Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Better Than Ever?

I work obscenely hard, often to the detriment of myself and my beautifully stoic partner. I value and love my profession, all the more so after meandering aimlessly through life picking the easy option wherever available. Only a seismic shift in my circumstances (turning 30, forced redundancy, a break with my old lifestyle) jarred me into finally forcing myself to fulfil my potential rather than run from it – and teaching seemed the ideal way for me to combine my passions and talents in a meaningful way.

I served time at the coal-face, with two years subsisting on the miserly pay-packets doled out to teaching assistants, then scraped through a PGCE whilst paying a mortgage. For this, I expect no praise: I am no martyr. My aim is merely to illustrate the determination I demonstrated and the hardship I endured to become a teacher.

Having acquired QTS, I really started work. I threw myself into teaching, asking ridiculous amounts of myself, convinced that every time a school holiday arrived my physical being and my over-reaching ambition would be briefly reunited as I caught up with my marking, planning, living and breathing. 

It never happens.

It will never happen.

Today, I am at a very low ebb. Despite my grizzled exterior, I am usually a pleasant and positive person. I growl at injustice and am angered by idiocy and ineptitude, but have learned that optimism is far healthier than cynicism. Yet today I feel jaded. Miserable. Maybe even defeated.
This feeling comes despite me never having felt more confident on my ability as a teacher. I am better than ever, of that I have no doubt. I have improved in every conceivable way, and this progress has accelerated in the last few weeks. I’m planning schemes of work I feel confident enough to share with the world, my classes are making obvious and visible progress, I feel valued and valuable. And yet…

Something is not right. 

We have Ofsted coming into school and there are understandable concerns, worries and pressures. The realisation that my work will be scrutinized concerns me – I wasn’t very good in the early days and people are now going to notice the work I didn’t mark, the lack of progress my pupils made, the things I didn’t do. I will be judged and, no matter what the outcome, I will judge myself even more harshly.  

The drive to provide evidence, data, statistics and proof of progress is demanding and somehow demeaning – can that classroom alchemy which happens when my pupils are on song be reduced to entries on a fucking spreadsheet? Do those numbers really matter? Who is education for? The people compiling league tables or the pupils?

That education is at the top of the news agenda appals me. Whether it’s Gove, Wilshaw, Kirby, PISA, closing gaps, widening gaps, dumbing down, PPA, pensions, pay, public spats over public schools, free schools, faith schools, longer school days, striking teachers, trenchant unions or any other issue, the only thing we ever hear about school is what is wrong with it.

It seems to me that teachers are better than ever, but we work in a time when they are scapegoated, disrespected and blamed – often by those who should be doing most to protect them – for the failings of a system in which teachers’ ability is secondary to their  accountability. 

It’s not a system I want to work in, but I worked too damned hard to give in. Something has got to give.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Of Mice and Men: A Whole Scheme

As a new teacher, there can be no greater gift than the opportunity to teach Of Mice and Men. Resources are plentiful, the internet and teaching guides are awash with ideas and approaches to the text, the book is reassuringly short and the whole enterprise seems so much more manageable than starting with something like Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies.

I've been using the novella with two different classes. My Y10s have been treated to some whizz-bang lessons with Aloe Blacc and O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtracks, a lesson on the etymology of the N-word (and its alleged re-appropriation), hot-seating, a whole lesson about a punctuation mark (Curley's wife's apostrophe) and an hour spent analysing and writing about the word 'tart'. They seem to be really enjoying it, and i have really enjoyed studying it with them. Their work has been bloody good too.

My Y9s, on the other hand, have struggled slightly. They are very low-ability and, while they love the story, a change in focus and curriculum at my school means that they are relatively inexperienced in studying literature in this way. I am delighted that language is no longer seen as more important, but hamstrung by their lack of familiarity with whole text work. With this in mind, I wrote an entirely new SoW for them which focuses very much on cementing their understanding of the plot and context. Further down the line we'll return to OMAM and concentrate more closely on themes, structure and subtleties which, at the moment, are a little lost on them.

It’s a scheme which is heavily scaffolded in the beginning, becoming less so as it progresses. There is an early assessment point, followed by an end of unit assessment built in to the planning. Each lesson has a discussion based starter.  There are questions interleaved throughout, designed to constantly recap information relevant to the chapters of study. Each lesson ends in a writing task. These are heavily scaffolded initially, with that scaffold being gradually removed as the unit continues, hopefully leading to some strong independent writing in time for the final assessment (which focuses on George). It uses a made-up mark scheme which is kind of a hybrid of Extended Reading and Lit, but you could mark it any way you wanted, really. There’s a sample essay which is not designed to be brilliant, so please don’t tear it apart!

The whole unit is based on an abridged version of the text, but could easily be used with the novella. Individual chapters could be printed for annotation or closer study, the whole booklet could be printed as revision resources, or pupils could be given it at the start of the unit and asked to keep notes on it throughout. It would be really simple to differentiate the scheme for more able classes. It takes 24 lessons to deliver, including assessments.

Hopefully you’ll find something useful here. Please ask if you have any questions.

Rob @PGCEng

All the resources for the Of Mice and Men scheme are available here. If you don't have Google docs, DM me your email address and i'll share a DropBox link.

This scheme was inspired by a blog by Joe Kirby. Follow the link for his views on planning a ‘knowledge unit’ on Oliver Twist and Greek Myths.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Making My Mark

What could be more rewarding than seeing knowledge and skills you’ve imparted upon your young charges recalled, regurgitated and reinterpreted on crisp white sheaves of high-quality cartridge paper in flowing, cursive script? Nothing, one would imagine. Such a thing would be the pinnacle of achievement for me, after which I could retire to my smallholding on the Cornish coast to see out my days subsidising my pension selling homemade chutney at boutique farmers’ markets.

The reality, of course, is that I am obliged to mark vast reams of less-than-wonderful work, providing meaningful, instructive and purposeful feedback which will help transform prosaic prose into something magical and turn cursory analysis into deep and meaningful discussions over the minutiae over a writer’s every utterance. And it’s a struggle.

It’s a struggle for reasons you only too familiar with: struggling to comprehend what Sammy’s writing says, at a loss as to what Kai means, baffled that they haven’t turned all the excellent ideas they had in class into excellent writing in their books, exasperated that Richard still gives capital letters to every single noun in his work despite you telling him every single lesson that he must STOPDOINGTHISORYOUAREGOINGTORIPHISTEETHOUTTHROUGHTTHEBACKOFHISSKULL!

Most irritating of all, however, is just how long it takes.

I’ve experimented with all sorts of marking systems and practises. Some have been successful, others less so. Some work with specific classes, others do not. Some have been epic failures, some merely silly. 

I cracked Y7 early on. I have a tiny class of fifteen low ability students who write very limited amounts. I mark everything they do in class – usually as they do it. I have a verbal feedback stamp which is applied to their book when I speak to them about their work, I tick, correct and advise as I go along. They constantly redraft and rework things using a purple pen so I can see their improvemnts. It means every lesson is differentiated for every pupil, I’m constantly aware of their needs and, brilliantly, I don’t ever have a marking hangover.

Sadly, in larger classes I struggle to get around everyone in the same way. They generally write more in terms of volume and depth, making assessing and feeding back to 30+ pupils a bit too laborious. Tips I’ve picked up from various excellent blogger/teachers (bleachers?) have helped enormously, but none have had quite the impact of Mark Miller’s excellent idea to use Microsoft Word’s ‘mail merge’ function.

Mark’s blogged about it here, but having fooled around and adapted the system, here’s how I’m employing it to allow me to 30 pieces of work in little more than an hour…

When marking, I set up an Excel spreadsheet. Strengths, targets and comments are recorded for each pupil as I assess their work – as below.
Initially, this seems to save no time at all. But after a few cells have been filled something miraculous begins to happen: pupils have the same strengths/targets. At this point, simply cut and paste them into the appropriate area. Eventually, you’ll have a fully completed document which, contrary to the normal state of affairs, actually speeds up the closer you get to the end. And you don’t get RSI from repeatedly writing the same thing in their books. 

Better is to come, however. Once your Excel doc is completed, open a Word document too. Make a little table for just one pupil – like this:
Now go to the menu bar at the top of Word and select ‘Mailings’ and then ‘Start Mail Merge’.
From the drop down menu select ‘Letters’ and then ‘Step-by-Step Mail Merge Wizard’. A new panel appears, from which you must follow the instructions in the bottom right corner of the screen. These are: ‘Next: Starting Document’; highlight ‘Use the current document’ then click ‘Next: Select Recipients’. Finally, click on ‘Browse’ and find the spreadsheet where you initially logged your feedback.

A new pop-up like (as below) will appear. Simply click ‘OK’.

Then, select ‘Insert Merge Field’ from the toolbar. This allows you to select which of your Excel fields you would like to add to the table you created in Word. Have a fiddle, position things where you want them, and then marvel at the little template you’ve created.

At this point, it seems you’ve achieved very little. But you haven’t yet waved magic wand. Go to ‘Finish & Merge’ on the right side of the toolbar. Select  it and press ‘Edit Individual Documents’. Like magic, your initial table has turned into a table for each of your class with specific feedback for them and them only. Delete any white space between the tables, print them, guillotine them, distribute them, feel smug and self-satisfied. 

This process seems convoluted, but run through it once or twice and it soon becomes second nature. And you can tailor it to your needs – I keep every Excel sheet I complete so I have a constantly updated record of any feedback my pupils receive, enabling me to spot trends or gaps easily. I’m sure you could think of a thousand other ways to use them.

Learning how to do this took a while and, whisper it, I think I’ve made the process more explicit than Mark Miller did, but please don’t address any technical questions to me. I am not an IT technician and I don’t have the answers. But do give it a try – it really is worth it.