In a previous setting, I remember a big debate forming part of a staff meeting; how can we change the phrase 'Book Scrutiny' to something less demonic? For many, these two words send a shock of fear down the spine. However, I fail to think of many professions that don't encompass some form of Quality Assurance, and ours is no different. Moreover, it shouldn't be. It's just, as per usual, the strategies employed have often left a bad taste in people's mouths, resulting in negative connotations of such actions: scrutiny, observation, audit...sweating yet? Don't.
The silly thing is, unsurprisingly, whatever you call the Quality Assurance in any profession, its primary objective remains the same. Therefore, it's not the idea of being scrutinised that we don't like - it's the idea of 'failing' it. Furthermore, it's the proceeding steps that cause the discomfort; what happens next? That's the bit we need to get better at. It's common sense to check the quality of a product. Your car goes for an MOT, restaurants leave you a comment card, and I know you've heard of Trip Advisor. It's a necessity. Often misconducted.
My post today comes with a couple of aims:
Below, you will find 2 pieces of writing, each, from a small group of children in my English class. They will be presented as a series of paired sliding photos; one pair per child.
My writing process is very much based on Pie Corbett's methods. I first starting writing about him here. Check it out!
I teach writing using a three step process. I presented each step in 3 separate blogs that you can read by clicking below:
I was once asked how I plan English. After giving a terrible verbal answer, I wrote it down. Give that a read here and here.
All of my teaching relates to what I call the ToolBox. Whether displayed or otherwise, you can read more about that (with free resources) here.
Now I feel scared. I wonder if I'm actually brave enough to press POST.
Disclaimer. I'm more than aware we are very much 'working towards' age expectations. However, I am so proud of how far they have come in a single term, and I am really looking forward to building on our strong foundations. I am pleased to be developing a class of young writers, who are seeing themselves as such; writers. We will add further tools to our ToolBox in the coming terms. Let me know if you'd like updates!
This process relies on them having paid attention at each previous stage in order for them to apply their learning of each skill at the end; the middle section is undoubtedly the most important, where we see the effect this skill has on a piece of writing. Visually, the learning process is extremely clear and the children are able to articulate the progress they have made. Each lesson starts with revision of the skills already covered, ready to add a new one to the list.
It does sound extremely long winded, with an easy response being, “How do you have time? There’s so much to cover!” But my equally easy reply would be that it’s important to invest time. As long as you have a rough plan about where you’ll teach each skill, and in what context, you’re safe in knowing you’ll get the coverage you need, while gently adding new learning to the ever-increasing list of features young writers are expected to exhibit.
I have found this method to be extremely valuable because it gives the learners more stable ground to move forward; investing time into teaching, and designing specific, purposeful practice opportunities, saves time banging on about the same missing features. The challenge as the teacher is to ensure the skills you have taught previously continue to be used, despite changing the focus to something new. For example, while I taught you about time connectives through writing instructions, there’s no reason you can’t continue to use them in your recount, when the new skill I’m teaching you is how to use conjunctions. Equally, I could teach you about using adjectives in your narrative to describe the setting, but I will still expect to see them in your non-chronological report about a creature, when I’m focussing the learning on the purpose of paragraphs.
Constant revision and visual clues help the children embed the learning; this is why I refer to all the skills as the ‘tools’ of writing. However, that’s nothing without you! Use personality, make jokes, anecdotes and actions for them to pin their knowledge to. For example, I always talk about using sights, sounds and feelings in writing; I point to my eye, ear and heart every time I say them. I know that when I say ‘feelings’, I can ask my children ‘Just emotions?’ and they’ll all point to their arm and reply ‘No, physical feelings too!’ I’m amazed they’ve retained so much, but I guess that's through spending time learning something, and repeating the quality we're looking for, rather than expecting sufficient competency after the first model.
Dear Student, I’m so sorry my explanation the other day was so poor, I hope this is a little better. I know what I mean! :)
Dear Colleagues, I'd like to know what you think; have I overthought something so simple, or do you do something similar?
A short while ago, I was trying to explain how I plan English to a student; I found it extremely difficult. This concerned me because I felt as though my poor attempts at explaining were reflective of my approach, rendering my methods useless, yet I was also extremely aware that no idea is original, and that there must be others who plan in the same way I do (just they can articulate it in a clearer voice).
So my post today comes with two aims:
I’m a big believer in teaching a concept before expecting the children to apply it. Many will do both at the same time; model a series of skills while applying them. Personally, I’ve found it difficult to do this. I prefer to break down a process and teach the steps, then model how to use the steps to create success. In my class, this often means that Success Criteria can be the same for a few days in a row, as we gain confidence and learn about each piece of the criteria. Over time, I have found my children more able to retain their learning through this method, as I try to make the learning more explicit before attempting the applying.
To illustrate, I’m going to give a commentary of my decision making process, alongside a fictitious sequence to demonstrate what I mean.
To be continued...
I'm surprised I'm writing this, but I want to discuss homework. What once was the bane of my teaching life, has become a staple part of my week, and I'm almost starting to enjoy it.
I completely understand the debate...
However, with my recent thoughts regarding the children's future (whether that be based on their behaviour, career choice, support from home, or general attitude), once again I'm beginning to consider the wider lessons of homework. It's more than an awkward hour on a Sunday, and I think my change of heart has been triggered by how I've conducted myself composing the tasks in the first place.
Today's blog is a quick timeline of my exampled approaches so far, with some pros and cons for balance.
With a change of school, where things are organised differently, my approach to homework is different again (which I'll share another time). But it's not only the system that has changed, it's also my own thoughts.
Completing home work used to irritate me as a child, and setting it was very similar. It was always an afterthought on a Friday. It took strength not to pull up the first worksheet on Google because, when done properly, it really does have a place and, as a teacher, you can do a lot of good with a well-written piece of homework. My constant thinking recently, is that our children are our investment for the future, and they need to be equipped with a myriad of talents. Now, I find myself putting the time in because I want to; I want them to go home and show off what they can do - I want them to keep their brain buzzing with skills, ready to apply at any given moment.
It doesn't need to detract from playing outside and going to the park, it can be done as well as. So, my top 3 pieces of advice:
If you had a penny for every time you said, "Where are your capital letters and full stops?", how much money would you have? Probably enough for a comfy retirement.
While learning is learning, and teaching is teaching, the ways to teach and learn differ depending on the subject matter. These are my most recent thoughts:
In my opinion, this is the biggest challenge when teaching writing; it counts on a good grasp on all the previous teaching, in years gone by, for them to stably move forwards, otherwise the gaps get greater. (It was this thought that prompted my most successful blog to date.)
So, I needed to find a way for my children to retain all of the things they have learnt. This need became greater when I found simple mistakes in their writing that needed to be addressed, and scanned their English books from last year. I noticed (almost to the exact date) they had done a similar 'gap filling' lesson the year before; a clear sign that their previous teacher found they were missing the same simple skills that needed to feature. If I'm honest, my heart sank a little; seeing that some of these children STILL hadn't grasped the very basics, despite their teachers' best efforts year upon year, was irritating. However, this is where our supportive families and a growth mindset come in.
I had 2 options:
Option 1 - accept these children 'just can't do it'.
Option 2 - ask around, research, experiment, engage, involve...find a different solution, and hope that it sticks with them. If not all of them, some of them.
Option 2 is essentially a teacher's job description; filter out those who don't understand something and find a way to help them engage with it, storing it to memory! Option 2 is it! Here was my solution:
I decided to refer to almost every skill as a tool, and that we were adding it to our Toolbox. In order to keep a record of all the tools we were learning, I gave the children a 'Tool Box' to keep their tools in!
Teaching is a stream of constant modelling, examples and sharing ideas. Therefore, when completing shared writing, I also wanted my own tool boxes that I could refer to! I add to them, just like the children do, in front of them so they can see (we don't want random posters to appear, without reference, and become wallpaper). My Tool Boxes went on the display boards...
Thus far, I have found these as extremely useful tools for teaching. The displays, twinned with their own versions, encourage independent learning; seeking answers, tweaking ideas and sharing strategies that others might want to use.
As with everything, this won't be effective for every child (I will need to work hard to find other solutions too) but it's important that we try new things to filter out those who don't understand, in order to help them move forwards.
I need to improve my own use of them, how they are organised and what order I teach the skills in, allowing for sensible opportunities for application in well-planned chances to write for a range of audiences. It can be tricky to ensure they remain relevant, but so far they're proving to be really effective. I need to find a more efficient way to integrate them into my lessons, and I would LOVE any ideas you might have? You can download your own copies of these below...
A while ago, I wrote about the time I showed my class various articles, regarding teachers' requests for an extended data submission date, in light of the late receipt of the exemplification materials. I showed them the video message, from our Education Secretary, addressing teacher's concerns regarding assessment, where the MP clarified some of the surrounding myths.
It wasn't a lesson on indoctrination, as one might think, but my hook for a unit of Poetry.
We talked about the pros and cons of exams. I explained how I use them as a teacher. They said why they think they're useful for life. We shared experiences of tests and how we feel while preparing for them, taking them and hearing our result; the downs and the ups.
After that, we read this poem, by Michael Rosen. It's his hauntingly accurate Guide To Education.
Later, we read the poem "The Minister for Exams" by Brian Patten. We discussed the message behind it and I was careful to ensure they understood its apparent breaking of 'the rules'; I hadn't spent months banging on about proper use of capital letters for them to take this example as gospel. We noticed how, while punctuation was used normally, capital letters appeared at every new line, rather than new sentence.
We read the poems, and I showed them this video too...
While Patten's is a little more sombre, Rosen's penultimate line lightened the mood a little - "Education is getting better because there is much more testing". It really struck a chord and I was very impressed with the children's ideas and responses to the poem; they had a lot to say.
I was using the poems, video and discussion as a stimulus for children to write their own poetry inspired by Patten and Rosen, but I felt like part of it became a life lesson; a chance for them to think about their future and how to get there, beginning to understand some of the hurdles that they might need to overcome on the way; this strange idea that, sometimes (despite our own best efforts) our successes are completely down to whether someone else agrees with our answer!
Our next lesson started with me teaching the difference between open and closed questions. We gave examples of each and talked about how an open question can have many answers, and that our answer might differ from someone else's...so who is correct? If anyone? Apples or leaves?
Later, we started to make up our answers to open questions, thinking about how we could include our different writing tools: metaphors, similes, etc.
After our annotating of the poem, rehearsal of open and closed questions, it was time for the children to write their own. Many of them came from a real place. It was so interesting to read their final verses. Patten uses a road-sweeper as the result of his 'failure', and we took some time to discuss our own ideas of a job we would dislike. The whole point of the unit was to discuss how differing opinions are part of life, and job choice was the same. We were careful to ensure your idea of an awful job, might actually be someone's dream career (my younger brother always wanted to be a bin-man; he used to sit at the window and wave through the glass!)
While we 'ticked off' a few Poetry objectives, we gained so much more. We learnt that the discomfort of exam season is almost universal, but in a sense it's a rite of passage, the storm after the calm. We learnt about how people will always have different opinions to ours, but it's what we do about it that's important. We learnt how, sometimes, we can give our all, but if that key person disagrees, it might not get us where we need.
Not fair? Ask the Minister for Exams.
Let's teach children the idea of a Plan B and equip them with the skills to cope with possible failure, because there are times in life when we could have done no more, at the hands of an unknown authority.
While completing my studies, an ever-increasing number of years ago, we studied a module called "Cross-Curricular Learning". There was a big push on this approach at the time and it differed from my own schooling, where we had subjects taught discretely. Although my compulsory education has finished, throughout my studies as a teacher, both in and out of the classroom, I have experienced and enjoyed the benefits of teaching skills applied in various subjects, linked to the same 'topic'.
As a teacher, I've previously written of how pleasantly challenging it is to plan a 'topic'; piecing together sensible chunks of learning, making links between curriculum areas in order to best example exhibiting a particular skill. However, in a profession where every conclusion is "one size doesn't fit all", is a cross curricular approach always best?
Teaching in a cross-curricular way means that so much more of the learning can be transferred across different areas of the timetable. Not only is this almost a time saver, it also means that each lesson throughout the day scaffolds the next. For this reason, learners find a great deal of confidence from a cross curricular approach; increased self-esteem and being more willing to participate. It's as if they were taught the answer before this lesson, and now they can apply it to their task.
It's a real skill for a teacher to be able to match up the various learning objectives, in order to ensure the children are reading a book in English, that links to a period of History, that took place in that specific Geographical area, allowing a study of Technological advances during the time (and maybe designing and making a version of your own) while immersing yourselves in the the culture (music, religion, art, etc) of the area it all happened in!
Such a focus on a particular area gets the class fired up; with one buzz-word or topic on their mind, they are free to do their own research. Outside of the classroom, parents are able to talk to their children about, or take them to visit, or help them investigate a variety of things linked to this single subject they are coming home to talk about!
Linking curriculum areas allows better rehearsal of the most basic skills, wrapped up in an exciting context; writing the newspaper article about..., solving a problem linked to…, etc. So much of the vocabulary can be used, outside of lesson it was introduced in, as they may require it for a piece of writing or to aid them in their reasoning.
All of the above only counts if the 'topic' is something the children care about. While much of it is down to delivery (some elements of the curriculum need real acting skills to model how 'exciting' they are), perhaps there are just some curriculum targets that some learners aren't interested in?
Picture this, a cross-curricular theme that the quietest, most polite learners really disengage with, you'd never know because they don't make a fuss; learners in your room that don't give two hoots about different mountain ranges around the globe, the explorers that climbed them, writing a diary entry from their 'journal' and plotting a graph about the heights of each. Or that group of children who aren't fussed by the gory details of the Egyptians, writing a story of an archaeologist, or investigating different types of triangle that didn't make it to the final pyramid design. Through a topic that's solely about either of those, that's potentially 6 weeks of learning missing the key ingredient; motivation.
Equally, while I write above that planning a topic that requires a huge amount of skill, there are some elements that just don't fit. Consequently, we run the 2 main risks:
The solution? Well, you can't ignore the objectives they find boring or that you can't make purposeful links with. It's in the curriculum; they need to learn about it at some point. So perhaps teaching the mountains in Geography and the Egyptians in History, as discrete lessons, means you can appeal to more interests over a longer average period of time, without missing as many curriculum ideas.
My most recent setting has really got me thinking; it's less 'cross-curricular' than I was used to, and I have been really surprised by the differences I have seen.
First of all, I have never seen a group of children so excited about the different curriculum areas; they have a real passion for particular subjects, and this differs from child to child. Now, some will say that we need to get them excited about ALL of the different subjects, but common sense will tell you that's not likely to happen. They keep checking the visual timetable for when Science or History is, or whether Music or RE is coming up. I've never experienced this before, but this is likely due to the fact I never made the 'lines' between the subjects clear enough; we were never learning 'History', we were learning about the Romans (and within that we tackled so many other subjects, that I also didn't specifically state).
Secondly, I've been thinking about how cross-curricular learning, in a sense, could potentially be counter-productive for making the links at the core of being cross-curricular. What links are the children making, when we've been the ones to package it up so neatly for them? My brain ticked over again, and considered how this could also hinder meta-cognition and training the brain to retain and apply information and skills; if I have planned for you to complete a 6 week topic, does that mean you delete everything in time for the next topic to start, or do I need to plan a further week, to revisit this topic, in a few months time to see what you've remembered?
Perhaps a weekly discrete lesson, for more than 6 weeks, encourages the brain to store information more efficiently, over an extended period of time, because you're required to use it more often, with greater gaps between each instance? Like how Maths and English are a constant cycle of revision and extension to ensure the appropriate method of addition, use of adverbial phrases or how to find equivalent fractions, spell homophones or convert to digital time are less likely to be forgotten!
In conclusion, while teaching is extremely fad-led, don't lose sight of making the best choices for your class. Ask them how they learn best, or how they would like to tackle something. At different points in your year, plan chances to be cross-curricular but also remember that everyone in your room has different tastes; perhaps a single unit in a subject would be an enjoyable breather?
What do you think? Cross-curricular all the time, or back to how you and I were taught?
Teaching Maths is like spinning plates. While teaching fractions, you need to keep the number and place value plate spinning, ensuring the geometry dish is still going, before the multiplication ceramic comes crashing down.
In years gone by, this could have been achieved through 'starters'; traditionally the first 10 minutes of the lesson, to warm up the students' brains. When we were working with the National Numeracy Strategy, I used to take an objective from Block A through E for each day, Monday to Friday, to revise. It worked well; we all knew every Wednesday that I would present some form of graph and ask questions; we dreaded Fridays because I would ask for decimal fraction equivalents.
However, in this time of curriculum change, where children already in the system are playing catch-up to meet the new expectations, sometimes the first 10 minutes of revision could be better used as a hook for the latest objective or a chance for deeper study of the raised bar.
Yet we still need to keep the plates spinning.
Alongside my Entry Quizzes, I try to have a good grasp on what the children can already do. While never 100% accurate, it's much simpler to plan for their next steps when you have a real-time starting point. Using this information, I know where to pitch their work and, as a further result, I can also design more challenges for them; chances to reason, problem solve and apply.
Each lesson includes a series of questions that the children can choose from. (I'm likely to write about this sometime too!) But, in addition to these Challenges, I use simply typed sticky labels, placed randomly in spare spaces by some helpful children, to mix up the types of question they answer; it's like an extension of the Extension, adding that 'starter' style revision, just to the end of the lesson, once the most important skill of that day has been covered. I have found it more time-efficient than opening the lesson with a series of information that might be of little use when it comes to the main input. In an ideal world, of course the opening would link to the main, but then we return to square one when considering how to prepare children for a world that isn't so neatly compartmentalised.
For example, in a lesson on addition, showing adequate proficiency once you have answered your questions, tackled the Challenge (the Extension; likely a set of word problems or a "what are the possibilities?" question) you can flick through your book spotting the stars; these are the sticky labels.
Upon the labels, you might find new versions of the measure problems we have been tackling, or a fractions question that'll need to be solved. It might ask you to calculate the area of a shape, or find the answer to a question requiring multiple steps. Either way, you'll need to search your brain (and your book) to remind yourself of the methods, ideas and strategies we were learning, switching from the addition you have just been practising.
It will rarely be something new, and I have found it really useful as tool to look back on; cast your eye over their answers to see how much is being retained and what will need further coverage.
Furthermore, I'm a big believer in the children's books becoming almost like a catalogue; a self-made text book. Hopefully, by encouraging them to look back through everything they have achieved, the pages become little triggers; setting off a memory of that unit we haven't visited recently, searching for the label that could be answered by revising this page.
As with everything, this won't work for everyone. However, I think it's important to find new ways to have the children revise the learning they have covered; it's a study skill for life. This method gives every child a chance to do that. We work hard to ensure 'everything makes sense' to our classes, but once we are not there, we need to feel confident that they can make sense for themselves, choosing suitable methods to solve mixed problems with the vast knowledge they have been given.
I have created some Challenge stickers below; each set adheres to the objectives of the specified year group. They're great for a quick and easy extension, covering a variety of topics, aiming to keep as much learning as possible at surface level for easy retrieval and application. They should print neatly on a simple label sheet (18 labels to a sheet). Alternatively, you might want to print on paper and guillotine.
Underneath the smiling, I was secretly horrified at what my teachers used to get away with in regards to marking. Through the pointing, I was extremely embarrassed at some of the mistakes I had made. But behind the giggling, my brain was coming to an odd conclusion; "this all looks very familiar!"
All of these photographs are taken of my secondary school Maths books, ranging from Year 8 to GCSE level. I finished compulsory education in about 2006 (I think) and I'll caption these photos with direct quotes from the Standards of the 2014 National Curriculum. You'll see my point quite quickly.
I was sitting on the floor at the time when the penny dropped; I was intending on teaching my own class some of these things in the coming weeks. Thanks to my forward planning, mapping out how much time was available to teach, I'd read the expectations for my year countless times; yet I was seeing evidence of it in the pages of my own books as a teenager!
My conclusion is simple; at some point, what used to be expected of a 14 year old, has become the intended outcome of a child (on average) 5 years younger! Incredible. Have brains got bigger? Is there some new implant at birth that has allowed these modern day children to acquire more knowledge? Are there suddenly fewer steps to learning such things in order to get to the same place earlier?
Give your learners some credit and protect them from the pressures they can't control; teach them to manage their distractions and the emotional fall-back of failure in order to work towards these shifted targets.
Someone decided that 'this is no longer for the teenagers. Let's give it to the little people.' More is expected of them now than ever before and, in my opinion, for them to even begin to understand and apply it (5 years before they USED to be expected to) is an astonishing achievement; no wonder we all find it tricky at times!
It shows our young people to be more resourceful than ever before and more resilient in the face of challenge.
Learners, keep doing what you're doing, because apparently it's going really well! You might not feel like it sometimes and you'll rarely get a public mention (exams are always getting easier after all), but you are going further at your age than any child older than you. It's the only excuse for so many aspects of your education shifting 5 years backwards, alongside the unreasonable expectation for you to catch up with at least 1 year of these new standards, while also attempting to master the skills in your own programme of study; a minimum of 2 years worth of learning in a single 12 months!
Teachers, keep doing what you're doing, because apparently you're doing splendidly! It's the only logical explanation for many aspects of the curriculum shifting half a decade! You might not feel like it sometimes and you'll rarely get a public mention (likely due to all that holiday we get), but you are working harder than any teacher before you, signified by the rate at which your children are progressing! Helping these children make up the difference between both curriculums is a huge task; the difficulty is proving the improvement in the middle ground between 2 sets of expectations.
Looking through my old secondary books, and noticing the new primary curriculum, is both a blessing and a curse. It's a scary realisation about how high the target has been set, based on no real objective other than greedy bosses wanting to beat other nations. However, it's also a pleasing challenge and fresh reorganisation. When interpreted in the correct way, by those who engage with it the most (US!), it will pay dividends as long as we are given the time to implement it properly.
It was never like this in my day!
Note: As you will see by the dates in the photos, this entry has been a long time in the making. It is written out of overwhelming pride in my learners; I am so pleased with what they achieved in such a short space of time and I have been really looking forward to sharing it with you.
RECAP - As I have previously written, Pie Corbett's system of 'Immerse, Imitate, Innovate' when planning for writing, is one of my favourite approaches. For me as a teacher, it makes complete sense (although not the only approach - one size doesn't fit all, remember!) To present my interpretation of what he means, I am going to explain the unit of work I planned, provide photos to illustrate what the children did, and I'm hoping you'll see the learning journey they went on in the process - each set of photos shows the work of one child, throughout the whole process, in order.
So, the children had read countless versions that I had written, experienced applying their learning surrounding expanded noun phrases and the uses of commas (required through varying our openers), and we were nearing the end of term. Needless to say, I was nervous about what this last stage would produce; had I wasted the last 2 weeks of learning time?
S T R E T C H I N G I T O U T
I explained to the children that our lives are fast paced; we are constantly on the move. When we give our own anecdotes, we only ever give the actions, the movements. And, unfortunately, their writing is often the same. However, the most popular books are the ones that transport the reader somewhere. If the author only relies on actions, everything will be happening in a blank space by a stick person with a name; the reader's imagination would have very little to use. The most successful authors make use of the expanded noun phrases and the senses to bring the world on the page alive. They can even control your breathing with their punctuation. Like this. See?
The final stage is fairly obvious. I gave the children a blank plan and an entire lesson.
They were well rehearsed in articulating what was expected of them; the qualities that would make their writing more engaging, with a real focus on the effect on the reader.
In conclusion, I was so pleased with what my learners had achieved in just a couple of weeks. From the first piece of writing, to the last attempt at their chapter, I saw a real improvement in both content and stamina. For my class, this approach really helped; it was sensible, engaging and step-wise, leading from an enjoyable text involving lots of discussion and opportunity to imagine.
The children were given time to think and space to share as they came up with their ideas and I tried hard to help them achieve. While these objectives will need constant revision (especially as they are designed to be mastered across 2 years) I really feel like they have made strong gains against their starting points so far! Next time we tackle narrative, I imagine expanded noun phrases will need a refresher, but my big focus will be dialogue. I am aiming to continue to drip-feed existing and new punctuation through my next non-fiction, always adding transferrable tools for them to choose from.
Without question, the best bit is their own realisation at how much better their writing became. Doing the writing at the start, and a piece with the same brief at the end, was the perfect way for the children to see improvement.
A great confidence builder and positive promotion of writing!