teachers as possible.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at feedback strategies and we split the session into three. One priority was ensuring that there was a session focussing on feedback in practical subjects (another session was a walkthrough of using mail-merge marking, with the other on timesaving marking strategies). We are also looking to develop our CPD model further to allow teams even more time for subject pedagogy to be developed.

How will we know that it works?

This is the trickiest question to answer. You can evidence compliance quite easily, but this is not the same as something working. This is the area we have tinkered with quite a lot this year and continue to try to get right, so it’s the question on this list that I have the least comprehensive answer for.

One useful start is our half-termly anonymous survey. It has various questions that help us to understand what is going on in classrooms and how people feel about the quality of our CPD. Two questions we always ask are: ‘What are giving you that you don’t need?’ and ‘What do you need that we are not giving you?’ The feedback sessions came out of requests from this survey, as do many of the sessions next half-term. We can compare responses from each half term to the next, showing where improvements have been made and identifying where we might focus next. We can compile data from other sources too, e.g. book scrutinies and learning walks, but it is harder to tie these to specific CPD sessions.

Like I say, we don’t have all of the answers, but I’m happy that we are asking these questions. If you have any other questions worth asking, or indeed some of the answers, feel free to comment.

Improve behaviour to improve teachers

In this blog I reveal the secret of great CPD. It’s the holy grail of teacher development and not only does it help improve the quality of our teachers, but it keeps them in the profession. It’s simple: If you want to improve teaching, sort out behaviour.

You can have great teachers, fantastic CPD and brilliantly planned lessons, but unless the behaviour system is clear, consistent and supportive, much of that goes to waste. Here is what I think schools should do about behaviour and how this helps teachers get better.

Have clear classroom expectations so that teachers can actually teach

Teaching is so complicated and getting better at it is hard. Think how difficult it is to give an explanation of a concept to students who have never encountered it before. Imagine how much harder it is when nobody is looking or listening. In that situation, instead of getting better at explanations, we have to get better at something different: explanations for students who won’t listen. There’s a skill in that, but why should we have to develop that skill?

If the behaviour system is clear and supportive, teachers are not spending their time dumbing down content to make it more ‘engaging’, they’re not spending lessons negotiating with students about rules and sanctions, and they are not creating lots of individual classroom routines and consequences. Some systems have three or four steps before any kind of a sanction is given, and even then the sanction is unclear or decided by the teacher. Our system is one warning and then a detention. It works.

There is an argument that says that relationships should come first, and that sanctions get in the way of that. Relationships are so important in teaching, it is true, but it is difficult to build relationships with students who are allowed to misbehave and impossible to establish rapport with the others in the class when you are dealing with their disruptive peers.

Leave the administration of detentions to others in order to free up teachers’ time

Teachers should not be arranging and manning detentions. (Then rearranging them when students inevitably don’t turn up.) We have central detentions every day, manned by SLT, and organised by admin staff. A lot of people put in a lot of effort to ensure they run smoothly, but not classroom teachers. Classroom teachers should be freed up to concentrate on what they are really good at, what they are trained for and what they are employed to do: teach. That freed up time can be used to improve teaching.

Let new teachers teach

Why should it be a rite of passage that new teachers (new to the profession or new to the school) have to battle through the first few months? It’s hard enough getting used to so many new aspects and then on top you have to deal with poor behaviour. Teachers do need to learn their craft, but this applies to those of us who have been teaching for a much longer time too. If you make it easier for new teachers to teach, you ensure that students behave in their classroom in pretty much the same way they do in the principal’s classroom.

It comes back to that idea of what teachers are actually getting good at. There are all sorts of behaviour management techniques that help, even when school behaviour is generally good, but behaviour shouldn’t be all that new teachers have to think about and the only thing that improves.

Support teachers who use the school system

People leave the profession because of poor behaviour, which is likely to actually be poor behaviour which is tolerated and excused by leadership teams. What makes some of this worse is the strange idea that teachers who give out detentions are bad teachers. It is a ridiculous thing to insist that teachers follow the systems and then tell them off for it. If you are struggling to teach in a school with no practicable behaviour system, then told off for trying to tackle behaviour, you will quickly start to- have to- tolerate poor behaviour and then what is the point? We should never ever blame teachers for poor behaviour. In fact, those teachers who follow the school systems should be praised and held as examples for others to see.

While a good behaviour system will have few grey areas, there may have to be some wiggle room on occasion. Sometimes there may be a pragmatic response to a situation that must be taken-professionals should be allowed to take this course where appropriate. And I don’t believe that teachers are infallible- there are times when I could have handled a situation better and de-escalated it. In a supportive culture, we can be open about our misjudgments and seek to rectify them.

I am grateful for the work that the behaviour team in my school put into allowing me to just teach. It makes my job as CPD leader much easier and it is making me a better classroom teacher. Behaviour isn’t perfect (because it is a school!) but everything is in place to allow for good behaviour, and good behaviour leads to great teaching.

 

A Culture of Practice

Practice plays a huge part in teacher development in our school and this week I was reminded of just how effective it can be. Doug Lemov, in Practice Perfect, writes that “Great practice…is not merely a triumph of design and engineering, but a triumph of culture.” Here I share five examples from the last week which exemplify how powerful a culture of practice can be.

Practising our questioning

We want our CPD to have a lasting impact, so we will often organise a practice session to follow on from a more theoretical session the previous week. Last week we had Principal Teachers from various subjects delivering questioning training as part of a carousel for staff. Following this, we asked teachers which strategies they would like to practise. This meant that we focussed on wait time and stretching students with follow-up questions.

DKA Practice 1My colleague Simon has put a great deal of effort into designing and refining a model of practice which works. We always start with a good model, so in this instance I used Teach Like a Champion videos to show narrated and silent wait time and effective deeper questioning. Before practising, I asked staff to script possible questions/ phrases they might use and to reflect on how they would ensure wait time was effective. Because practice is so common in our CPD sessions, we don’t need to spend too much time explaining what everyone has to do. Everyone practises; everyone feeds back. The only problem this week-if this can even be considered a problem-was that some groups became far too interested in discussing questioning strategies that they didn’t all get to practise. I saw many of the strategies used in lessons later in the week and I am sure that I’ll continue to see them over time.

Practising our coaching

On Tuesday Simon led a session on giving coaching feedback with our Heads of Faculty and Principal Teachers. We have a whole half term dedicated to ensuring that our coaching is high quality and consistent, which gives us the luxury of spending time practising. (Coaching involves weekly low-stakes observations and short feedback meetings.) We practised how we might ‘tease out’ a coaching target from a coachee, ensuring they retained ownership of it, and also the key idea of linking praise to concrete examples. I obviously buy in to these practice sessions, but the culture feels so embedded that all leaders participate fully and this can only be a good thing. Practising coaching doesn’t just help us to coach others; it can help us to become better at coaching ourselves.

Practising our meetings

As this session was going on, Heads of Year were in the room on the opposite side of the corridor, practising  for the meetings they would each be having with form tutors the following day. There are some important changes happening to tutor time and they wanted to be clear and consistent in the message. I am a year eleven form tutor and on Wednesday I was in the year team meeting where the impact of the practice was obvious. The presentation was clear and every part of it made sense. For me, the presentation was excellent, not only because of the content (sensible changes that removed any unnecessary admin and focused on the core roles of form tutors) but because of the way the explanation was delivered by Nick, the HoY. Talking to another Head of Year, he felt that this practice session had been incredibly useful and that we should arrange more of them. Which we will.

Practising our routines

This week a new senior leader joined us and was immediately given a practice session on school routines, along with a cover supervisor. Practice can be difficult and uncomfortable for some, so there is often a sense that we might have to sell it. But the best way to get ‘buy in’ is often just to practise and then the benefits are tangible. Not only do these introductory sessions mean that certain school routines are embedded quickly, but an appreciation of practice can happen too. I believe that practising classroom routines on the first day back was such a fundamental part of establishing the positive school atmosphere that we have at Dixons Kings. Far more useful than a school policy document, far more hands on than a powerpoint, practice works.

Practising in coaching

In our weekly coaching feedback meetings, there is often a chance to practise. This won’t necessarily always happen, but the opportunity can be taken. This is certainly the area where practice is not yet fully embedded, and we have a CPD session on Tuesday with coaches looking at this. As a coach, I have found that practice and rehearsal works well with all teachers, whatever their level of expertise and experience. I work with some excellent teachers and with them practice means that we can have a very precise focus and get it right. For example, one great teacher I have been working with has been focussing on her tone of voice during errors, experimenting to avoid a tone of disapproval while indicating that we must be fastidious in avoiding errors. Practice is great for this kind of thing.

On Tuesday we will be practising practising. I know that today Simon will be rehearsing his session, which means that he will be practising practising practising. And you don’t get more committed than that!

See also these two posts on practising in subject teams:

Subject specific practice

Practice: a collaborative approach to successfully tackling curriculum changes (written by my head of department)

Old texts, new perspectives

When Go Set a Watchman was published, it seemed that To Kill A Mockingbird was ruined for us. When Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet placed “To be or not to be” at the very start of the play, it was sacrilege. But this is part of the beauty of literature, that the words on the page never change but our perspectives can. Kenny Pieper, in this lovely post on reading Go Set a Watchman, writes:

Over time we change, experience and age altering our outlooks, and that is reflected in the way we read.When we re-read old favourites we don’t merely repeat the process because we have changed; our background knowledge has increased, our life experiences enhanced. So, like Jean Louise, we might return there but it can never be the same.

English teachers will visit the same texts many times in their careers and every time that we reteach a text, we reread it. Each time we will spot those differences- sometimes subtle, sometimes transformative- that keep things from ever getting stale.

Experiences

As we learn more about the world, our perspectives change. I spent a couple of days in Venice this summer and of course I thought of The Merchant of Venice throughout my stay. Navigating the intricate streets, I was both fascinated and claustrophobic. I often had no idea where I was- thankfully I was never too far from a sign. Perhaps other factors such as the intense summer heat and the swarms of tourists exacerbated this feeling of oppression. I could see echoes of this in so many of the characters, most of whom are trapped in some way: Antonio, trapped by his lack of capital; Jessica, trapped by her father (and Portia trapped by hers); Shylock literally and figuratively trapped by his religion. I thought of Belmont (which in my mind was a mountain visible in the distance) as a place that was so far removed from this place that Bassanio would do anything to be there. I loved the bustle of the Rialto bridge and the romance of the canals. When I teach the play again, I will approach it quite differently. (I can’t say that going to King’s Cross has changed my perspective on Harry Potter though.)

Choices

This year, like every year of my career, I am teaching Macbeth. The scheme of work starts inevitably with Act 1 Scene 1 but I don’t think that the scene with the witches is particularly interesting. It is fairly dramatic, and there are some language elements worth picking apart, but I feel that it is all fairly superficial. So I did a Cumberbatch of my own and started with Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 5 Scene 5: “Tomorrow and tomorrow…” It is one of the best passages in any Shakespeare play, it deals with the human condition as well as anything and is a perfectly formed poem in itself. It demonstrates Shakespeare’s wordplay and use of metaphor. It also leads students into the question of how he ended up like this and serves the study of Macbeth as a tragic hero much better. By changing the starting point, I changed the whole relationship students have with the play. It is framed as a play about a person, rather than a play about witches.

Time

Another thing that is hard to avoid is how time changes the way we read texts. Characters who were once much older than us become younger and our relationship with them changes as a result. Our political opinions change, our passions change, our circumstances change. A poem which has changed for me is So Many Summers by Norman MacCaig, one I always find a way to teach. It’s a simple poem, where the speaker passes a boat and the body of a deer every year on his fishing trip. The last stanza is:

Time adds one malice to another one–
Now you’d look very close before you knew
If it’s the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.

Year after year, I have taught this poem, one I first read when I was at school. Just like the speaker, the hind and the boat are still there for me, year after year, so the message of the poem becomes more resonant each time I come back to it.

Even though these are the same texts for us, our students are meeting them for the first time, and viewing them from their perspectives, so this poem is an entirely different poem for them. They see the speaker, and the boat, and the hind, for the very first time. Yet their perspectives, far from being naïve or simplistic, help to keep our texts exciting and new. The cries of “oh no” that came from a couple of students as we read the end of Of Mice and Men reminded me that these texts can always surprise. It is great to hear their fresh opinions on texts that you take for granted- I have lost count of the amount of times a comment from a pupil has changed what I think about a character or a simile or a theme.

Whatever we read, our perspectives are routinely changed. Does Orson Scott Card’s homophobia change the fact that I enjoyed Ender’s Game? Does knowledge of Steven King’s addiction invite a more favourable interpretation of The Tommyknockers? Most importantly, and I know that this isn’t ‘literature’, but does this article on Jar Jar Binks as a kung fu master change everything we thought we knew about The Phantom Menace?

Mini whiteboards- the essential classroom tool

I have not always seen eye to eye with mini whiteboards. I hated handing them out, storing them, pens running out, pens going missing, not having enough, doodles, scribbles, drawings of inappropriate things, drawings of me, inappropriate drawings of me. In the past I would trot them out every so often before inevitably dismissing them as just too much of a hassle. Yet now I use mini whiteboards in every lesson and I can’t imagine teaching without them. Perhaps these are not the most fashionable tools in the education world, but here are the reasons why I find them indispensable.

Whiteboards are a way of getting immediate feedback about student understanding, with an effective sequence always starting with a well-designed task or question. Rather than just waiting as students write, this time can be used to seek the most useful responses. Do most students get it or not? Where are the great examples that can be used as models? Where are the examples of common errors that students can learn from? Which students are making the same errors?

Depending in what our checking tells us, there are many options:

  • Stop the task and reteach something immediately.
  • Give a simple piece of corrective advice to address a common problem e.g. ‘remember to mention the writer’.
  • Choose a range of responses (usually three) for students to compare.
  • Pick one example that is ‘nearly there’ and ask the class to improve it.
  • Sequence the responses shared so that they become increasingly more sophisticated.
  • Find answers with a common thread and ask students to connect them (really useful for language analysis).
  • Find three errors and ask students to connect them.
  • Teach the students who don’t understand in a small group. See in-class interventions.

MWBIf the first board I checked was this one, I would be thinking about spelling, particularly character names. Is this student the only one getting these wrong? I know that in this lesson I shared a model paragraph on the board and the phrase ‘ultimately lead to’ has been lifted from that and used incorrectly, so I need to know if others have made the same error. I could choose this board to look at the spelling of ‘ultimately’. We could use it as a fairly decent first attempt at an opening paragraph and ask students to rework it to make it better. I could seek out another contrasting set of adjectives used to describe Sheila and ask students to compare. Or I might not use this board at all-there are plenty of others to choose from! The main thing is, I don’t want to leave it to a randomly selected student response and hope it tells me something. By getting every student to write a response to a clear and unambiguous question (not ‘hands up if you don’t understand’), I can be reasonably sure of the class picture and do something about it.

There are other benefits of using whiteboards too. One of the issues that we have, as I am sure many schools do, is the use of unnecessary fillers in spoken responses. Part of the reason for this is, I feel, is students’ lack of confidence in what they are saying. Or that they don’t know what they are going to say before they start saying it. The few seconds it takes to write a couple of ideas down on a whiteboard can help to eliminate both of these. Add in grammar issues, not answering in sentences and the ubiquitous ‘innit’, and we have a number of elements that a quickly prepared written response can help to eliminate.

I want my students to develop excellent habits of editing, proofreading and redrafting. Whiteboards help me to create a culture where this is expected. It starts with making sure the first thing they write is high quality, and there’s an increased accountability when students write on whiteboards. When they know it will be held up and discussed, there is an incentive for it to be their best work. It’s easy to edit work quickly on a whiteboard and far less messy. With a constant focus on the quality of these short responses, students start to self edit, even as they are reading out their answers. They can spot the errors in other students’ answers and then fix their own. It’s easy for the teacher to correct the spelling of the word ‘beginning’ on a board and then instruct others in the class to fix it if they made that mistake. It’s great for adding commas or colons in the right place. Even as students write in their exercise books, they can make notes on whiteboards.

AOS 3Every lesson at our school starts with a Do Now which is completed on the whiteboards. It means that lessons start in a calm and prompt manner and it is efficient when we don’t have to wait for books to be handed out. The ability to immediately write something down on whiteboards can also help to eliminate the ridiculous amount of time it takes for some students to write the title and date.

Some argue that teachers might only do work on whiteboards in order to avoid marking books. Well, of course! And there’s nothing wrong with that. The fact is, I’m not going to mark everything students write in their book and I can’t mark it if it is only in their head. If it is written on a whiteboard, I am giving immediate feedback and in a fraction of the time it takes to mark books- in many ways it is more beneficial than marking books.

But what about the problems that I listed before? Surely these won’t go away. Much of what we try and do at Dixons Kings is to make it easy for teachers to teach and students to learn, so behaviour systems and classroom routines are crucial to ensure students don’t often exhibit those off-task behaviours. As for the equipment issues, every classroom has a set of whiteboards on desks and students must carry a pen with them as part of their essential equipment. Without these systems, I wouldn’t use whiteboards, especially as I don’t have my own classroom.

We designed a mini whiteboard routine which is used by all teachers in the school. When we want students to hold up their boards, we say, “3-2-1… show me.” They hold boards up with two hands then we say “track student x” and that student reads their answer out. We come back to these routines in our practice sessions to ensure they are consistent. There are some who might argue that these routines reduce creativity or lead to ‘robotic’ teaching. Yet they have allowed me to be the most creative I have ever been as a teacher and I would welcome anyone to come and visit to see just how much this routine and some of the others free teachers up to actually teach. Without these whole school approaches, you can still design a whiteboard routine that works for you. Consider in advance how equipment is stored and handed out and expectations during the sequence.

So, have a rummage in your stock cupboard, find the discarded whiteboards (I guarantee there will be some) and start using them.