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?

Sunday, 6 September 2015

researchED 2015: Part 5

You'll be happy to know that this is my last post on my experiences at researchEd 2015. I thought it might be helpful if I blog a bit about my own presentation, just to provide people with a bit of clarity and perhaps provide people who didn't see the presentation with a summary of what I said. It also serves as a decent starting point if you're new to my blog and interested in reading some of my past blog posts, which were written during the completion of my Masters course.

To start, I think it helps to begin with a laugh.

I stumbled upon the programme 'Mr D' while on Christmas holiday in Canada (my home and native land, for those not in the know). Now in its fourth series, at the time it was 'a brand new comedy' about teaching. I watched it and could not stop laughing. The comedian, Gerry Dee, trained as a teacher before going into stand up, so the show is loosely based on 'real' teaching experiences, with an obvious comic edge. The clip above shows a rather hilarious view on marking, one which I would argue is held by many students. It's certainly how most students who were interviewed for my Masters project seem to think teachers mark.

Obviously, most teachers will (hopefully) recognise that good marking is nothing like that practiced by Mr D. It requires much more thought and consideration. The part where he writes comments like 'WHAT WERE YOU THINKING' and 'Too vague' made me laugh, but my research suggests there's an element of truth in there. Many teachers DO provide feedback like that; a few years ago, I might have been guilty of it myself. However, I'd argue that it's not necessarily the teacher's fault. How are teachers expected to know what good feedback looks like if they've never seen it themselves? I only learned how to improve my own feedback by reading the literature around what makes good and bad feedback, and through consultation with the students themselves.

This is where my own thesis comes in. Entitled 'How do Year 8 and Year 11 students perceive and make use of written feedback? A case study with student researchers', I sought to understand what students within my own school felt about the feedback they received.  My own interest in feedback came after a poor Ofsted performance a few years ago. They singled out feedback as being an area for improvement and I was able to admit that it was a weak spot in my own practice. I did some very informal data collection with my own teaching groups, and realised that their ideas were immensely helpful to improving my practice. When the opportunity arose for me to do my Master of Education at Cambridge, I jumped at the chance, recognising that it would allow me to take my informal interest further.

It wasn't until I attended the fourth Cambridge Student Voice Conference in 2014 that I realised the potential for engaging with students AS researchers. Prior to that I had always been keen to consider what the students had thought about feedback, but the seminar gave me the final piece to the puzzle. The rest of the seminar was about how I felt the students as researcher (SAR) side of the project went.

I started by briefly discussing some of the literature, as seen on the following slide.

Ultimately, it was the final, blue, box (above) that best summarises my opinion of engaging with SARs; the students I worked with were able to show incredible maturity, skill and sophistication throughout the process, with minimal effort on my part. They were an amazing team to work with, and I would wholeheartedly encourage anyone considering working alongside students to do it.


The slide above shows (rather small, apologies) the statements made by the SARs on their exit-survey. It was clear to me that the students had enjoyed being a part of the process as much as I had enjoyed their presence on the team. Many of them expressed a desire to attend university, something which they hadn't given thought to before. This is of particular importance given that all of the SARs were Pupil Premium. It's widely recognised that Pupil Premium students often lack the aspirations of non-Pupil Premium students, so this was extremely heartening to hear.

Most importantly, as stated on the slide, the data gathered by the SARs was given added value and depth because they were able to analyse the data with me. As such, not only was the data generated by students it was analysed by them as well!

I then went on to highlight some of the interesting things that the SARs picked out themselves; these topics were of course noted by myself when watching back the interviews and typing the transcripts, but it was the SARs who felt that they were of particular importance, which is why I highlight them here:

The SARs were really interested in exploring 'the Ofsted effect'. In their own terms, this referred to the idea that a lot of feedback going on in school was linked to our impending Ofsted inspection (we were, unfortunately in an inspection year), and was therefore (in their opinion) not for the benefit of the students but purely to 'look good' for Ofsted. I won't go into too much detail here, but I certainly think there's more to be explored here.

Another area they found interesting was the idea of 'teacher effort' (below). I included Mr D on this slide because this is where I feel students perceptions of marking match to Mr D's version of events. It's unfortunate that students feel some teachers mark this way, or that teachers only mark for surface value, but I think it highlights an interesting area for further exploration.

Clearly a lot of work needs to be done to ensure that there are less teachers marking like Mr D and more teachers marking in ways that inform proper engagement, reflection and work with feedback, but it won't be an easy fix.

I ended the session with some tips for anyone looking to engage students in the research process (below).

I also provided people with the list of references found below. There are also various links in some of my previous blog posts, which are available here and here.


Atweh, B., & Burton, L. (1995). Students as Researchers: rationale and critique. British Educational Research Journal, 21(5), 561–575.
Bland, D., & Atweh, B. (2007). Students as researchers: engaging students’ voices in PAR.Educational Action Research, 15(3), 337–349.
Bucknall, Sue. (2012) Children as researchers in primary schools: choice, voice and participation: London: Routledge.
Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P., (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a    guide for faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fielding, M., & Bragg, S. (2003). Students as researchers: making a difference. Cambridge: Pearson Publishing.
Jenkins A and Healey M (2009) Developing the student as a researcher through the curriculum, in C. Rust (Ed)          Improving Student Learning through the Curriculum. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, 6-19
Leitch, R., Gardner, J., Mitchell, S., Lundy, L., Odena, O., Galanouli, D., & Clough, P. (2007). Consulting       pupils in Assessment for Learning classrooms: the twists and turns of working with students as co               researchers. Educational Action Research, 15(3), 459–478.
Nash, J., & Roberts, A. (2009). Supporting students as researchers: making a difference to your school : a    handbook for teachers. Cambridge: Leadership for Learning : the Cambridge Network.
Steinberg, S. R., & Kincheloe, J. L. (1998). Students as researchers: creating classrooms that matter (Vol. 15).              London: Falmer.
Thomson, P., & Gunter, H. (2007). The Methodology of Students-as-Researchers: Valuing and us-ing           experience and expertise to develop methods. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education,       28(3), 327–342.