No fact is an island

Last term, in a haze of gained time glory, I signed up for my first ever ResearchEd http://www.workingoutwhatworks.com/, conveniently ignoring the practicalities of spending part of a stormy November weekend tracking up to Swindon. This conference has a particular English and Literacy focus, set up by and featuring a number of blogger-tweeter-writers I respect and a number I’ll be respecting in future.

There were several prevailing threads including the value of knowledge (contextual, expressive, literary) , concepts (threshold), research (grass roots, evidence-based) but for me the theme I came for was that downtrodden Bloomsian concept of recall. I’m with Jo Facer https://readingallthebooksuk.wordpress.com on this one: I used to turn my nose up at rote learning when I started out but rapidly had a change of heart. The joy and pride in memorising a stanza of Tennyson with y7 or Shakespeare soliloquy with y9 or a bit of Spike Milligan doggerel for my own amusement unlocks understanding of diction in students of all abilities. Giving them success at well-crafted quizzes engenders confidence that supports the risk-taking we’re looking for. Giving them a curated list of contextual details makes them experts at the start of a unit.

I am no spoon-feeder. I demand individual engagement and academic thinking in every lesson but my students need very careful exposure to the ‘desirable difficulties’ being discussed today.  I am interested in how we create momentum through success in performance but embed some trouble too. In contemplating all this, it’s tempting to focus on the difficulties rather than emphasising the skill required to unpick what is most to be desired.

What I most value about today’s event was that it was both high and low stakes. I can feel my philosophy shifting, my horizons opening up*. I also had lunch with a colleague I’ve only ever talked to via Twitter and  ended up sitting a row behind a colleague working a mile from my school whom I would never otherwise have met. Now that we are Twitter followers of one another, the conversation can begin in earnest.

The slide below was from Jo Facer’s session on memory. It was the answer to a question about the battle of Hastings but it illustrates where lots of us ended today: with the tools and desire to join stuff together.


*and my tenses getting muddled. I am in need of a KS3 student mentor.

Of spice and pens 

Summer seems to be CPD season and I’ve been fortunate enough to attend two conferences in one week, both of which had a distinctly linguistic flavour. I am of the post-parsing generation, the lot who spent the whole time on empathetic writing. We got to grips with imagining Scout’s thoughts on her first day at school and Macbeth’s feelings about sharp objects, though we barely knew what an adjective was, much less a premodifier, which still sounds to me like the thing the salon do before they touch your roots up. 

Having taught my way through the National Literacy Strategy in the early part of my career, I did get more skilled with when to use ‘less’ or ‘fewer’ and how to decide where the possessive apostrophe goes when there’s an S at the end. But as we drive standards further up, we need new avenues of subject knowledge and the current focus on grammar for writing seems to sit squarely between 1950s declension and 1980s touchy-feely, which makes for a decent mix.

It’s informed my development planning for next year, so for anyone else seeking after a 2015-16 direction that will work with the many changes happening in English, here’s where I think I’m taking my lot. 

1) Raising levels of challenge and rising to the challenge of higher benchmarks: our route here is a focus on academic writing, particularly at KS3. We need to import some of our A level approaches, in which we seek to equip students for undergraduate level argument and evaluation. We will try to stop PEEing on everything: for my views on this, see previous blog. We will also adjust our recipe for GCSE teaching too, using some of the engaging and creative KS3 stuff to inject some life into exam prep. Students are vocal about how much they miss that. There’s plenty of scope for gruesome escapades when we study Jekyll and Hyde for the new AQA GCSE and my team are also busy planning some sort of Regency ball for those getting to know Mr Darcy. It’s about getting the flavour of our lessons right; something that makes our approach distinctive. 

For our focus on academic writing, we will draw on resources like this one. And  this excellent one, a slide of which we have turned into a classroom poster. 

What interests me most about this focus is that the tools it provides are for the many, not just the articulate few. Friday’s conference, run by Mulberry School’s ‘Fetch me a pen’ team  (here) had its moral purpose in full view and rightly so: the four students who gave the closing address spoke powerfully and demonstrated how this power came from the academic voice they had acquired in the classroom. By then, of course, we were all carrying piles of workshop resources and happily sifting through our notes. This blog is my actually my attempt to process it all. To misquote Voltaire and the Mulberry team…fetch me an iPad, I need to think. 

2) My buzzword for the next year is almost certainly going to be MARGIN. What I mean by this is the strategic focus on creating some slack in the demands we place on ourselves. Richard A. Swenson defines it as “the space between our load and our limits”  This year has been -at times- genuinely detrimental to my team’s health and wellbeing. We cannot afford to do this again. I’m not naive enough to assume plain sailing but we do have the ability to make choices to protect ourselves and those for whom we are responsible. As we get our own houses in order, we will be better equipped to help our students manage their anxieties. Big ways to do this include having a department calendar on the staff room wall, with dates and deadlines as far in advance as we can get them. Smaller ways include using some of our meeting time to talk about one of the poems in the new AQA Anthology. We might get onto teaching strategies but that isn’t the point. The point is that we all signed up for this job because we love to read/write and talk about reading/writing so this becomes the deliberate margin on our agenda. 

I know the nitty gritty of my DDP will detail dealing with the new things: this year’s changes to all Key Stages at once seems like a crazy time to be adding extras like academic writing but if we are embarking on unfamiliar content or untested assessment criteria, why not shake up our old approaches too? It will give staff something familiar to get hold of, while we find out what the newness is all about. With any recipe, there’s a bit of trial and error but we are experienced bakers. See below for hard evidence: this year’s final of our Great English Department Bake Off. Baby-themed, for a colleague about to go on maternity leave. 

   

 

I’ll let you know how it all goes down.

The game is afoot

“For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes

Yes, yes, I know the title of this blog is exploits a fatuous link but I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough this evening and giddiness -or exhaustion-  has clouded my judgement. I can be slow of study sometimes and it takes me a while to define a hunch, then longer to work out how to respond, then still longer to decide on the strategy needed to convey my take on it all. One look at that last interminably long sentence is proof enough.

So it is with this PEE/PEA/PEAL bloody ubiquitous toxic paragraph rule. I spend half my time teaching them the habit and the other half trying to break them of it. The pull and push of it all has me in some kind of pedagogic Stockholm Syndrome. I know the next step is to write more flexibly but you try telling a stressed exam class to be ‘flexible’ and see how far you get. Bonne chance (á l’hopital)

What they want are approaches that free them up without cutting them loose.  It was becoming increasingly clear to me that simply hammering home the need to lean on the A in PEA wasn’t good enough. It took most students at least three sentences to say anything worth reading and my feedback was largely focused on getting them to use the last sentence of the paragraph as the opening statement and then develop from there. This they could mostly do until they had to write under exam conditions and then they couldn’t, again.

So the cogs turned at a glacial pace* and eventually I realised that my focus needed to shift from the middle of the paragraph to the opening. This moment of clarity happened to coincide with someone saying something similar at a conference too, which made me think that since we had both come to the same conclusion, I should probably crack on and do something about it. So I started banging on about argument statements to anyone who I could corner and then I observed a lesson last term that used @headofenglish’s rainbow analysis, which was a pleasure to see in action. I like the elegance of the colour metaphor for building layers of argument or analysis and the ‘pot of gold’ plenary appeals to the same sense of joy as the smiley face sticker. These two separate streams of consciousness collided this afternoon and I made a rainbow argument statement resource. A bit of it looks like this

 

Having bragged to my own kids about my excellent lesson planning, I suddenly found myself delivering a mini-lesson to a 9 year old, a 13 year old and my husband who is old enough to know better. Naturally, we chose a text we all knew.


By the end, all three had outdone my exemplar sentence (the speaker uses rhyme to emphasise his dislike so that Sam-I-Am understands that there isn’t “anywhere” he would like them). My 9 year old was exploring the use of the first person to address the frustrating way in which Sam refuses to see any viewpoint but his own.  My husband got carried away trying to explain his thesis on ‘escalation’ and my son learned that a sentence containing ‘this shows’ is almost certainly going to be a bit average in comparison to one with a really precise analytical verb. Then we all realised it was way past dinner time and a school night.

Having  subsequently taken  the version I made for The Crucible  to my Y11 revision session, I am very happy with the approach. Here’s a couple of examples that one student emailed me afterwards 

Miller depicts the couple’s relationship as distant in Act 2, with John being “not open with” Elizabeth, to create a contrast with the unity and closeness of the same couple at the end of the play.

It’s very clear where this paragraph is heading. Likewise this next one. 

Miller first introduces Proctor as “respected and even feared”, to illustrate through Proctors death later in the play, just how hysterical the town of Salem has become

This has definitely been a high-impact strategy that I can adapt for a range of ages and stages. 

Try it, try it and you may. 

 *if you dislike mixed metaphors, best to pop off now.

More matter with less art. Probably.

I am an inveterate procrastinator, particularly when it comes to marking. Over the past two and a bit terms I have attempted to continue running the English department while also working on the Leadership team, in charge of (pause for emphasis) ruddy marking. Note the intensifier there. See also: endless; dreary; thankless; overwhelming-to-the-point-of-burnout.
I do subscribe to the @learningspy school of marking, as shown here and have tweeted Mr D to gain permission to share his flow chart with our staff as a whole. I duly delivered my updated Assessment Policy last November with its shiny new approach to student response. I displayed examples of improvements that students had made, some of which still demonstrated a yawning learning gap, illustrating the need to monitor quality of responses to feedback. Staff nodded and three months later, the impact on students has been pretty minimal. Part of this is my lack of time spent really pushing the concept with staff, coupled with the opportunity cost of All The Things but I have recently realised there is something else going on, probably best described as PPPFFFT TEENAGERS.
Our students are super-diligent but unless explicitly directed and monitored, are super-vague about acting on feedback. They politely explain they will make improvements next time but freely admit how little they really remember to. So why aren’t staff making space? The interplay between PPPFFFT TEACHERS and workload arising from PPPFFFT SLT initiatives could mean we only end up marking for the other audiences; parents, inspectors and the like. This is not what I want to give up my Sunday afternoons for*. Having decided to wind up the SLT job early to concentrate on English full time again, it’s time for the Michael Jackson approach; taking a look at PPPFFFT ME.
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