Monday, 25 June 2018

Summary of SUPER Conference presentation

As I mentioned in my post regarding the 2018 SUPER Conference, I presented a short workshop on the outcomes of a small-scale project completed alongside two of my colleagues regarding resilience of Year 10 students in English Literature. Below, I will outline a summary of the project, with our findings. It should be noted that this project was incredibly small-scale. The findings cannot be generalised in any way, but are still worth sharing and discussing. 

What is written below is part of a joint effort from each member of the triad, and is not wholly my own work. It also appears in our in-house Action Research Community (ARC) annual summary of research, Illumination.

Through an initial discussion to determine a research focus, we realised that each of us had witnessed a drop in resilience and well-being among some of the more vulnerable students within our forms and/or teaching groups. As such, we decided to consider ways that we could foster better resilience within the students under our care. 
Steps Taken:
To begin with, we conducted a short literature review into various intervention programmes targeted at raising the levels of resilience within students so that we could conduct some small-scale trials ourselves, in the hopes of improving the academic resilience of the students within our care. 
One of the programmes we initially looked at included the MindMatters programme established by the Australian Government(you can find more information about MindMatters by visiting their website:, which provides teachers with extensive resources for implementing resilience based programmes within schools. However, one problem which we discovered was that a lot  of the programmes require schools to invest considerable time and money into training staff to deliver the material.  As such, we sought ways in which we could adapt some of the material we found within our literature study into short, easy to deliver sessions which built student resilience in relation to specific skills or lessons. 
Initially, we started with a wider-reaching research question about building resilience and well-being in students across various year groups. For the first round of our project, both Luci and Krista trialled a specific intervention programme - a daily ‘gratitude diary’ (Wilson, 2016; Diebel, Woodcock, Cooper and Brignell, 2016 ) - alongside a pre-and-post intervention questionnaire, to measure any potential changes. However, on analysing the data of these questionnaires, and looking at how students engaged with the ‘gratitude diary’ across the two forms, there was no noticeable change in levels of resilience. 
As such, we decided to narrow our focus to a specific group of students. We settled on Year 10 students who we identified as having ‘low levels of resilience’ in English Literature.
Each teacher used their own personal observations of their classes, alongside current Go 4 Schools data, to determine which students to choose for the intervention. It was decided that a small, targeted intervention session would be most appropriate, so each member of the group selected 2 students from one of their Year 10 English classes. These students were all identified using the following characteristics:

  • ïWritten class work showed evidence of good understanding
  • ïQuestioning in class showed evidence of analysis skills
  • ïPrevious mock Literature exams had shown students were unable to apply learning in a formal setting

Once the students had been identified, we worked together to plan an intervention session linked to an upcoming English Literature Lord of the Flies mock exam. 
To start with, each teacher was asked to provide Julie (who taught the lesson) with three positive comments about each student. The first of these comments was about what they offered to the class (e.g. ‘he has a great sense of humour’ and ‘she’s not afraid to stand up for herself and her ideas’). 
The next two comments were linked to skills required in English Literature, so that students would equate the positive comments with specific skills needed for  the course (e.g. ‘she has been making a real effort to learn quotations’ and ‘he shows good understanding of plot and character’). 
Students were personally invited to the intervention lesson and given the rationale for the invitation. They were told it was optional, but that they had been specially selected because of their potential; all students chose to attend.
At the start of the hour lesson they were told that their teachers had picked them because, while they had shown excellent understanding in the lesson, their teachers were concerned that their confidence in the exam setting was not allowing them to succeed. They were then given the positive affirmations written by their classroom teachers; these were given to them folded over, to ensure privacy. All students were pleased and surprised that their teachers knew them so well. They were given the option of keeping these affirmations or leaving them in the room; all students were quick to put them away in their bags/planners.
The rest of the lesson comprised of building confidence and skills at the same time. Using the PiXL Knowledge mats, students were given work that was below their target grade for the first ten minutes. They were constantly praised about how much they knew. This was designed to encourage them to participate in the session. 
They were then given a mock question and asked to plan an answer. The group discussed: approaches to the question; which quotations they would use; what they would say about each quotation and what other parts of the novel they would use to answer the question.
Next, students were given a more challenging PiXL Knowledge mat. They had to RAG rate the questions. They asked each other the ‘orange’ questions and the group contributed different answers. At the end of the session they had ‘red’ questions that they knew they needed to focus on for revision. They were reminded not to try and revise everything for the exam and just focus on things they didn’t know. In addition, they were provided with a quotation document and a filled in knowledge organiser so that all their revision was in one place.
Students then completed an exit-survey, which will be analysed in the next section. 
As mentioned earlier, the results from the questionnaire completed by Luci and Krista’s form did not provide us with evidence of a noticeable level of change in resilience levels. Most students admitted to understanding what resilience meant, and rated their own resilience in the school as ‘medium’ both before and after the ‘gratitude diary’ trial.
Within the form time sessions, Krista  noticed a clear lack of engagement with the activity within her Year 9 tutor group. Some students were very willing to engage with the ‘gratitude diary’, and did not need much prompting to complete it each morning. However, these students could be classed as being more resilient in the first place, and therefore needed little motivation to complete the task. It was exactly the students who would benefit from completing the ‘gratitude diary’ who were disengaged with the task. They needed much prompting and cajoling to complete the task during the two week trial. 
With her Year 7 tutor group, Luci observed a similar lack of engagement with the ‘gratitude diary’. Although all students completed the diary without much prompting, many appeared unenthusiastic and apathetic about completing it. 
The results from our intervention with Year 10 were much more noticeable. When comparing Go 4 Schools data in English  Literature residuals, the following changes were evident after students sat their Lord of the Flies mock exam (see table, above)
These results show that the intervention lesson had a bigger impact on the boys (B1 and B2) than on the girls (G1,2,3 and 4). Within our own lessons, all of us also noticed that after the intervention lesson the effort made by the targeted students showed a positive increase; they were more engaged and less fearful to offer their own responses during group discussion. Overall, the relationships between teachers and students improved as a result of the intervention lesson. In our discussion of why this may have been, we all felt that students had really benefitted from hearing about their positive attributes from their teachers. 
An analysis of the exit-survey shows that 100% (all 6) of the students who took part felt: confident in their understanding of Lord of the Flies; that they were capable of coping with any challenges that might appear on the mock; happy to have taken part in the intervention; believe that if they ‘try hard’ they will succeed and that they pushed themselves to achieve will in the session. 
Next Steps:

As a result of this intervention it is clear to us that providing less-resilient students with positive feedback about their skills, with clear links to the curriculum, had beneficial results for the students. In future, we hope to run similar, bespoke intervention sessions for students with low levels of resilience in specific areas of the English Literature curriculum.

Sunday, 24 June 2018


It has come to my attention, after reading the most recent edition of TES (No. 5305), that there is a growing crisis in the United Kingdom when it comes to hiring and retaining internationally trained teachers (meaning teachers trained outside of the EU). Being an internationally trained teacher myself - emigrating to the UK in 2008 - the article really struck a cord. It brought to mind the struggles that I have had to go through over the years. However, my story has a happy ending because I was given Residency in 2016; many international teachers today will not get the same chance.

My experience being an internationally trained teacher was not smooth sailing - I was constantly worried that I'd get denied and deported every time I had to renew my visa (which was 4 times over the ten years). When I first came to the UK, I was advised by the supply agency that originally employed me that I could enter the country on what was then called a 'Working Holiday visa' (I imagine this was the predecessor to the 'Tier 5 Youth Mobility visa'). This entitled me to work in the UK for two years, after which I'd have to obtain a Tier 2 visa. Initially, this was fine by me, as I wasn't sure whether or not I'd want to stay beyond those initial two years.

As it turned out, I fell in love with this country. I fell in love with my job, and I knew that I wanted to stay. I made my desire to stay very clear to my employer and they assured me that they'd obtain the necessary 'certificate of sponsorship' to help support my initial Tier 2 visa application.

This is where I hit my first hurdle. Despite the school's promises of support, someone made a bit of a 'fudge' and left their part of the application process sit for too long. Suddenly I was invited into a meeting with our then (now long gone) Business Manager, who told me that 'mistakes had been made' and that they hadn't obtained the certificate of sponsorship in time to support my application. Obviously I started to cry. The man pushed a box of tissues at me and told me I'd have to go home.

It was an agonising experience. I had to fly back to Canada, where I spent three long weeks unsure of whether or not I'd ever be able to return to my job. Throughout this time, I was sending in extensive cover work, in some vain hope that this would allow me to keep my job and show what a 'team player' I was. Luckily, I was allowed to return to work; I came back with my new Tier 2 visa and a further two years of reassurance that I'd be able to keep my job. It was such a huge relief.

However, every two years, when the visa came up for renewal, I had new hurdles to jump through. It felt to me that the criteria for the visa changed every time I applied. Many of the issues I faced had to do with how much money I could prove I had in the bank, or how much money I made. As you're probably aware, teachers within the first few years of the job don't get paid record-breaking sums. There was no way I could hit the wage requirement, no was I able to amass the required savings they requested - something like £3,000-£5,000 had to be in my bank account and remain that way for a sustained period of time. I had to prove this with bank statements and letters from my employer. The 'Bank of Mum and Dad' had to help me out on more than one occasion. Frankly, not everyone has that option.

Once again, I had to rely on my school for help as well. They wrote me an accompaniment letter, which stated that they'd financially support me with the £3,000 needed to qualify for the visa. While it was just as statement of intent (no money actually changed hands) it meant a lot to me that the school would support me in that way. I'm not sure if it helped my application or not, but either way I was granted another visa. It probably helped that I was undergoing a Masters of Education programme at the University of Cambridge though (again, this was half-funded by my school - yet another reason why I truly love working where I do).

Let's not also forget that applying for these visas themselves comes with a hefty fee. In my experience, the fee varied from £750 to £1,500 over the four instances I had to apply for it. Paying this fee doesn't even guarantee your application is going to be successful - I can only imagine how horrible it must feel to have paid out such a huge sum, only to be denied. It was a hard enough hit when the result came back successful!

Because the first two years I was in the country were on the 'Working Holiday' visa, I knew I had to remain on the Tier 2 visa for 5+ years in order to obtain residency status. At this point, I knew that this was the route I wanted to go down. I was engaged to an English man, we were looking at buying a house, and I was now in a middle leadership role at my school. Leaving all of this behind me was an unfathomable thought, but one that I knew was a real possibility. Once again, another application was filled in, more money was sent along (over £1,500) and I had to sit the 'Life in the UK' test. It was a painfully long wait. I kept thinking of all the reasons why they'd deny me residency - after all, this was during a time when immigration was starting to become a very hot topic. When the result finally came through, with the little card that identified me as a 'Resident' with 'Indefinite Leave to Remain' I cried. Extensively.

Over the past ten years, I've grown so much as an educator. I'll admit, when I first arrived I was very, very 'green'. But what Newly Qualified Teacher isn't? It took a good year to adapt to the curriculum, GCSEs and the idea of Ofsted - ask any NQT trained in the UK, and I bet they'll say the exact same thing. However, once I found my feet, I continued to grow and progress into the teacher I am today. I consider myself just as competent as my UK trained colleagues. My students are not (and never were) at a disadvantage for having me, a foreign trained teacher, at the front of the classroom.

This is why I am very much in support of the new TES campaign Let Them Teach (#letthemteach). I think that the entire teaching profession should be added to the 'shortage occupation' list. There is a real recruitment and retainment crisis in education at the minute, and if internationally trained teachers like me aren't given a fair chance, the crisis is only going to get worse.

Friday, 22 June 2018

SUPER Conference 2018

This afternoon I was involved in the annual SUPER Conference, held at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. I've been a part of the Conference for many years now, ever since I did my MEd at Cambridge via the SUPER programme. (For information on SUPER, look here)

This year it was slightly different though, as SUPER has recently joined the Chartered College of Teachers as part of their wider group of networks. As such, we had the pleasure of having Julia Flutter join us. Julia gave a lovely introduction to the event, which I will summarise later, as well as helping to facilitate some of the workshops that took place later in the afternoon.

The afternoon itself kicked off with a welcome from the Head of Faculty, Geoff Hayward. Geoff’s introduction started with an outline of why groups like SUPER are so important to the field of education. First of all, he said that one of the main roles that SUPER serves is to help generate new knowledge - knowledge which is close to everyday teaching practice - which, as he said is 'really, really important.' In his speech, he mentioned how the partnerships aims to provide models of how teachers can put knowledge into practice, suggesting that this is essential if we are ever going to get to what he would call 'an evidence informed version of teaching'.

Geoff then want on to touch on some of the issues that have arisen recently in education. For example, he drew on the concept of knowledge. At this point, he made reference to the medical profession and medical research. As we all know, a huge amount of money is used in health/medicine to translate the work that is done in research in labs into what doctors and nurses perform every day in hospital wards. He then made the comparison between the medical world and teaching, suggesting that teachers (or perhaps educational researchers) are not as good at doing this - in his opinion, this is where SUPER operates. It is one of SUPER's aims to act as the 'bridge' between academic research and everyday teaching.

Finally, he ended with a little anecdote of how research could be used better within the educational world, framing this within his own experience with the University of Cambridge Primary School. Rather fittingly, teachers at the primary were currently in the throes of an Ofsted inspection. He recounted how in the parent survey, a small minority of parents had complained about the homework policy at the school. It should be noted that the homework policy at the school is to not set homework. This is based on research that shows homework has little-to-no impact. However, parents are not aware of this research; all they know is that they had homework when they were children, so they assume that homework should be set. In sharing this anecdote, Geoff suggested that there's an area for future research available there, focusing on the nature of parents knowledge about education. His main point was that there will always be things to research, but what we need to do, what SUPER often tries to do, is find ways to bridge that gap between what researchers are saying in the 'academic' world of education and what happens in the 'practical' world of everyday classrooms.

Geoff then handed over to Ros McLellan, who outlined in more detail the context behind the creation of SUPER and the work that we are currently doing on wellbeing and resilience.

Initially, over twenty years ago, SUPER was created as a collaboration between the Cambridge University Faculty of Education and a series of schools across the area (currently, we have schools across Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire within the group). The concept of SUPER was started with inspiration from Donald McIntyre, whom the Faculty of Education named their home (and the building in which the conference was held) after. The initial aims of the programme were to create useful educational research (for classroom teachers) and to explore the relationship between schools and the University. The main thing was this process should be about working together, not working for. Ultimately, the primary purpose of SUPER was to inform practice - to be relevant to teachers.

What the programme currently consists of is Teacher Research Leaders (TRLs) from each partnership school, work in collaboration with Bethan Morgan, Ros and the University. We meet once a half-term, in various spaces (both at the Faculty of Education and at schools within the network) to plan, discuss, carry out and analyse research. In this way, SUPER acts as the link between schools and the Faculty.

As part of their work, SUPER has had an annual Conference for at least 10 years now, if not longer. The aim of these conferences is to share what we've been doing each year. Usually this is done with SLT and staff from the schools within the network, although we do usually open it up to a wider audience. SUPER also works to disseminate our findings beyond the network itself, such as at other conferences, such as ResearchEd (where I have contributed myself, in at least two occasions!). Ros also drew attention to our use of Twitter (@SUPER_Network) and the SUPER blog.

Ros also mentioned the international work that SUPER has done in the past, such as collaborative work with teachers from Kazakhstan. I've personally been involved in this work, and has lead to some amazing friendships, not to mention the cultural exchange that (for me) is able to take place working with someone who comes from such a different environment.

Summing up the work of SUPER, Ros mentioned that there are always opportunities for other people to get involved. I would highly recommend that, if you're intregued by the ideas mentioned here, you follow SUPER on Twitter and get in contact with either Ros or Bethan.

Ros was then followed by Nick Martin, Principal at Samuel Whitbread Academy. Samuel Whitbread has been in SUPER since the beginning. In his section of the 'welcome', Nick talked about his perspective on SUPER and its importance. For him, the critical friendship that comes from membership in the network is different to anything else out there. Belonging in SUPER enables teachers and schools to meet like-minded individuals, engage with research, and importantly, learn how to discount the 'fads' in education. He then listed some of the 'fads' that have swept the educational world in the past, mentioning things like the Brain Gym, Learning Styles, etc. He questioned why so many teachers 'fall for this stuff, as a profession?' By questioning this, he suggested that the greatest benefit of belonging to a group like SUPER was learning how to spot the fads and become critical thinkers.

Finally, the welcome speeches ended with a contribution from Julia Flutter, who was acting as a representative from the Chartered College of Teachers. Julia made the connection between SUPER and the CCT, giving some background information on what the CCT was created for and its role going forward.

Much like the aims of SUPER, evidence is at the heart of the CCT. But using evidence to inform practice is, according to her, 'a bit of a voyage'. To start off, she asked the question: Why does evidence matter?

She followed this up with an explanation that evidence 'allows us to think about why something happens' or, more specifically, consider 'why is this happening in the classroom?'. Evidence is important because, as a profession, we need to look at what's going on in our classrooms in order to understand and begin to tackle any problems we identify. Evidence is needed here to evaluate practice to see if new ideas work. Essentially, 'evidence helps you to close the circle'.

Julia then referred to Jean Rudduck - a pioneer of student voice - who always said that pupil voice was helpful to gaining new perspectives in education. The idea here is that students can help practitioners challenge the ways of thinking that have become an assumption. Often, when you consult the students, you realise that what you thought was working wasn't working as effectively as you'd have liked. This is where evidence can be used to challenge the assumptions that we've built up over time.

As anyone who has tried to engage in educational research knows, there is a 'huge mass of published work' out there. The CCT offers teachers access to some of this work, through its research database. However, the challenge then becomes how to navigate through such a vast collection of work, especially one that it keeps growing and growing. Julia suggested that this is an area that the CCT is looking to improve. She also suggested that we should begin to make better use of practitioner research - linking to one of the aims of the SUPER Conference itself. Here, she began to make links between the CCT and the work of SUPER, suggesting that the advantage of the kind of research which was to be shared in the workshops later in the day was that it comes from the classroom - and therefore has ecological validity. The work done by SUPER is therefore an example of 'learning in the real world, not a lab', which makes it useful to everyday classroom teachers.

After all the 'welcome' speeches, the Conference then moved on to a look at the work done so far by the SUPER group on our current project linked to wellbeing and resilience. I could run through this in detail, but as it is a work in progress I think I will skip it for now. Instead, I would direct you once again to the SUPER blog, where there are some summaries of the work available for you to read.

Now, unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend two sessions, as most participates were able to for the second half of the Conference. This was because I was presenting one of the workshops myself! However, I will soon do a separate post where I share some of the findings from the very small-scale research project I did, in collaboration with two colleagues, on an intervention programme we used with six Year 10 students who we identified as having low levels of resilience in English Literature. 

That being said, I was able to attend one of the sessions within the first block of workshops. The one I chose to attend was hosted by a collection of teachers from the St. Ivo School (Anne Barratt, Mary Cody, Steven Hall, and Ross Perkins). I was drawn to their workshop because of the title: Promoting Resilience through Data Tracking and Target Setting. I have a bit of a 'bug-bear' about how much we rely on data and was intrigued about the idea of using data to promote resilience. In my experience, the use of data can often be quite a negative experience, for myself and for students.

The session started off with an explanation of why the school had chosen to look at data rather than other aspects linked to resilience and wellbeing. An goal was established at the school to look at how the recording and sharing of progress could be used to promote resilience within students. Some background information was provided, based on an Ofsted four years ago - in which it seemed that much of the criticism was focused on grades. There was a particular concern, at the time, that students did not know their targets and/or current grades.

As such, the school worked to design a sticker (something I think may schools can relate to), which was to be put on every student's workbook in every subject. In essence, this did what Ofsted asked and was therefore completed by all teachers. It did have some benefits, as teachers and students engaged in more conversations regarding the targets and ongoing progress.  As Anne said, 'It was good and it ticked the boxes, but it wasn't perfect'.

The first criticism to come out of the sticker system was that some students were stressed by their grade being on front of book. They felt like it was daunting, and often made comparisons with their peers. Students stated that the stickers were seen as a judgement. As such, the next step the school took was to move the sticker to inside of book. This meant that the same sticker was used, it was just in a different place. Not much difference, really.

Then, as I'm sure many of us remember, the National Curriculum levels were removed. This resulted in schools having to completing change their progress-tracking systems (at least, in theory). We were told that the Ivo spent four months researching alternative models to levels; they talked to parents, students, and staff and eventually used information from a 2015 government report to help them reach a new system. Their new system was a move away from collecting data in the form of numbers, as it was not achieving a purpose. It was mostly about testing students, which wasn't what they were intended to be used for.

The new system used by the Ivo consists of what they call 'Flight Pathways' (for use in KS3) and the '5 R' reports. Ultimately, the goal was to develop skills for success at KS4, beginning in KS3. Again, this end goal seems very familiar to me, as I am sure it is for many teachers in the secondary sector.

The 'Flight Pathway' system consists of five different flight paths, which are set in Year 7 the flight paths are based on KS2 data (FFT). The rationale behind this was that the school wanted to allow students to move up (or down) flight paths, setting individual challenge pathways along the way. At the end of each term, students are given a challenge pathway instead of a grade or a number. The school now uses a more holistic approach to data, based on attitude, effort, class work, home work, and any summative assessments.

The language used within the various 'levels' of the Pathway is much like that used in the primary sector currently: Emerging, Developing, Securing, Excelling, Mastering.

Students will have different challenge pathways for different subjects, much like they previously would have had different target grades in different subjects. To facilitate this, each department has a Flight Pathways Progression Grid, bespoke for each unit of each subject.

The '5 R' reports consist of ranking students (from 4-1) in areas that include: responsible, resourceful, reflective, resilient, respectful. However, some questions have already arisen whilst using this new reporting system. For example, it is not clear that students aware of what they need to do to achieve success within these 5 areas. It is also unclear whether parents aware of what is required of students to hit these criteria.

It is also important to note that only students in Year 7-9 are given a 'Flight Pathway'. Once students reach GCSE, in Year 10 and 11, the system is transferred into a GCSE grade. However, this grade is no longer placed in students' workbooka - it is now online, using Go 4 Schools. As such, students and parents are able to see grades, but they are not visible to other students like the stickers were.

We were then given time to reflect on, and discuss, the system in use at the Ivo. My own interpretation, after a lengthy discussion with other teachers from various schools, is as follows:

While it is all good using these 'fluffy' terms to try and encourage students to develop a positive mindset towards their progress, these terms will always (eventually) turn into grades at GCSE, so what's the point? The end result is still a grade. Students will still be judged and make comparisons between each other. Teachers will always be held to account for the progress students made from Year 7 to Year 10.

My other question was, while using these progress terms in KS3, can you have two students on different flight paths who are both working at a 'mastering' level? If so, this implies that 'mastering' means different things, at different levels of difficulty/challenge. I wonder if this distinction is made clear to students. Do they know which flight path they are on, or is it something only teachers know. Do parents know?  Will these two students view each other as 'equal', when in actual fact they are not?

I suppose this could be beneficial, in terms of creating a less competitive, high-stakes environment, but it builds a false sense of security. These two hypothetical students will then go to Year 10 and suddenly it will become very clear that they are working at very different levels. In my view, this could potentially have a huge negative effect on wellbeing and resilience. Imagine being the 'weaker' student, who spent three years thinking they were working at the same level as their friend, only to be told 'Actually, no. You're now a Grade 4, but your friend, who was also 'mastering' is actually a 7.'

Anyways, I found the workshop and interesting one, as it made me question (once again) the validity of using target grades. Personally, I wish we didn't have to share target grades with students. I find they are de-motivating in most cases, and often they aren't helpful. I find it better to provide students with comments, not grades, to help them improve specific aspects of their work. The only people who should look at grades are Ofsted, and frankly I wish they wouldn't either. Progress should not be measured against a grade, it should be measured on the growth of a student's ability and confidence. In my opinion, great teaching (excellent pedagogy, etc.) will always lead to good progress, irrespective of target grades.

The day ended with a coming-together of Conference attendees, with TRLs sat in a panel at the front of the room. At this point, general questions were asked of the TRLs and SUPER members, which I think was a nice way to tie everything together and ensure that people attending the Conference left with a clear idea of the work we do, how they could get involved themselves, and ways to ensure research is used within the wider education community.

Overall, a great success.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Long time no see!

Well, it saddens me to admit that it has been TWO YEARS since I last posted anything to this blog. I must admit, I am quite disappointed in myself! I had hoped that, once completing my MEd, I would continue to blog my experiences with research. Clearly, this didn't happen.

That isn't to say that I stopped engaging with research. If anything, I have maintained the exact same passion towards it! In 2017 I was appointed as joint Teacher Research Lead for my school, which then led to my taking on the role, on my own, at the start of the 2018 academic year. In all of this time, I have constantly been reading new research, texts and Tweets to do with educational research. My love of research, and my use of it to inform my daily practice, hasn't declined in the slightest!

What HAS declined, is my time to write these posts. However, I'm hoping to pick blogging up again. I really did enjoy it, and I have read SO many amazing research-based texts, I feel it's my duty to share my thoughts.

I will start back in next week, during/after the 2018 SUPER Conference. Watch this space!

Friday, 8 July 2016

Teaching Backwards

Well, it certainly has been awhile since I've written anything. I must admit, it's been a very busy year. I have not stopped engaging with research, but I feel like I have had a hard time budgeting my time in order to blog at the level that I originally did. It's a shame, really, as I very much enjoyed writing down my thoughts about teacher research.

I've spent time this year engaging with being a 'Pedagogy Leader' at my school. Basically, this required me to work closely with three research lesson study groups, helping them to create an appropriate research question (a first for my school), providing them with academic journal articles, and helping them to create and then analyse data. It was a really rewarding process, and one which I look forward to repeating again next year.

Perhaps I will be able to say more about the journey next year; I'll try to devote more time to this blog.

In the meantime, I've started to read some more texts about teaching. Namely, I've been reading Andy Griffith and Mark Burns' text 'Teaching Backwards'. I'm finding it a fascinating read; it supports a lot of things that I found in my own research. When I finish the book, I will write a blog post about my thoughts, so watch this space!

I don't have much to say today, but I just wanted to dip my toe back into the pond, so to speak. I am attending the York ResearchED tomorrow, and hope to post about some of the sessions that I attend.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Thoughts on 'How to Teach: Literacy ' by Phil Beadle

If you've never read one of the How to Teach books, I can't recommend them enough. They're wildly hilarious (if you, like me, enjoy a bit of crass humour every now and then) while also offering practical tips and advise on basic teaching skills. In a previous blog post I talk about How to Teach: Plenary, which has really helped me to improve the endings of me lessons. Case in point, I got my first 'Outstanding' observation this year, no thanks to the work I have done for my Masters, the research journey that I have been on, and reading of books like Beadle's How to Teach series.
This morning I finished reading the most recent book in the series, How to Teach: Literacy. As part of my PM targets this year, tied in to Research Lesson Study (RLS), I've been tasked with finding a way (or more likely 'ways') to improve the writing skills of KS3 students. In my quest for knowledge, I purchased a few books about Literacy, because I wanted to start at the heart (so to speak) of the issue. Beadle's text was the first one I ventured into.

Having already read one of Beadle's books, I was prepared for his witty, conversational style. Some teachers, particularly the uppity type, might find the tone, and some of his anecdotal examples, offensive. However, I would argue that this type of teacher wouldn't dream of picking up a book on literacy in the first place; they'd view themselves as above it. I image them to be the kind of 'grammar school' toff that Beadle mocks in the text itself. These are the types of teachers that aren't looking to improve their practice because they're so far up their ever consider themselves as a weakness in their students progress.

But I digress. I think anyone interested in improving the literacy of their students should pick up this book as a 'way in' to the topic. I definitely found it helpful, and have already implemented some of the ideas mentioned in the text, with clear results! I will outline some of the examples and ideas below, just so you get a flavour of what the book has to offer.

The first piece of advice that I took from the text was to set a word limit for students when producing writing. This can be done in any lesson, English or otherwise. Beadle explains his reasoning for this quite soundly, suggesting that in further education and work we are often set word limits (thoughts of my recent Thesis paper crops up), and I realised it wasn't something I did enough in lesson. Setting a word limit also allows students to access writing in manageable chunks, especially if you start out small. I decided to try it out with one of my Year 9 groups. They're a middle ability group, with reams of higher-level potential that I'm trying to tease out. However, they can sometimes be reluctant writers, mainly because (as Beadle suggests in his book) they haven't had much success with writing in the past.

It was our first lesson for a unit on The Machine Gunners. I usually start this unit by showing students various covers, getting them pick out clues about the novel's plot, characters, etc. Typically, I give the images out in pairs, using the 'think-pair-share' technique to do some class discussion. However, I decided to switch things up by distributing one of six different cover images to each student, asking them to first annotate the cover on their own. They then shared their ideas with a partner, justifying their choices and making any new additions. Finally, I gave them 5 minutes to write a 100 word summary of what they think the novel is about. I realise that 5 minutes seems like a long time to write 100 words, but trust me, it was just the right amount of time.

When I pitched the task, I instantly got moans and groans from the class.

'One hundred words?! Are we meant to count them!?' one particularly vocal lad shouted out. ' That's bullsh*t!'

Choosing to ignore the language issue, I relied by saying: 'Yes. I want it to be 100 words exactly. That's the challenge. Besides, you'll soon find that 100 words isn't actually that many!'

There were a few more moans, some looks of mild frustration, and then suddenly there was absolute silence. All of the students, and I mean ALL of them, were suddenly bent over their books, looking at their pictures and their annotations, trying to put their thoughts into 100 words. I could see students counting up words and writing numbers in the margin (a bit of numeracy too, you see). This is what we mockingly refer to as 'a thirst for knowledge' in my department, and it's viewed quite highly by observers.

The 'A-ha' moment came for a few students mid-way through the task. I could hear murmurs of '100 words isn't actually very many.' I tried to suppress a knowing smile. After the five minutes were up, I asked for a show of hands re: reaching 100 words exactly. A few hands went up, though certainly not the whole class. I gave these students a Pokemon sticker (never underestimate the power of a sticker, at any age), then distributed an extract from the opening chapter of the text.

'Right, now I want you to read this extract and then add another 50 words to your summary, expanding or revising on what you think the text is about.'

There were no more moans. In fact, I saw one lad smile and say '50 words, easy!' to his partner. After a much shorter 3 minutes, I asked for a show of hands re: reaching 50 words. Almost every hand went up. A few admitted to going over, but no one was below the word count. I gave out some more stickers.

Then we had our discussion. Comparing the outcome of this lesson to how I had previously done it, I realised that the students were making much more insightful comments and had engaged more fully with the task. Even though the outcome wasn't based on their writing, they were still making references to their thoughts, justifying their choices, and making specific references to things from the covers and in the extract. They were able to voice their opinions much better than when the task had been purely through discussion. It was a result! As the students left at the end of the lesson, I said a silent thank you to Beadle for gifting me with this ridiculously simple idea.

Some other ideas that he's given me include ways to adapt how I teach grammar, specifically the 'seven (maybe eight) different kinds of words': nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions and prepositions (with determiners as the 'maybe eight'). I'm not going to summarise all of his ideas for how to do that here (you should buy the book yourself), but I will share with you this screen shot of a starter task that I've adapted based on his suggestions about 'naked' nouns and verbs.

It seems a bit silly, and a clearly very funny, but it's these types of images and ideas that will stick in students' minds. I can imagine myself looking at a piece of work now and saying 'your nouns are naked' without students looking at me like I'm insane. It seems outrageously simple, so that's why I know it will work. I plan on making a display with the simple writing rules that Beadle suggests:

1. Two adjectives before each noun. Not always but often.
2. Second adjective to be sourced from somewhere else.     (read the book if this seems odd to you)
3. Don't choose the obvious noun. Try the fifth one you think of.
4. Same with verbs.
5. Affix an adverb to nigh on every verb. It doesn't even have to be a good one to work, but a good one's worth looking for. 

After reading the text, I firmly stand by these 5 rules and will be teaching them to every group I have. I'll also be using these ideas to create a writing frame, or place-mat with success criteria, that can be used in English and potentially across the school. That's the end goal for this literacy project I'm starting on, at any rate.

Anyways, I think that's all I will share from my reading of How to Teach: Literacy. If you find any of these ideas interesting, or want to learn more, then pick up a copy of the text! It's reasonably priced and easy to find.

Happy reading!

Beadle, Phil. How to Teach: Literacy. 2015. Independent Thinking Press. Wales

Monday, 7 September 2015

On the first day

After six and a half weeks off, today was the very first day back in the classroom for me. Friday I had a staff training day, so I hardly count that. Luckily, my school very cleverly invites only Year 7 students in on the first day, to make their transition to secondary a little less daunting.

As a Year 7 tutor, I was tasked with meeting my new form in the hall. I had met some of them previously on the Year 6 induction day way back in June, so I knew some faces to look out for. The same students who had keenly tried to impress me back then immediately waved at me as I entered the hall. It was an odd feeling, being warmly welcomed by eager faces, particularly after saying goodbye to my Year 11 form last year; I can't remember the last time one of their faces looked at me with anything other than extreme exhaustion.

As I stood beside them, listening to the opening remarks of the Head of Year, I found myself reminiscing about the time my previous form had been in Year 7. It made the time between then and now feel like nothing at all. I could literally feel a grey hair sprouting from the top of my head. Where had the time gone?! Was I really about to take another bunch of students through?

Luckily, the day progressed without incident. It usually does on the first day though, doesn't it? Everyone is still in shock about being back in school, staff and students alike. The fact that it was only Year 7 students milling about made it that much easier; at this stage, they're still scared and nervous. Lack of confidence means a lack of unwanted behaviour.

The only thing of note that I did today was implement a new technique, taken from reading Alison Cook-Sather's 2009 text. She suggests that teachers ask students 'What issues do you have with [subject]? What do you like? How do you learn?' on the first day of class. I did this with my year 7 group, collecting their books after lesson to have a read through their responses. What they wrote was interesting and informative. I'll record the brief list of items here:

1) Punctuation came up repeatedly as an issue, although I failed to see very many improper usages in their writing. Commas, semi-colons and hyphens were singled out specifically, so I will have to ensure that in our fortnightly SPaG (Spelling, punctuation and grammar) lesson I work on them.

2) A large majority of students suggested that group work enabled them to learn better. I must admit that this is an area that I have not read up on much. As such, I will make sure to track down some journal articles, texts, etc., in order to make sure that I'm using group work effectively.

3) Many students also expressed a desire for all instructions to be clear. This is something that I was made aware of while doing the literature review of my Thesis, so it's not news to me that students like instructions to be clear and linked to success criteria. It felt good to be able to tell the students that providing clear instructions is a 'strong point' of mine. I must be doing something right.

4) A few students also said that they didn't like it when the teacher talked 'on and on' and didn't give enough time for work to be done. While I know I can waffle on now and again (I am the Reflective Rambler, after all), I do tend to keep my talking in class to a minimum. I'll never forget being told, during my teacher training, to 'Do less, well' It's a phrase that's stuck, at least in terms of how I teach; blogging is a whole other kettle of fish.

5) Having enough time to work through tasks was another thing that repeatedly came up. This is an area which I've been working on over the past few years, and I think I've finally cracked it. I bought a digital cooking timer last year, and have found that it really helps me (and subsequently the students) budget and use time better.

6) The use of clear examples was also highlighted as something which helped students to learn. Again, this wasn't a surprise to me. I've build the use of examples of multiple levels of work into all of my schemes of work, so I feel quite confident that I can provide my students with this.

and finally, a few students made specific mention to how a 'clam and quiet' environment helped them to learn best. While this isn't always possible in a school environment, I certainly do strive to ensure that students are able to work in relative quietness. As for being calm, that's easy; calm is my middle name. Unless there's a spider around...

Anyways, that's the most 'research-based' work that I've managed to complete today. I really enjoyed the experience of reading what my students wrote, and will make sure to ask the same of my other classes. I think I will go through the list with the group as well, to let them know that I have considered what they said and will try to incorporate their wishes as best I can.

On another not, a member of SLT walked by and caught me with the books out, pen in hand, notepad at the ready and remarked that I had surely 'won the award for earliest marker of the year'. When I tried to protest, saying that it wasn't necessarily marking, he disagreed, pointing to my comments in their books and my notepad full of jottings.

'You are most definitely marking, but I understand what you're doing. I do something similar myself...'

All I could do was smile, laugh and remember that it's my aspirations for my students that drove me to mark on the first day of term, not anything or anybody else. That's all that matters, in the end, isn't it?