This much I know about…how for the first 25 years of my teaching career I didn’t really understand what I was doing

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of (nearly) 53, this much I know about how for the first 25 years of my teaching career I didn’t really understand what I was doing.

Enthusiasm and force of personality got me through, pretty successfully, the first quarter of a century of my teaching career. Over that time my students attained good enough examination results. I forged great relationships in the classroom (when it comes to teaching, that’s half the battle, for sure), but I didn’t really understand how my teaching impacted upon students’ learning, because I didn’t really know how children learn. I aped the best pedagogic practices of the teachers who had taught me and, devoid of good CPD, for 25 years I used trial and error to improve my teaching.

My teacher training course was gently ineffectual. I have written about how I learnt to teach here and none of my criticism of those who taught me how to teach is remotely personal. Ultimately, however, the training was irrelevant to my core work as a teacher.

Evidence supplements experience, it doesn’t supplant it. Since the summer of 2013, when I began working with educational researcher Dr Jonathan Sharples from the IEE and the EEF, I have been learning how to teach more effectively. I have been combining the evidence available about how children learn with my years of experience as a teacher and I am, today, as good a teacher as I have ever been. And I now work in a school where every teacher is learning how to teach better, in a deliberate, conscious way.

At Huntington we have stopped guessing about what works. Our budget is getting tighter and tighter; the 8% cut in school budgets through to 2022 has already begun to bite hard. Despite the politicians’ post-election protestations, I doubt the finances will improve. It is even more important, then, that every penny we have left to spend at our school impacts positively upon improving the quality of teaching and our student outcomes. As a Research School we focus relentlessly upon improving our teaching without having to guess if what we are doing works.

A school which has mature systems where evidence supplements experience. At the forthcoming researchED York conference I will be talking about how you can use research evidence to enhance teaching and learning through a systematic approach to support your teachers’ disciplined enquiry. And for any school leader, the added attraction is that what I propose costs absolutely NOTHING!

There are some great speakers at researchED York on 8 July – Professor Becky Francis and Professor Rob Coe to name but two. You can book a ticket by clicking on the icon below and scrolling to the bottom of the linked page:

Posted in Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 1 Comment

This much I know about…the speech Theresa May should have made yesterday

When Theresa May stood in front of 10 Downing Street yesterday, it was as if she had played no part whatsoever in calling the General Election.

This is the speech she should have made:

I have just been to see Her Majesty the Queen. We discussed the state of our country in the wake of the outcome of the General Election. We agreed that today the country appears more divided than ever – between young and old, between north and south, between rich and poor. I admitted that the General Election had only widened those divisions.

Calling the General Election was, in hindsight, a mistake. Eight weeks ago it felt the right thing to do. I had hoped it would strengthen my hand in Brussels as we try to establish the best Brexit deal for Britain. Having weighed up all the facts, on 18 April I made what I thought was the best decision possible. That is all a human being can do.

The last eight weeks have been, ultimately, an unnecessary distraction from preparing for the challenge of Brexit and for that I take full responsibility. I apologise to you, the British people.

And now I want to look forward, to re-establish some certainty in our country.

As a nation we face significant challenges. We have to do all we can to improve our economic prospects. We have to ensure that our public services, such as health and education, are properly resourced. We have to combat the growing terrorist threat. Most pressingly and most importantly, we have to negotiate Brexit.

We have a moral obligation to our future generations to do all we can to secure for them a safe and prosperous nation.

We need to re-unite our United Kingdom.

Through the democratic process, the British people have signalled, quite clearly, that they do not trust any single political party to lead our country in these uncertain times.

The will of the people must be observed. It is time for us to stop political gameplaying. In fact, it is time for all the political parties – Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, and our compatriots in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – to come together to work for the common good.

Over the next few days I will be meeting with the leaders of the main political parties to establish a cross-party commission to prepare for the Brexit negotiations. We will go beyond Westminster and ask our country’s best minds to help us.

I welcome Michel Barnier’s reassurance that ‘Brexit negotiations should start when the UK is ready’. We will accept the offer implicit in his words and postpone negotiations for a month so that our cross-party commission is thoroughly prepared to begin talks.

This will allow us to come together as a country and channel our energies towards a successful Brexit deal that works for everyone in this country – securing a new partnership with the EU which guarantees our long-term prosperity.

That’s what people voted for last June.

That’s what we will deliver.

Now let’s get to work. Together. A United Kingdom.

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This much I know about resources for teaching how to write a short story for the writing question on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 1

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about resources for teaching how to write a short story for the writing question on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 1.

These are very simple presentations; together they provide students with the basics for structuring their own short story if they get a short story only option on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 1, like this from the AQA guide to the specimen assessments:

The first is about the basic formal features of a short story:

The second uses the original Toy Story film as a model for the basic narrative structure of a short story:

 

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This much I know about…a step-by-step guide to the writing question on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 2

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about a step-by-step guide to the writing question on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 2.

In my previous post, I outlined a step-by-step guide to crafting answers to the AQA English GCSE Paper 1 writing task, question 5. In this post I outline a similar guide to writing an answer to the question 5 writing task in the AQA English GCSE Paper 2. It is designed for our students in the academic tier above our SEND students – the ones who have never quite engaged with their studies, the ones who rarely do any school work beyond the school day, the ones who find GCSEs a genuine struggle.

The step-by-step guide to question 5, the writing question, is an example of embedding in the students’ brains a metacognitive process for tackling the 40 mark writing tasks. It will not, necessarily, make them better writers; however, it does help them demonstrate their writing at its best when under pressure in the examination hall.

The one specimen English Language Paper 2 we have from AQA has the following exemplar question 5:

What I have emphasised relentlessly to my students is to guard against spouting wildly upon the subject they have been asked to write about. Homework, the subject of the exemplar question, is a provocative topic which students can easily ramble on about, with little structure to their response.

I stress repeatedly that this task is a test of their ability to write deliberately in a certain form, for a specific audience, for a defined purpose. They have to identify the Form, Audience and Purpose (FAP) of the piece of writing before they do anything else.

I explain that the FAP will alter the style of their writing. I demonstrate this using the proforma below:

They then practise writing their own sentences using this similar blank proforma:

The other thing I teach explicitly is Janus-faced sentences. One of the two original thoughts I’ve ever had is the concept of Janus-faced sentences. In order to signpost the thread of the argument which should run through the answer to Paper 2, question 5, I teach students to begin each paragraph with a sentence which looks back to the previous paragraph’s point and forward to the next point in the new paragraph.

Once I have taught these two deliberate features of writing to persuade, I model the step-by-step process to writing an answer to the Paper 2, question 5 task:

The mind mapping step is key. I spend a long time helping the students think beyond the first obvious thoughts through mind mapping topic after topic. As you can see from the following example questions, we have been doing a lot of thinking…

Even if the ideas the students have are a little thin, if they can express them deliberately in a style which suits their FAP, they can score highly.

I have seen good signs of deliberate writing. The following example demonstrates how one of our students has worked deliberately on beginning his paragraphs with Janus-faced sentences:

…and they will provide all the fun you will ever need.

All the fun will ensure that your memories will be looked back on and treasured. On average 95% of teenagers have loved their new experiences and at least 80% of them want to try multiple new ones! The memories are forever and if you have no good ones, then what is there worth remembering?

So, if you aren’t convinced by the lure of great memories, then consider going somewhere with your friends. No one can deny it – going on holiday with your friends is the best type of holiday. Imagine the possibilities, the locations you can visit with your best friends; how you will be able to do what you want and how exciting it will be. Please don’t waste your childhood, explore!

Although these holidays with friends can be great, they also have their setbacks…

The students now have a firmly embedded tool with which they can approach the 40 mark question with confidence. They can write deliberately, having understood how the Form, Audience and Purpose of a piece of writing dictate their style of writing.

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This much I know about…a step-by-step guide to the writing question on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 1

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about a step-by-step guide to the writing question on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 1.

Writing is a deliberate, pain-staking act. Many of our students do not, however, have a process for constructing a passage of extended writing which they can employ consciously. What I have devised for our students in the academic tier above our SEND students – the ones who have never quite engaged with their studies, the ones who rarely do any school work beyond the school day, the ones who find GCSEs a genuine struggle – is a step-by-step guide to crafting answers to the two 40 mark writing tasks in the AQA English Language GCSE papers.

In this post I will concentrate upon the AQA English GCSE Paper 1.The step-by-step guide to question 5, the writing question, is an example of embedding in the students’ brains a metacognitive process for tackling the 40 mark writing tasks. It will not, necessarily make them better writers; however, what it does is help them demonstrate their writing at its best when under pressure in the examination hall.

The one specimen English Language Paper 1 we have from AQA has the following exemplar question 5:

Now, I have advised my students to avoid the story question. Shaping a narrative is a difficult task. If students do not have a profound understanding of how narrative structures operate they can get themselves into a rambling mess of a response. We have focused solely upon the description question which uses the picture as a stimulus for the students’ writing.

We have designed a number of our own examples:

What follows is an explanation of exactly how I have trained my students to answer such a question…

To begin with the students underline the key word or phrase in the question.

The following three slides demonstrate how we have then trained the students to split the picture into quarters; they then bullet-point three observations from each quarter, ensuring that there is no repetition across the total of twelve bullet-points. Once they have their twelve bullet-points, they choose their best nine or ten and order them logically.

Each observation is then the focus of a short paragraph; collectively, the paragraphs will comprise the final answer. I have outlined a short set of rules for writing a single paragraph:

  • One observation from the picture per paragraph;
  • Three or four sentences per paragraph;
  • A maximum of twenty words per sentence;
  • Include the key word in each paragraph.

So, the full step-by-step guide to the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 1, Question 5 is as follows:

And here is Karl’s answer to the remote house question:

One o’clock

The sun shone down onto the bright mountains in the distance. Blue sky sat ontop of the towering mountains.  Birds whistled in the glazing heat as the sun shone warmth into the air.  The mountains looked down upon a remote house set in beautiful Scottish countryside.

The house sat in direct view of the sun as it speared light onto the face of it. The gable end cast a dark shadow down the side of the modern house.  Trees thrived in the sunlight as there bright green leavs glimmered in the midday light.

Trees hung over the boiling hot driveway as the sun melted the tarmack. flowerbeds surounded the house as the glistened in the sunlight.  There leaves let out a ray of beautiful colours.  The driveway led into a darkening woods.

French double doors let a sense of freedom into the house as the sun shone powerful rays of light through the doorway. A car sat on the driveway frieing in the midday heat.

Dark mountains sat in the distance as the clouds came in casting a black shadow covering the whole mountain range. Moorland sizzled with the sound of crickets clicking and birds whistling as sun cast a powerful view from the house.  Ivy intertwine up the side of the house as it cast a dark, menacing shadow through the window.

Velux windows popped open looking down on a river filled with life at the bottom of the garden. The river slowly ran through the scottish country side as the water sparkled in the sunlight.  fish swam in groups as theres fins let out a ray of sparkling lights.

Shards of sunlight speard through the light blue atmosphere as it illuminated the lucious green grass. Flowers sway in the sun as they lit up the front of the house.  Ivy curled up the columns of the porch as they cast a dark shadow into the house.

A BBQ sizzled on the driveway as sausages fried in the midday heat. Smoke rose as it spread a wonderful smell of summer round the garden.  Sunlight glazed down upon the baby trees as they cast a ray of beautiful shadows onto the lawn.

A pathway led to the river as the bottom of the garden as ducks swam with there duckling down the river into the Scottish sumer country-side.

I word processed Karl’s response verbatim so that we could work on improving it as a class; I wanted to focus on some basic spelling and punctuation errors. When I projected it onto the whiteboard and read it out, another student, Jack, said, Well, that’s OK and all that, Sir, but we can never be as good as you. When I denied authorship and told the group that the writer was one of them, they did not believe me for a second. I had to show them the hand-written original before they began to accept that the words belonged to Karl. Once they had overcome their huge sense of incredulity, it inspired them to work harder to become better writers.

They have nick-named Karl, Shakespeare.

The students now have a firmly embedded tool with which they can approach the 40 mark question with confidence. In my next post I will explain our step-by-step guide to answering the AQA English Language Paper 2, Question 5…it’s all about your FAP!

Posted in Teaching and Learning | 4 Comments

This much I know about… how, despite our best efforts, we are failing the students who need us most

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how, despite our best efforts, we are failing the students who need us most.

On 17 September 2012 Michael Gove addressed the Commons regarding the new GCSEs: “We expect that everyone who now sits a GCSE should sit this new qualification, but there will of course be some students who will find it difficult to sit the exams, ​just as there are some students who do not sit GCSEs at the moment. We will make special—indeed, enhanced—provision, for those students, with their schools being required to produce a detailed record of their achievement in each curriculum area.”

For the past three months I have been teaching two small groups of students who require additional support to access the new English and mathematics GCSEs. They are not quite the students Michael Gove had in mind when he said that some students “will find it difficult to sit the exams”; rather, they are the students in the academic tier above our SEND students, the ones who have never quite engaged with their studies, the ones who rarely do any school work beyond the school day, the ones who find GCSEs a genuine struggle.

I have been teaching these students a systematic approach to the 40 mark writing questions on the AQA English Language GCSE papers. The students find it difficult to summon up the ideas to write very much, but by giving them a simple structure for planning their writing, they have begun to extend their answers and produce respectable responses which should claim at least half of the 40 marks on offer.

I began a lesson a few weeks ago by asking Jordan to take us through the systematic approach to the writing question on the English Language GCSE paper 1. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “OK. You are in the exam room, you are on question 5, the writing question. Jordan, what’s the first thing you do?”

Jordan: “Don’t know. Can’t remember.” (Jordan grins at the other students sat around the table in my office.)

Me: “Jordan! I can’t believe you are smiling. You seem proud to have forgotten what I have taught you. I was at a private school conference yesterday. No one in a private school would be proud to have forgotten what they have been taught.”

Stephen: “But we don’t go to a private school, do we?”

(Names have been changed.)

At that point – and just for a split second – I descended into a paroxysm of despair. The students were oblivious to my anguish. A deep breath later and we went through, again, our systematic approach to the writing question…

We have a cohort of students going through our new GCSES in English and mathematics for whom the increased challenge was introduced mid-stream. Those students have not developed from early primary school the depth of vocabulary, the confident dexterity to manipulate number and the deliberate memory skills to meet this increased challenge. The single tiered English GCSEs have been particularly challenging.

Consequently, some of our students are voting with their feet. We have had to instigate a highly efficient system for ensuring all our students make it into school to take the examinations, which includes texting parents, a mini-bus and a team of staff who go early-morning knocking on the doors of our most reluctant Year 11s.

Predictably, the only student who has persistently failed to turn up to take his examinations, despite our daily visits to his house, is Jordan.

As Michael Gove suggested we might, we have made “special—indeed, enhanced—provision” for Jordan, but the “record of [his] achievement in each curriculum area” will be pretty thin. And that leaves me with an overwhelming sense of failure.

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership | 6 Comments

This much I know about how doing nothing much with your loved ones is the best thing

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how doing nothing much with your loved ones is the best thing.

We have spent an Easter week in the Highlands’ village of Plockton, with our dear friends the Davies family, for a dozen years now. When we first arrived, on 31 March 2005, it was a warm, temperate day and the boys looked over the harbour wall with fascinated delight. They proceeded to spend three hours getting soaked as they explored the teeming rock pools. In the photograph which captured that moment, our two are in the middle:

When we reached Plockton at the beginning of this Easter holiday, Louise and I were left to unpack as the view from our new cottage lured the boys down to the water’s edge again:

We adore our Plockton holiday. It is a chance to do nothing of any consequence. We can all just be. One morning Olly asked me to kick a football about in the modest primary school playground, which has a pair of small metal goalposts. For an hour we played crossbar challenge, from one end of the playground to the other, and chatted about nothing in particular. Thumping the ball made my dodgy knee ache. And it ruined my shoes. Yet for that hour, Happiness arrived, quite uninvited, and made the primary school playground its temporary residence.

Whilst the boys are growing inexorably into young adults, my brother and sister have been seeing to our mother’s affairs; they are selling her flat to help pay for her care home fees. A couple of weekends ago, whilst clearing out mother’s sideboard, my sister found this note I had written to mother, some thirty-three years ago, communicating, with some brevity, how dad and I had nipped off to play golf before it got dark:

Dad would have been up at 4.15 am that day for the morning shift at the Post Office. His afternoon shift would have finished at 5.00 pm. After tea I would have badgered him to go golfing. As the early spring evenings were beginning to lengthen we would have dashed off to the golf club to play holes 1-3, 15 and 18, making the most of the day’s last light. Having already been up thirteen odd hours and done a day’s work, it was probably the last thing he wanted to do. And he was, by that stage, feeling wearied by his yet-to-be-diagnosed cancer which would, within a year, cause his death. But play five holes he did, because his son had asked him to.

 

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