Back to School

It’s now two days until school starts again so half of me is extremely excited about getting back to work and half of me is anxious about the craziness that is about to ensue! The holiday has been absolutely wonderful (a trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar being the highlight) but when the weather is rubbish and you’re at home on your own all day, the prospect of human interaction again becomes very appealing!

This summer was my first experience of a GCSE results day when I’d taught a Year 11 class. I now know what it must be like for parents awaiting their children’s results: petrifying! When I realised that I was still going to be in Africa on results day, I was secretly relieved as it meant I wouldn’t have to see the children’s disappointed faces when they hadn’t got the grades they wanted. Instead, I asked the Vice Principal (who’s also an English teacher) to text me. Thankfully my actual nightmare that they all got Ds didn’t come true and the results were as good as I could have hoped for.

This time last year I’d just found out that I was going to take a bottom set Y11 Literature class. Due to timetabling issues, their Language teacher couldn’t take them for Literature as well, so it was down to me. I was apprehensive about this task. Taking on a class at the start of Y11 is renowned for being difficult (usually teachers take their students all the way from Y10 to the end of their GCSE course). Adding to my apprehension was the fact I’d never taught the course before and to top it off, I knew there were some extremely tricky characters in 11D. Nevertheless, something I’ve learnt from working at my school is the importance of rising to challenges – you can surprise yourself by what you can achieve.

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Despite fretting for most of the year that my students were going to fail, their results were brilliant. Out of a bottom set of fifteen students, nine passed with C grades and one achieved a B grade. Two students’ results stood out to me in particular. One girl, who was not expected to pass any of her subjects, scraped a C. In fact, Literature and Art were the only subjects she did pass. She is now my hero. Another girl I was over the moon for was a student who had spent her whole time answering Section B on paper 2 and left no time for Section A. As both sections are weighted equally, I thought her chance of a C was gone but having now seen a breakdown of their scores, it turns out her answer for Section B was A* quality…she obviously knew what she was doing all along!

a level results celebrations

She wasn’t the only one to write an A* response to Section B either, which I think shows just how important it is to believe in the potential of every child, even if they’re in the bottom set. In fact in most schools, bottom set students are written off (they’re not targeted to get Cs so not as much attention is given to them). At Charter it’s different. Most bottom set students are targeted to pass, which may account for our exceptional results (81% of students get 5 GCSEs at A*-C compared to a national average of 68%). I’m also chuffed to say that all three boys in that class who are in care passed with C grades, even if at certain points of the year they made me want to tear my hair out!

Looking forward, I’ve got lots to be excited about. As well as a bottom set Y7 class and a second set Y8 class, for the first time ever, I’ve been given a top set. What’s more, they’re all girls. I’m hoping it’s going to be a delight. I’ve got so much experience of teaching low ability groups that I think it’s going to be refreshing to work with high ability students. As it’s a Y10 class, I’ll have to get my head around the brand new GCSE specification as well.

I’ve also got another bottom set Y11 class but I’ll be taking them for Language as well as Literature so double the pressure! I’ve taught most of them since they were in Y9 so I know them very well. Unfortunately, most of them flunked their mock exam at the end of Y10, which left me in despair, however in light of the recent results, my faith in my ability to get bottom set students through has been restored.

On top of my teaching and tutoring responsibilities, I’m taking on some wider-school ones too. I’m going to be a mentor for an English NQT, which will mean doing a weekly observation of her teaching and then meeting to discuss the observation, but also anything else she needs support with. I always found my mentor meetings extremely helpful so I hope I can give the same support I received. It will be weird being the one observing rather than the one being observed!

I’ve also now got the unusual job title of Staff Social Event and Well-being Lead. As part of the academy’s effort to reduce staff turn-over, especially amongst newer members of staff, we want to start enhancing the social side of school life. It will be my job to make sure new members of staff are properly introduced and inducted into the city as well as organising social events for the whole staff. I’ll also be responsible for creating a strategy for improving staff well-being because, as in any business/organisation, the happier the staff, the better the results.

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It’s fair to say it’s going to be a jam packed year juggling Y11, the new GCSE spec and the new responsibilities, not to mention my other classes and tutor group. I definitely won’t get bored.

Finally, I recently found this incredible TED Talk. Entitled ‘How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard’, it is by a principal of a school in Philadelphia once labelled ‘low-performing and persistently dangerous’. It had so many echoes of the journey that Charter has been on that I was completely gripped. One message from Linda Cliatt-Wayman that stood out to me was that if we are serious about addressing poverty, we MUST have good schools in our poorest neighbourhoods. I’m sure remembering that will make getting out of bed at 6am in the depths of winter that little bit easier!

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The Knowledge v Skills Debate

Hello and happy half term. This month’s blog post is going to be based around the knowledge v skills debate in education. In a nut shell it is as follows: a greater emphasis on building students’ body of knowledge verses a greater emphasis on equipping students with transferable skills. Those in the knowledge camp believe that the teaching of facts has been denigrated and consequently led to detrimental gaps in students’ knowledge. Those in the skills camp believe that it is much more worthwhile to focus on the teaching of transferable skills; the ability to analyse, evaluate and synthesise being the holy grail. In this blog post I am going to explain my position on this subject, using anecdotal evidence from my own teaching as well as sources including Daisy Christodoulou‘s ‘Seven Myths of Education’, Daniel Willingham‘s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ and Joe Kirby‘s ‘Pragmatic Education‘ blog.

I became an English teacher around 18 months ago having changed from a career in the media. Many things surprised me when I moved into this world, one of them being the style in which I was expected to teach. Gone were the days of text books (that’s a different, though related, debate), teacher-led instruction and repetitive practice. In it’s place were the creation of lots of powerpoints, student-led learning and self and peer assessment. For example, the first unit I taught my year 8 class was ‘Private Peaceful’. I had assumed that the study of a novel would involve a significant portion of time ensuring they had a solid knowledge of World War 1 and the societal mores of the time, so that they could understand the plot and characters on a deeper level. But at Key Stage 3 English isn’t divided into language and literature, it’s all in one, so rather than this unit being purely literary, it was also designed to improve students’ literacy: their reading and writing skills. So during a writing week, for example, parts of the text would be read but the main focus would be on teaching them how to use certain pieces of punctuation, certain sentence structures and the conventions of descriptive writing in order for them to achieve their target levels in their writing assessment. With no text books, this meant designing activities, with a Private Peaceful theme, from scratch or using the slides in the scheme of work if they fitted your class’ ability. In a way it felt like they could have been studying any novel, the content wasn’t particularly important, what was important was whether they improved their writing/reading skills and levels. Interestingly, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham argues that “teaching content is teaching reading.” In this video, he shows and explains how once a child has learnt to decode, they can decode anything. However, that doesn’t always mean they always understand what they’re reading – that comes from making sure they have a background knowledge to what they’re reading and by activating their prior knowledge. Willingham claims that teaching other subjects such as science, history, music etc is also teaching reading because the knowledge students gain will enhance their comprehension skills.

Private_Peaceful

The reason for this approach to the teaching of English is, in my opinion, to do with the pervasion of the idea that we must teach our children transferable skills. The idea of acquiring facts through rote learning and repetitive practice went out of fashion. In it’s place came the idea that children must discover new learning and the teacher should be playing a facilitating role in that learning, ie not doing too much instruction from the front. Indeed, Daisy Christodoulou’s research into Ofsted lesson reports (she studied 228) for her book ‘Seven Myths About Education’ found that of the lessons that are praised, very few involve the teacher teaching facts. In the lessons that are criticised, they are so for the teacher talking too much, imparting facts or students doing activities that involve factual recall. As Daisy states in her book: “I remember one teacher trainer telling me that if I was talking, the pupils were not learning.” Is it any wonder then that teaching has become massively focussed on children discovering new skills if that is what Ofsted are seeking?

Conversely, just because that’s what Ofsted seem to be looking for, despite Sir Michael Wilshaw stating the contrary, it doesn’t necessarily mean that is what is best for students’ learning. This might sound counter-intuitive – how can the opposite of what Ofsted is looking for be best for the students? Well, that depends on how you believe children learn.

A useful analogy I find is to compare learning to write proficiently to learning to play tennis to a decent standard. No one can just pick up a racket and play tennis well; it takes time and practice. In fact, in order to be able to hit a good forehand every time you step onto the court, you have to hit hundreds and hundreds of forehands over and over again. It is only when your arm muscles develop an automatic memory of how to hit a forehand that you can do it without thinking. When Andy Murray is playing on Centre Court he is not thinking about how to hit a forehand, he’s using his brain to think about tactics. This links to the idea behind our memory, which is divided between long-term and working. Our working memory is easily overloaded, this is where we’re processing new knowledge. Overloading the working memory is fatal, we can only learn a finite amount of new things at once, a maximum of around seven. The long-term memory, however, is infinite and can be relied upon. This is where we keep our times tables, our knowledge of what a verb is, what an adjective is, key historical dates, capital cities, symbols of the periodic table etc. Just like Andy Murray needs to be able to serve well under pressure, we want our students to write well under pressure (in exams). It’s no good if under the stress of an exam, they forget all their capital letters. The way to do this is to make a change in their long-term memory so that using punctuation correctly becomes second-nature – then students can devote their working memory to the actual content of their answers, just like Murray devotes his brain power to his tactics rather than his technique. In Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ he claims that “nothing has been learnt if nothing has been changed in long-term memory.”

Andy Murray of Britain hits a forehand r

From my own experience, I have found it extremely frustrating that no matter how many times I give certain students feedback about their missing punctuation, or give them unpunctuated pieces of writing to punctuate or go over the rules of when to use a full stop, comma etc they still can’t use them in their own writing. Of course this isn’t every student, but it’s enough for it to be a concern, especially when they’re age 14+. How is it that this basic and fundamental aspect of English has not been mastered? How can they hope to produce a cogent piece of writing without the mastery of the full stop? It’s not just low ability students either. I did a placement during my training year at a very expensive boarding school and found myself inserting commas into an A* student’s essay when looking over it.

It is my belief that favouring skills over knowledge has been detrimental to the progress of students. What is the point of being able to write persuasively if you can’t use capitals correctly? I agree that using skills of analysis and evaluation is more advanced than factual recall, but surely certain facts need to be memorised and certain tasks drilled, in order to be able to access these higher-order skills effectively. You can’t analyse the character of Bill Sikes before understanding the society and world he lived in. You can’t write a soaring piece of rhetoric before being able to construct grammatically correct sentences. Moreover, you can’t master the fundamentals of the English language without constant repetition and practice, the type of thing Ofsted frown upon in the classroom.

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You may be thinking so far so good, but how do you teach students to commit facts to memory without making the lessons boring? How do you make learning fun? Are you expecting sixth formers to learn by rote? In response to this, I think that practice and repetition is necessary for the novice. The student who hasn’t grasped what comprises a sentence. The student who can’t do their 8 times table. The student who can’t read without stumbling on every other word. Unfortunately, this can be the case for students as old as 15. Learning facts doesn’t have to be boring either: it’s a teacher’s job to bring their subject to life and there are tonnes of fun things you can do with technology and props to make even the dullest content interesting. Now at sixth form, you wouldn’t be there unless you had a certain level of mastery. However, that’s not to say facts should be neglected. In the introduction to Daisy’s book, she cites the example of a history professor who asked his first-year history undergraduates five fairly basic questions about British history: 89% of them could not name a nineteenth-century British prime minister while 70% of them did not know where the Boer Wars took place. As Daisy puts it, “If that is what Russell Group undergraduates do not know, then what can we assume that the 40% of school-leavers who fail to get five A*-Cs at GCSE do know?”

As part of Daisy’s role at Ark as Head of Research and Development, she has been instrumental in designing a new mastery English curriculum for year 7 that is knowledge-led. I am an English teacher at one of the pilot schools so have been lucky enough to teach this curriculum. The course is split into 6 hours of English teaching: 3 hours of literature, 2 hours of grammar and one hour of reading for pleasure. The literature is challenging (we did Oliver Twist in the first term and are now studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and there is a big focus on context before moving onto skills such as textual analysis. The grammar units mean that grammar is taught explicitly and the lessons are teacher led. Students complete activities that involve rigorous practice as well as repetition to ensure they are mastering how to use the English language, and they get immediate feedback in class. The reading for pleasure lesson takes place in our library and aims to instil a love of reading in children so they don’t just associate reading with exams and assessments, but something they can get life-long enjoyment from.

So far I have found this new curriculum to be outstanding. The amount of time devoted to context in the literature lessons means the students are able to have a much fuller understanding of Dickens’ and Shakespeare’s writing. The explicit teaching of grammar means students are cementing their knowledge of how the English language works. The reading for pleasure lesson means we’ve been able to read childhood favourites of mine such as ‘Northern Lights’ and ‘The Hobbit’, two novels that definitely shaped my imagination as a child. By focussing on mastery at Key Stage 3, I hope that by Key Stage 4 the students will be in a position to write accurately under pressure, understand how context influences literature and possess a real love of reading. And that’s a minimum expectation. Using this foundation of knowledge and facts, I want the high ability students to be able to write thought-provoking and perceptive literary criticism essays, compose beautiful prose and get top grades.

I would like to end with a note on cultural capital. Children who come to my school are some of the most deprived in the country – that is no exaggeration. However, it’s not just financial deprivation that they face but cultural as well. Many students have grown up in houses without books, where knowledge and learning isn’t necessarily valued. This can result in some scary situations: students not knowing that Portsmouth is in Hampshire, students not knowing the capital of England, students not knowing the points on a compass, students not being able to tell the time. They are the extreme cases and tend to come from low ability students. However, if I think about our gifted and talented students, I wonder how many of them have seen a play on stage, how many have been to the West End, how many have been to art galleries, how many have seen breath-taking architecture? If we really want to bridge the gap between privileged and underprivileged students, we need to empower them with cultural capital as well as good grades. You can be sure that their middle class contemporaries are benefiting from exposure to such experiences, and it’s not just about impressing an admissions tutor with your knowledge of post-modernist theatre either. In a recent lecture on cultural literacy, Dr Catherine Alexander, former fellow of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, talked about the importance of “knowing stuff” when reading Shakespeare. She said that we need to know the dates in which he was writing; we need to know about Queen Elizabeth I and King James I; we need to understand the role of an actor; we need to know the names of his plays and how theatres worked; we need to know that his company had 12-14 actors; we need to know that young men played women’s roles; we need to know about iambic pentameter; we need to know what a sonnet is. In essence, to be culturally literate, we need knowledge.

Please leave any comments you may have about the knowledge v skills debate, I’d love to hear your opinions.

Work/Life Balance

My blog post this week is going to be fairly short as I was on a very tight deadline with one of my university assignments over the weekend. On Monday I had to submit 4000 words – eek!

I will, however, take this opportunity to explain a little bit about what it’s like to balance the academic side of my qualification with the practical side.

In order to be awarded my PGCE in July, there are several things I need to do. Firstly, I need to prove I’ve met the ‘Teacher’s Standards’. There are eight standards in total and I need to submit evidence that I’ve adhered to them sufficiently. This might include examples of my marking, or lesson plans that show I’ve implemented differentiation.

On top of this I need to complete three 4000 word essays during the year. My first assignment was a ‘Professional Studies’ essay, which I chose to base on behaviour and the effectiveness of detentions as a sanction.

The assignment that was due on Monday was a case study on an element of my school’s Improvement Plan. The area I focussed on was assessment and how regularly it should be used to improve student outcomes.

While it is difficult to find time to complete these assignments to the standard I would ideally like, it is a great way to get new teachers to reflect on their practice and also critically engage with the systems in place at school. Through the reading I’ve done for the literature review sections of the assignments, I’ve definitely strengthened my professional knowledge.

During term time, it’s almost impossible to get much substantial essay writing done. Your time is consumed with school: planning lessons, marking books, preparing assemblies, organising trips, attending meetings, doing admin and running detentions! Instead, I’ve tended to use the holidays to make serious inroads into my university work, so that busts the myth that teachers’ holidays are overly long – we still work during them! It’s not to say the holidays aren’t great, they are, but they’re needed; I honestly think teachers would burn out without them.

Which brings me onto working hours. I think it’s fair to say that if you want to be an effective teacher, you’ve got to be prepared to put in the hours. I had no idea how long the hours would be before I started. I think I had the notion that I’d be leaving at 4pm every day. Not so! I get to school at 7.45am and usually leave at some point between 6 and 7pm. The reason I leave so late is because I like to get all of my marking done at school so that I don’t have to bring it home, then when I’m home for the evening, I’m done (apart from the odd sneaky email).

I have had to accept that, during term time, I’ll only have a one day weekend, so I’ll either spend all of Saturday or all of Sunday planning the week ahead’s lessons. I have tried planning the night before during the week, but found my brain didn’t work well enough in the evenings to plan engaging lessons. I’d much rather plan them at the weekend when I’m fresh.

Last weekend was tough as I had all of this week’s lessons to plan as well as my assignment to complete. However, it’s only a few days until Easter when I’ll get two whole weeks off, one of which will be spent on a beach! I don’t plan to take a single exercise book with me.

Even though the hours are long, it is worth it. There is a quote by the American writer Nicholas Sparks that reads: “Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy. Remember that.” I think this directly relates to teaching: it is a challenging job but the rewards are immeasurable. You’re investing in young people and their futures.

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela.