Kindness and understanding.

This Caroline Flack news has really made me think about how we treat people as a society, but women in particular. I wasn’t a fan, she was just someone that hung around in the periphery of my world understanding, but the news did affect me.

About the same time that the news broke about her relationship with Harry Styles, I was living with my then partner who was 10 years younger than me. Most of my partners have been younger, for no other reason than that is just who I have fallen in love with. Before the Flack/Styles news no one had been that bothered, I’d always had the odd comment; nothing major, but I remember getting a few more digs then normal around that time. But nothing compared to what I read that she was dealing with, people shouting ‘Paedo’ at her in the street and the media stoking the fire of general disgust and horror. Even supposed intelligent people who understood the double standards between it being ok for a man to date younger than him, but disgusting for a woman, revelled in the ‘cougar’ moniker. Just think about that…’cougar’ has connotations of danger, pouncing on you against your will and hurting. I wouldn’t hurt a fly, but I do date younger men. So what?

We teach young people who are bombarded with media images all the time, they scroll through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook etc and see things which aren’t always true but presented as either true or normal. It’s become increasingly difficult for them to navigate truth and fake.

One of the scariest things for me is how for the younger generation, there has become a focus on just two ends of the scale, perfection or imperfection. They see perfection held up as the norm that should be aspired to, and often those who are flawed or imperfect are vilified. There is rarely a middle ground where people are allowed to make mistakes. This isn’t the fault of our young people, it is how society and media has made them feel that they should be thinking. Listen to how young people speak about celebrity, it’s always interesting. But what is also interesting, is that it they are very aware that there should be a middle ground between perfection and imperfection, they shouldn’t have to aspire to be perfect to be successful, because young people aren’t stupid.

I’ve watched my own children, who are now in their 20s, navigate this ‘perfection based’ society; my daughter has found it harder than my son. For a young girl there are mixed messages about having to be both sexy, but demure, confident but humble and that showing flaws is failure. But our flaws are what make us who we are, people don’t love us for being perfect, they love us flaws and all.

But we all get swept up in this idea of ‘perfection’. My daughter on a few occasions has said, ‘how can you expect me to love myself despite my imperfections, when you don’t’. And sometimes I don’t, I see my failures more than my successes…but I’m learning. I’m learning that my successes outnumber my failures, quite significantly.

I went to see the author Matt Haig talk recently, and he discussed an experiment where a group of young people had photos taken by the photographer Rankin. They were then asked to make them ‘social media’ ready. Some of the teens photoshopped themselves almost beyond all recognition. It is an interesting experiment to discuss with young people and ask if it is ok to always expect perfection.

https://www.insider.com/selfie-harm-photo-series-rankin-asks-teens-to-edit-photos-until-social-media-ready-2019-2

Caroline Flack wasn’t perfect, I’m sure there were truths in the court case, whether or not it should have been taken to court is another matter. However, no one deserves to be vilified for making a mistake. As a society we need to stop and think and realise that sometimes the things that we do that are less than perfect might be because we need help. We need someone to listen. Telling us that we are bad for doing them just adds to the sense of failure. Making judgements about each other without listening is dangerous.

But let’s also think about how we treat women in society. You know, it’s ok to have partners that are younger than us, it’s ok to not settle down and want marriage and kids, it’s ok to go to the shops without make-up on. Caroline Flack needs to be remembered for two things, obviously the horrific effect that vilifying someone in the media can have…and yes we contribute to that because we read it. We forget that they are real people. But secondly, she built herself a pretty good career, she was clever and savvy and worked to create the career that she wanted. And that’s more than ok.

I texted my daughter yesterday who was at work, her reply made me proud. Her reply made me realise that the best thing we can do for young people is to allow them to think about their reactions, to teach them that we can always be the better person, that we can change, we can do better for each other.

The quote at the top is one that Caroline Flack herself shared on her Instagram recently. I’ve shared it a lot too and I have it on a T-shirt. Because despite the ‘corny’ image of quote sharing, some, like that one, matter. There have been times where one person, doing one kind thing has mattered to me more than anything. Kindness has made me do things that I never thought I could do, kindness has made me wake with a smile, kindness has allowed me to be me, flaws and all. We need more kindness in society, we need to be more understanding and accepting. Maybe that’s one thing we can all pledge.

I do think things are changing. I recently travelled by train to Manchester and had to change at Leeds. When I got to Leeds the station was packed, no trains were leaving towards Manchester as there had been a suicide. Train station employees were shouting across the concourse that there would be a two hour wait for trains. What I found most interesting though was that no one complained, people just stood and waited for news. There were conversations going on about how awful life must have been for the victim, how much people felt for their family, and the train driver, how people wished they could have got the help they needed. It warmed my heart.

We can’t like The Sun attempt to delete everything unkind we have ever said, but we can show that it is better to never say it in the first place, to not give it air time, to just treat people with the kindness that we want to be treated with ourselves…small things can make a big change.

Disadvantage – High Expectations and Strategies

 

This is a blog about ways to attempt to tackle the disadvantage gap. I’m not going to bang on about  statistics and cite published research, I’m going to offer some practical ideas that I have used and borrowed from others, and have worked within a classroom setting in the hope that they might help others. So, if that’s not your thing, that’s ok.

When you look at media coverage of education during lockdown, two phrases pop up time and time again – ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘catch-up’. For those of us in education this is nothing new; we are constantly aware that there is a gap that needs to be filled, we spend hours considering what we, as educators, can do to try and close that gap. It sometimes seems like an impossible, un-ending task. And for those of us working in areas of high disadvantage lockdown has been particularly frustrating. There were nights at the start of lockdown I spent wondering how the hell I could reach out and actually teach anything valuable to students not accessing anything. But, like most of us this was replaced with a sense of resignation that I could only do as much as I could, and provide what I could. But we try, as we will try in September when we go back into the classroom, albeit in a new, stranger way.

A bit of personal background. I had a lovely middle-class upbringing. But my dad was a headteacher in one of the poorest areas of not only our city, but the country,  who also worked with the Child Poverty Action Group. Mum was a SENCO also working with students facing disadvantage. After I finished my GCSEs I helped out at dad’s school and between that and the experiences I heard from my parents,  my eyes were opened to the fact that things weren’t the same for everyone.

I spent a lot of my adult life as a single parent, and at times things were tough and I needed help, but I was still lucky that I had support to make sure that I never fell too far. But I was still aware that there was some stigma, and some assumptions placed on my children, as children of a single mother, that there were somehow at a disadvantage.

I have recently moved schools, and across the country, but at the beginning of lockdown, I was working in a school in Peterborough, and had done for nearly 17 years. Peterborough is one of those places that people don’t know (moving up North has made me realise just how many people have never heard of it) but it does have a couple of dubious honours, it is in the ‘top 10’ areas for child poverty in the country and in 2018 it was the very bottom LEA in the SATs table, in 2019 moving to second from the bottom.

poverty

Sats 1

Sats2

The school I worked in had high levels of Pupil Premium students – in our last year 11 cohort, 50% of the 330 students were Pupil Premium. It also had high numbers (well over 50%) of students with English as an Additional Language and I remember being in a meeting where it was announced that there were over 80 languages spoken in the school. So, a school in a city facing significant difficulties, but with a wonderfully diverse cohort.

Year on year, like those working with similar cohorts, we did whatever we could to try and close that gap and to make sure that all our students had the same experience and opportunities. Earlier this year I presented to the local English department heads on some ideas and strategies that we had trialled and used within our department to try and close the gap – what follows are some of what was included. This is by no means a ‘must-do’ list; we all have different cohorts and different priorities. It is simply some of the strategies and ideas that we used, some of which definitely worked, others appeared to be making a difference and I think are worth sharing.

All students work included has been done so with permission from the students themselves.

 

Consistently High Expectations and Positive Relationships

How many of us have described a class as. ‘the bottom set’ and said, ‘they won’t be able to do that’? We have to be honest with ourselves and think about  our own expectations – I’ve done it in the past, I hold my hands up. In fact, I don’t think I trust anyone who says that they have. Sometimes it is rooted in our experiences, and thus is hard to shake. So here’s my experience. I picked up a class in year 9. They were difficult, and when I say difficult I mean their behaviour was hard to manage, they had no interest in learning anything and every lesson felt like hell. I was an experienced and competent teacher but I would go home and cry and dread every lesson. But I would keep them until year 11, that was the way it went, and I, and them needed it to be the best experience it could be. As a class where there were nearly all PP students, I needed to do what I could to make it a positive experience.

These were students who believed they had been the bottom since way before they had met me, most since well into Primary. One of them actually used to mention their low SATs results continuously. There needed to be a mindset change and it needed to come from me. The first lesson of year 10 was me welcoming them and telling them that I didn’t care what had happened in the past, they were not leaving me without decent GCSE grades and that now on, we were in competition with top set and we were going to do better than them. I could lie and say they believed me straight away, but they didn’t. They pushed against me for weeks and months, but I stood my ground which was hard. Sometimes I wanted to just give in to their relentless telling me there was no point and they couldn’t do it, but I stayed firm with the help of some brilliant TAs, who went along with me. It was the little things I held onto. They were used to just arriving in their coats, sitting in their coats in a lesson and people letting it slip rather than causing confrontation. I just simply said, ‘top set aren’t sitting in their coats’ and would wait until all their coats were off until I started the lesson. It was constant praise, constant positivity and giving them really hard work. Really, really hard work, because in my head I wasn’t going to allow there to be a ceiling placed on these kids. I had consciously placed the fact that there were students with 1 and 2 targets to one side – and they never actually knew what their targets were.

And then some amazing things happened. I loved going to their lessons. Some of them would come and walk to the lesson with me after my PPA. They would actively seek out more work, they would have discussions about texts – one of the most interesting comments I have ever had about Paris and Capulet was from that class, and they wanted to do really well. In year 11 I sat and watched them proudly as they explained to year 7 what they had been learning. My heart swelled as they completed pages and pages of work in mocks, and I smiled as they insisted they needed to go and show the Head of Department what they had been learning (who brilliantly used to pop in and tell them how proud he was of them.) And then this happened, and I knew it had really all been worth it.

coat

I have left the school at the end of their school career absolutely loving that class and being so very proud of them. I can’t tell you what results they have achieved, I know what I think they have and I will be travelling back for results day to see them get those results. But the point is this – we have to really honestly think about our own expectations, and that sometimes requires hard work, but it is ultimately rewarding.

The school I was at switched to mixed ability in an attempt to encourage changes to mindset. We also mixed GCSE classes so that they were a much wider banding of students, meaning there was no top or bottom set. Some schools use names or mix the numbers up, but ultimately, none of this matters unless we make sure that as educators we don’t allow either ourselves or others to place ceilings on a student’s learning. Interestingly, there will still be those that think they have a ‘weak’ class, even when classes are carefully mixed.

Students arrive with us already ingrained with assumptions about themselves, much of which may have come from a level of disadvantage. Talking to other teachers, this can perhaps be more pronounced for students in schools where there isn’t a high level of disadvantage. Students may ‘stand out’ more and really know they are at a disadvantage. In a  school where at least 50% of your class are PP, you perhaps are less likely to treat a student differently, because you just can’t.

The wonderful Jennifer Webb, who I encourage you to listen to talk on the topic puts all this in a far more eloquent way than I.

Jen1

Cultural poverty

Students from a disadvantaged background will be missing life experiences that their more privileged peers may have. We know this. Many children in Peterborough have never seen the sea, or much of the countryside, or hills. Every time I have taken students on a theatre trip, it is most of the students’ first experience of the theatre. When I went for my interview in Rochdale, the students who showed me round the school found the fact that I had stayed in Manchester (just up the road) the night before incredibly exciting, but proudly showed me the hills they could see from their windows. As schools we are very good at understanding what cultural capital our students have, we just need to unpick what they are missing and try and fill gaps where we can.

Jennifer Webb again:

Jencultural

It has never failed to amaze me what cultural information students might be missing. Google has been my friend many times when students suddenly admit they don’t know what something is. Below are a selection:

  • Christmas – some students who don’t celebrate Christmas don’t have the knowledge about Christmas dinners, or Christmas morning needed to fully understand a Christmas Carol.
  • Lighthouse – Again Christmas Carol – none of a year 11 class knew what a lighthouse was
  • Swan – the poem Winter Swans. Some students had never seen one.
  • Osprey – Some of you may remember the infamous Osprey IGCSE paper where students across the country had no idea what an Osprey was
  • Straw – I spent half a lesson babbling on about Crook’s bed being made of straw in an Of Mice and Men lesson before realising none of them knew what straw was.

cultural pics

Some of this we can predict, knowing our cohorts and their general cultural experience. We are never going to be able to teach everything and much will come up as we teach, but there are some things that we can include in our schemes of work. We can do the following:

Cultural deficit

We decided to work backwards in my previous department. We thought about the essential cultural knowledge that was missing when they arrived at GCSE and tried to embed it at KS3. Alongside this we considered what was missing generally and tried to include as much as we could that would be useful in life. Biblical allusions and Greeks, Romans and Rhetoric were placed into year 7, for example. It is something that is very hard to get right, and we are never going to give students all the cultural capital that they are lacking compared to their more privileged counterparts, but we can give them as much as we can to help them succeed.

Of course, alongside this we also have to have the added discussion around including and celebrating the cultures and backgrounds of all of our students, but it is perhaps easier to attempt to unpick these separately. Addressing cultural poverty is more thinking about the cultural knowledge which students might come across at various points, and which give them the confidence to tackle new texts for themselves.

Vocabulary

We all know the importance of vocabulary. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have a limited vocabulary and be lacking in ‘word wealth’.  There has been a huge push over the last few years to think about how we teach vocabulary within our lessons. Having a bank of words at our disposal is essential for us to be able to express ourselves effectively and succinctly. I blogged previously about a trial I did a few years ago where I focused on vocabulary, but very simply, it proved to me that it was one of the simplest and quickest things that we could do to improve a student’s writing. It is also important when teaching pupils with EAL to give them the tools to express themselves. Too often EAL students are put in lower sets because they don’t have the vocabulary yet to be able to express themselves, and in some ways when it comes to vocabulary, we should understand that some of our disadvantaged pupils equally need to be taught the vocabulary that will help them to succeed.

Lots of people have written about vocabulary and I will link further reading at the end of this blog, but essentially, teach them it and they will use it. Hopefully you can see below the impact that it may have on writing.

Vocab1

vocab 2

 

Dual coding also works wonders. Students can really play with he meaning of words and think about what might help them to remember meanings. The resources below are from the brilliant Stuart Pryke.

Dual coding

dual coding 1

Reading

In my experience, disadvantaged students are often lacking in confidence when faced with a new text. I had the privilege of listening to Alice Vissar-Furay talk at a conference about the strategies that she had been working on within her school. I encourage you to read her blog, which is also full of resources and ideas, and an explanation of how they teach students to read and unpick new texts.

I was sat at the conference with Stuart Pryke, who then went back and produced a brilliant lesson (A Christmas Carol – lesson 13) using the strategies for A Christmas Carol. It really does work well; students read something very difficult but felt extremely clever by the end of it. They used the same strategies again with other texts and articles, and it certainly helped them to feel confident when faced with new texts.

High 5

Another strategy that builds confidence is to show students how to read round words that they find difficult. More often than not, if a student feels like they don’t understand a text, they won’t write about it – often, it is the unseen 19th century non-fiction text that can make students feel as if they are a failure. Giving students a difficult text and asking them to pick out what they can understand and help to build confidence. The two texts below I gave to my year 11 class and asked them to highlight the words that they did know. In both cases they could tell me what they thought the reader’s opinion was, even if they couldn’t understand the whole text and go on to write a response. As a task, it helped them to realise that there is always something there to write about, and always something that they will understand.

I had the pleasure of teaching 900 students at GCSE In Action last year and when I talked about this there was lots of nodding enthusiastically, so it is clearly something that worries lots of students.

Reading round 1Reading round 2

Building Writing Skills

We often expect students to write narratives and creative responses without making sure that they have played with all the small skills that make an interesting and skilful piece of writing. On top of that, they will need to do it in just 45 minutes in an exam. Examiners complain of overly long, rambling, unstructured responses, planned on a narrative arc of novel length, that they will never be able to write in a month, let alone the 45 minutes given. Spending time teaching interesting ways of writing and focusing on the small skills that make good writing encourages confidence in students expressing their own ideas, something that they are often afraid to do.

We spent time as a department last year teaching year 10 two structures that we wanted students to practise using. The first was a structure written about by @EDmerger and adapted into a lesson by @SPryke2. I had used it with year 11 to great effect and had seen some wonderful writing produced using the structures. The second was a structure that my brilliant colleague @HilesSophie had used to great effect within her classroom. The two structures were as follows:

Structures

Alongside this we also wanted them to be considering the nuts and bolts of writing more closely. Chris Curtis’s (Xris32) How To Teach English and Lindsay Skinner’s Crafting Brilliant Sentences are both excellent for strategies and resources to support writing. We picked a handful of ideas from each, 3 paragraph structures from Chris’s book and a focus on noun and verb choices from Lindsay’s book. These were introduced along with the text structures and students spent lessons practising and playing with each.

paragraph sentences

Students then sat a mock paper and were told to use the structures and strategies that they felt comfortable with. When marking the mock papers we looked at where they had been used, how students structured their work and their marks on the writing task, compared to previous cohorts at that time of year.

What was most interesting was that even though there were students that slipped back into random story-telling (you know, the ones who just re-tell the plot of Fast and Furious), the majority not only answered the question, but answered it well, using the strategies that they had been taught. Knowing how to effectively structure work had given them the confidence to do it, but also their creativity wasn’t stifled; narratives were varied and interesting but crafted far more successfully than we had seen previously. It also stopped the pages and pages of response. Students wrote 2-3 sides of well-crafted and considered response and average marks were considerably higher than we had seen in previous years at the same time.

work 1work 2work 3work 4work 5work 6

Some might argue that teaching set structures stifles creativity, but when you are teaching students whose level of disadvantage means that they may not read a wide range of fiction or struggle to have ideas, it gives them a lever to start from. It gives them a toolkit to take from, and I would argue that toolkit actually encouraged creativity.

 

Knowledge retention

One of the biggest issues that we found, particularly with the literature texts, is that students didn’t know enough to write about the texts. They didn’t have the knowledge to be able to talk about characters, themes, or to generally have an opinion about a text. We’d seen lots written about the use of Big Questions and decided to consider how we could use them to make sure that students had the vital basic knowledge that they needed to succeed. It also meant we could be sure that there was a level of consistency across the department; we knew that all students would be taught the essential knowledge that we wanted them to have, but there was a level of autonomy in how that was taught by individual teachers. Again, I am grateful to Stuart Pryke who consolidated my thinking and showed me his way of doing.

 

We started at KS4, adapting all schemes of work to cover the essential knowledge that we wanted all students to have. As a caveat, we didn’t forget about skills – skills were interleaved within the lessons. KS4 students had a copy of all the Big Questions in their books and would answer the question after the lesson. After approximately every 8-10 lessons, they would receive a blank copy of the Big Questions and be tested on what they remembered. Once they had filled in the sheets, they went round and spoke to others, adding anything extra in green pen. This very quickly allowed a teacher to check students learning, and see any aspect that perhaps needed re-visiting at either a class or individual level. It was noticeable than when this was done well, students performed better in both extended writing and mock papers as there was significant increased confidence in what they knew about a text.

BQ2

To test the effect further, we trained a group of year 7s who visited year 11 lessons once every few weeks with a list of the Big Questions, and asked random students to answer the questions they chose. They recorded their answers and we could see what knowledge was being retained. Year 7 enjoyed the responsibility, but there was also a level of confidence and pride in year 11 that they could answer questions and show off their learning.

This was then rolled out to cover aspects of language teaching  and to our KS3 schemes of work. Below is an snapshot of our planning for a year 7 scheme of work – Greeks, Romans and Rhetoric.

BQ1

How does this help tackle disadvantage? Well it is one way of ensuring that all students have the same level of challenge and there is a level of consistency. It gives students a confidence that they do know something about a text and in my personal experience, it pushed those who struggled with English to have confidence to express an opinion, because they knew something about a text.

 

 

Tackling the ‘disadvantage gap’ is something that we know is going to be in the news over the coming months. I know there are teachers across the country frustrated at how much learning time has been lost, worrying about the effect that it has had on our young people. We know that all students have lost out, but we have to be realistic and understand that there are those who have struggled more than others. Those without a laptop or device, with no wifi, or limited data. I have seen people saying, ‘but all students have a phone’ – that really shows a lack of understanding about all the factors that make a student disadvantaged in comparison to some of their peers.

 

I have moved schools, and moved across the country – up and west. I choose where I wanted to work based on the fact that I find working with some of our most disadvantaged young people the most rewarding and important. I know I have a lot to learn, disadvantage does not look the same everywhere, and I have yet to meet the students I will be spending my days with. But I am excited and looking forward to working with what I have already seen are some of the most passionate and forward-thinking colleagues, who clearly know and love our cohort – and I will too.

 

And across the country, we will do what we can…because we always do.

 

Further Reading

Closing the Vocabulary Gap – Alex Quigley

https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/

How to Teach English Literature – Jennifer Webb

https://funkypedagogy.com/

How To Teach: English – Chris Curtis

http://learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.com/

Making Every English Lesson Count – Andy Tharby

https://reflectingenglish.wordpress.com/

Bringing Words to Life – Isabel Beck et al

Reading Reconsidered – Doug Lemov et al

Alice Visser-Furay

https://readingforpleasureandprogress.com/

The Writing Revolution – Judith C Hochman et al

Dual Coding with teachers – Oliver Caviglioli

Well that was the decade that was…

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to think about the last decade as we enter the new one; I hate New Year as it is, but in the end I thought I probably needed to to celebrate the positives, to consider how far I have come. But before I do, here’s something I write last year about New Year and why it can be difficult for some…

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in therapy this year, and one of the things that really sticks with me every day is this. To spend time focusing on the past can be bad for us. Whether it be because things went wrong and we beat ourselves up over them, or because things seemed better then, we can use the past to beat ourselves up and think that is how people see and judge us. If we spend too long focused on the past we can become depressed.

But being focused on the future can sometimes not be so great either. It’s good to think about things that you have to look forward to, but anxiety is embedded in our expectations of a future, and if we start to think that our future may not go as planned, and in my experience it never does, we can trigger quite negative thoughts.

So basically this pull between the past and the future is perhaps how best to understand what depression and anxiety actually feels like. So really there’s only one place to go and that’s the present. Every day I try to focus for at least 5 minutes on the present – I practice mindfulness, not everyone’s cup of tea, but 5 minutes does ground me back where I need to be. I have reiki sessions, something I felt sceptical about, but actually help me to bring it all back to now. Because now is generally an alright place to be and we all need to just stop and breathe for a bit.

I know there are people who don’t like New Year, I don’t, and it is probably all down to that very reason. We reflect and we hope and both together can be overwhelming. I shall be reminding myself that it is just another day, it begins and ends in the same way as any other. Tomorrow is another day too. The sun will rise and night will be at the end. So just do what you want to do, read a book, watch trash telly, or join me in eating lots of cheese. Don’t feel like you have to make lots of resolutions. Don’t put pressure on yourself to do things you might not be able to do. See what happens and you might achieve more than you imagined.”

But this year I’m going to look back at the decade, and the positives. At the opening of 2010 I had a 12 year old son and a 10 year old daughter. I was working as a HLTA in the English department at my current school and living with my partner. I’d started working as a TA when my daughter started school, working in a school 5 days and then the weekends at a department store to earn enough money to support my family. I was feeling a bit antsy, the kids were growing up and it was time to consider my career. So, encouraged by my HoD and in agreement with the school I decided to apply for the 80/20 GTP programme. It meant that I would work as an English Teacher, with my own timetable 4 days a week and then have Fridays out for training and to complete a second placement, but I would have a salary, that I really needed. So in Sept 2011 I began the course…

But elsewhere things were going a bit wrong…my partner and I had separated, and I was now on my own again, trying to juggle working and now training with bringing up children. I met a new partner, someone I had been in school with, and now spent some weekends visiting him in Manchester, a very intense but lovely part of my life. And then came a big bombshell…my friend who was also my HoD was diagnosed with cancer, and it had spread very quickly. She was unlikely to survive.

So 2012 was hard and a whirlwind. The GTP 80/20 programme was an incredibly stressful way to train as you had the responsibility of your own classes as well as writing essays, completing projects and working for a day a week at another school. And then my lovely friend became very ill. I visited her at home and in the hospice, but we knew it wouldn’t be long. I was due to go on a weekend break with my boyfriend, and she insisted that I go. I did, and on the first day I was there, her mum rang me to tell me that she had died. My boyfriend and I sat in the sunshine and raised a glass of champagne to her. Everything felt numb.

At the funeral I finally broke down and cried. My friend had asked our Head to conduct the funeral and she did. It was when the curtains closed on the coffin, and her favourite song, Mmmm Bop by Hanson started playing that the floodgates opened and I had to be helped out. It was probably a first inkling that I had tried to hold things together for a long time and things were starting to crack. But in amongst all that, I graduated and become an English teacher. I had finally entered a career.

By the end of that year, my boyfriend had ended our relationship. It had been lovely, and it was perhaps the final thing to break me. I ended 2012 finally admitting that I needed help, the thoughts and feelings that I was continuously having I could no longer pass off as normal. I felt like I was broken and I no longer deserved to be here. People were noticing that I was just existing. A colleague and friend took this photo of me at our Christmas meal that year and I think it sums up how I felt, I truly felt like all hope had gone.

But this isn’t a tale of woe, it is a tale of strength. I went to the doctor, I got help. I was placed under the mental health unit in the hospital, and given a mental health nurse who helped me to access support. With a mixture of medication and therapy, I did get better quite quickly. I was discharged from the mental health unit fairly quickly and then ended up under the IAPT service, who I have been with on and off ever since since.

In 2013 after some intensive therapy I was told that I had had underlying clinical depression and anxiety probably since the age of 17. I had episodes in about 1995 and an episode after the birth of my daughter in 1999. It simmered after that and then the latest, quite explosive episode had built slowly but surely. I think of it as Lego building blocks – you put one on top of the other until they topple because it is too high. I hadn’t recognised the impact of lots of life events and just carried on until I fell. But now I have learnt that each time something happens, you stop regroup and then move on. In 2013 I was told I would probably need medication for life. As we enter the new decade, I am medication free, but know that occasionally I may need to fall back on them, and that’s ok. I control everything with what I learnt in CBT and luckily (touch wood) have not had a major episode since.

I had very little time off work, I actually have a pretty exemplary attendance to work record, and here’s the reason why…I love my job. In the times when I have been unwell it is teenagers that have kept me going. They make me laugh and smile, they frustrate me and make me cry with happiness in equal measure. They are some of the most honest and caring people. When other parts of the job can be frustrating, I walk into a classroom, we learn some stuff, we enjoy it and I feel like I have achieved something and I take pride in the part I have had in shaping their futures. I love seeing students having gone on to great things and I revel in their kindness. I did a Saturday School on my birthday once for a few hours, and some students clubbed together and walked in the rain with this cake. They were upset that it had got smudged on the way, but it is still one of the loveliest things anyone has ever done. And the cards…I treasure the cards, because students seem to understand that words mean a lot.

And my own children…they were the greatest source of strength. It was hard for them, but they were constantly supportive. They made me laugh and smile and I watched them grow into the most amazing adults, confident and adventurous, intelligent and kind. And watching their achievements is my greatest source of pride.

And I found Twitter. I decided that I needed a source of positivity about education. I had made a conscious decision that sources of negativity in my life had to go. There are people in life who thrive on negativity and like to take you with them and sometimes constant complaining and negativity is too draining. I had joined Twitter in 2009, but just generally chatted and followed celebrities. Now I used it to look at what was going on in education, and it was great. I shared ideas, I gained ideas and I read more than ever about education. It gave me a confidence in the classroom. Plus I made friends, people who became my friends in real life.

IMG_2468

And then in 2016 Nikki @NooPuddles contacted me with an idea. How about we set up a site that supported English teachers. We were all about to teach the new specs at GCSE and everyone was floundering about a bit. It would give somewhere to go for ideas and support. So @Team_English1 was born…and very quickly it picked up followers. Going into the new decade it has 26000 followers. And I am so very proud of what we have achieved. We have arranged meet ups, we have had exam board takeovers, we have been mentioned in government reports. And in 2018 we had our first conference hosted by @TLPMrsL and @MrsSpalding which was a huge success.

This year @AlwaysLearnWeb and I picked up the baton and hosted the 2019 Team English National Conference. It was possibly the busiest and most stressful year of my career to date but on the 13th July nearly 500 attended the event, with over 50 speakers and 300 people on the waiting list to attend. I was incredibly proud of what we achieved…£10 for some of the best subject specific CPD that can be delivered in this country. We did that.

Twitter has opened many other doors for me. I have spoken at conferences and at Pixl. Blogs I have written have been shared at schools across the country and the What, How, Why strategy I wrote about was mentioned in an exam board exam report. I recently taught 900 GCSE students in a lecture at Warwick University. I have consulted with SLTs and departments across the country on improvement strategies on English. And I am allowing me to be damn proud of myself.

I am also lucky to have worked with some amazing people, in a department where I have some of the same people for most of the decade. I love that I work with some people who share my desire to always do the right thing for students, and who listen to ideas I might bring. And some are my closest friends. They have been there through thick and thin and raised me up when I needed it.

What I have gone through in the last decade hasn’t made me weak, it has made me strong. I have seen my two children grow into superb adults. I have been lucky to have three of the big loves of my life in this decade (I know, I’m selfishly taking a few.) Someone once told me that being open might ruin my job prospects, but I think anyone worth their salt would see that just isn’t true. The one thing I have is a strength and determination like no other. I have fought and I have never given up, and I have achieved.

What will the next decade bring? I’m hoping that there will be a big change. The strength and confidence that I have now, makes me want to do something I would never have considered at the beginning of the decade. I have met people along the way who are pushing me to do the things that will be best for me and to be where I want to be and to use all the things that make me an asset. Plus I have two grown up children…it’s time for me.

They’ll be ups and downs, but that’s life. They’ll be love and tears I’m sure. The things we go through make us what we are, and we should never be ashamed of that. It’s what we do because of what happens that matters in the end. We need to just be brave.

My friend wrote me a card to be given to me when she died. In it she told me she loved me, and she wanted me to live the life I wanted…I think there is advice in there for all of us.

I want to publicly thank some people…because they deserve it…and I’ll never get an Oscar

My mum and dad – it takes a village to raise children. They have always been there for me and the kids, despite everything. There are no better parents.

My children, James and Lucy – I tweet about them all the time. They are amazing.

My department at work, and in particular Sophie who is my positive person, who runs with ideas and trials things with me. Gail…who is just amazing and clever with it, Dave, who I have spent the entire decade working with, James, who makes me laugh and rant about my ideas and Tom, the best goddam HLTA in the land. The support they gave me for the conference this year was just amazing.

My Twitter people. I couldn’t possibly name them all, I hope you all know how much you mean to me but particular love goes to the people who love me through thick and thin and take care of me like good friends should…. @NooPuddles @AlwaysLearnWeb @Cornishwelsh  @fod3  @RealGingerella   @EngTweet21

The Leeds crew…who have made me love The North with their warmth and compassion, who push me and support me in equal measure and who rescue me on occasion…. @Ladbroa01 @agwilliams9 @commahound @FunkyPedagogy

To my ladies…thank you for being you @MissL_Amos @85teachergirl

The women who started the conference journey @MrsSpalding @TLPMrsL

And….some people who influence my teaching…

@SPryke2

@Xris32

@Positivteacha

Don’t be offended if I haven’t included you…you know I think you’re all brilliant, and there are just so many of you….which makes me lucky.

Why Christmas isn’t so great for some.

I struggle with Christmas and here’s why. I brought my kids up as a single parent; for whatever reasons their dads were not involved in their lives at all. The run up to Christmas was always a bit stressful, but I liked making sure that the kids had everything they wanted and they were always really grateful.

On Christmas Eve I would wait until they were asleep and creep into the living room as quietly as I could, lay out their stockings and take a bite out of the mince pie and carrot. Then I would go to bed proud that I had done what I could to make them happy.

But there was always something missing. I always wished that I had someone to share both the responsibility and the excitement, and that felt quite lonely. The days of creeping with stockings are over now, and my children have very different lives. I’ll see one of them briefly over Christmas and the other in the New Year, and that’s fine; I’m proud that I gave them the ambition to fly. I will spend the day at my parents who are utterly brilliant and make sure Christmas is great every year.

People have come and gone, but for various reasons few shared Christmas. So I have always had a little hope that one day I will have that shared Christmas morning experience. That I can wake up with someone ready to enjoy a day together. I don’t ever want sympathy, that is just how my life has panned out, but I always hope that people understand that for some Christmas is difficult. It’s a reminder of what you haven’t got as much as what you have got. It’s a reminder that life is a bit different for you.

Everyone’s houses look lovely and I like seeing people happy and the world a bit glittery, especially when the world at large seems to be caving in. But it is always tinged with a slight feeling of failure, a failure to have someone to share it all with. I always have hope that next year will be different, that next year I will be somewhere else or doing something else. I always have hope, just that when I hit December every year, the hope has been knocked a bit. But I guess we are in charge of our own destiny.

I’m not writing this for sympathy or attention, just because there are people out there who are going through the same sorts of things I did and am now. I just want you to know that you are not alone…you are never alone. I’ll metaphorically stroke your hand and give you a knowing nod. And if you are a single parent on their own right now, I massively salute you. You will do it, like you do every day of your life, because you are amazing.

Sarah Millican does the amazing #joinin at Christmas on Twitter. It really is worth dipping into. It’s funny and hopeful and just kind. If you are struggling at Christmas really do give it a look. Or talk to me, I’ll be about at the end of a screen…I always am.

TES Education Resources: An Open Expression of Concern

This post has been agreed by several teachers and is shared across several blog sites. 

In the last couple of years, we have openly expressed concern at the approaches taken byTes Education Resources to plagiarism and copyright violation, theft of resources, and the selling of resources that violate copyright. This is not a blogpost intended to cast disapproval on those who sell resources. It is a simply an open expression of concern at the approach taken by Tes Education Resources, when these incidents are uncovered. We also wish to make clear that this is not about an individual or anybody working for Tes Education Resources. We believe that this is a systemic problem that should not fall on one person to solve.

We feel that the following issues need to be properly addressed by Tes Education Resources:

·         The fact that people upload and sell plagiarised resources, which have been clearly copied from free shares on Twitter, Facebook, and sometimes from colleagues.

·         The fact that although Tes Education Resources offer ‘goodwill’ gestures to those who give public challenge, and offer compensation when they recognise plagiarism, the onus is on the victim of theft to report and prove the theft.

·         The fact that customers are being advised to buy resources to check the content if they suspect a theft has occurred, and then claim the money back.

These issues need addressing because:

Plagiarism can constitute copyright violation, which is covered by legislation in both UK and EU law, as well as being a feature of international treaties and agreements. We believe that this is not being taken seriously by Tes Education Resources, who provide a platform for the sale of resources which have been taken, copied, and presented as original resources by the thief. Tes Education Resources describe themselves as ‘one of the world’s largest peer-to-peer platforms for teachers to trade and share digital teaching resources’ (Tes Education Resources Ltd: Annual Report and Financial Statements – Directors’ Report 2017). We feel that a company of this scale, regardless of financial status, should not be placing the onus on individuals to identify instances of copyright violation.

A goodwill gesture is something given on a case-by-case basis. It means that those with the time and tenacity to challenge instances of copyright infringement are being offered compensation, but there are victims who are unaware of the issue, or perhaps who do not have the time and resources to prove the provenance of the resource. We believe that the Tes Education Resources could and should ensure there is parity here.

Tes Education Resources have conceded that only 5% of their resource downloads are purchased. The rest are free downloads. We appreciate this valuable resource, but feel that the 5% are being prioritised over the 95%. It is understood that the 5% is the download, rather than the upload, figure – but the point still stands – 95% of people downloading from Tes Education Resources are downloading free resources.

We also believe that asking people to buy resources to check for copyright issues, in order to then claim a refund, is an unfair and illogical request.  Perhaps most pertinent is the fact that all of these issues are contributing to our workload. The Tes recognise this too. In fact, they have an entire section of their website dedicated to this issue – you can read this here:https://www.tes.com/news/hub/workload. In refusing to adapt their practice, either by demonetising the site or by taking further steps to prevent these incidents, teachers are being forced to spend time searching the site for their own resources. When teachers locate stolen resources, the expectation that they buy their own work and prove its provenance is onerous and frustrating.

What Tes Education Resources Can Do:

–          Have a long-term aim to demonetise the site and subsidise it, to enable an entirely free sharing platform for those working in education.

In the meantime:

–          Improve checks on resources to identify plagiarism and/or copyright infringement.

–          Allow for full download with retrospective payment, rather than asking people to buy resources simply to check for copyright infringement.

–          Enable reviews of paid content without purchasing – so that copyright infringement which is clearly evident in the preview pane can be challenged in a review.

What you can do:

–          Avoid downloading from Tes Education Resources until the long-term aim (above) is fulfilled.

–          Use your Social Media account to inform your followers that you are doing this.

–          Share your resources through Dropbox and any other suitable medium.

Goodbye to all that

I didn’t like 2018. On a personal level it really hurt, which was quite annoying really because it was an even number year, so my theory that even numbers are better was proved wrong.

But joking aside – it hurt a lot.

But I did read some good books, interacted with brilliant people and really enjoyed spending my days with young people. I also got to see my son graduate, I had a moment where I sat on my bed at the end of the day and realised that despite all those years of struggling and worrying as a single parent, something good happened. I also have brilliant parents who constantly support and help the kids on their way when I have lacking in strength. I have a daughter who is also at uni and is kind, astute and supportive when her mum needs it, but also guaranteed to make me laugh every day. I spent my summer making myself a new bedroom and slashing back my over-grown garden and felt like I had achieved something. I work in a superb department that support each other, and where I am assured a laugh, hugs and a packet of Space Raiders. I have some good stuff.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in therapy this year, and one of the things that really sticks with me every day is this. To spend time focusing on the past can be bad for us. Whether it be because things went wrong and we beat ourselves up over them, or because things seemed better then, we can use the past to beat ourselves up and think that is how people see and judge us. If we spend too long focused on the past we can become depressed.

But being focused on the future can sometimes not be so great either. It’s good to think about things that you have to look forward to, but anxiety is embedded in our expectations of a future, and if we start to think that our future may not go as planned, and in my experience it never does, we can trigger quite negative thoughts.

So basically this pull between the past and the future is perhaps how best to understand what depression and anxiety actually feels like. So really there’s only one place to go and that’s the present. Every day I try to focus for at least 5 minutes on the present – I practice mindfulness, not everyone’s cup of tea, but 5 minutes does ground me back where I need to be. I have reiki sessions, something I felt sceptical about, but actually help me to bring it all back to now. Because now is generally an alright place to be and we all need to just stop and breathe for a bit.

I know there are people who don’t like New Year, I don’t, and it is probably all down to that very reason. We reflect and we hope and both together can be overwhelming. I shall be reminding myself that it is just another day, it begins and ends in the same way as any other. Tomorrow is another day too. The sun will rise and night will be at the end. So just do what you want to do, read a book, watch trash telly, or join me in eating lots of cheese. Don’t feel like you have to make lots of resolutions. Don’t put pressure on yourself to do things you might not be able to do. See what happens and you might achieve more than you imagined.

So goodbye to 2018, it was a mean year. I don’t hold out much hope for 2019, dare I mention Brexit, coupled with the fact that it is an odd number year…no, I have no idea where this irrational hatred of odd numbers comes from. But there will be some good bits, because there always are.

But as always I wish you all the best, I hope that you achieve and there is love in your life.

I will however be 44 in 2019, there must be something in that….*forces self back to present*

Why I No Longer PEE

I don’t like PEE. I have never really liked it. Firstly, because it restricts and secondly because a lot of the time, the very students it is designed to support, just don’t understand what on earth it means. Before I worked in education, I had never heard of a PEE paragraph, I wasn’t taught them at school, didn’t use them at university and yet I am a fairly competent essay writer. I recently read a year 7 essay that my uncle had written in 1960s, not a PEE in sight and would have easily been top marks at GCSE.

Before I trained as a teacher, I was a TA and lost count of the amount of times students would stare at me blankly saying, ‘I don’t get it’ when asked to write a PEE paragraph. And then I taught it, and they still didn’t get it. The amount of times I have read posts on Twitter from teachers pulling their hair out because ‘they can’t write points’. Then ‘they’ probably don’t know what a point is and instead of flogging something to death that isn’t working, then why not actually change the way it is taught?

In 2015 I was intending to go to Researched in Swindon, but at the last minute wasn’t able to. At this time I was teaching PEE, but like many people was just frustrated that they weren’t getting  it, some just weren’t going into enough detail and others just wrote hardly anything, saying it was too hard. Luckily ResearchEd was recorded and I got to see what I actually wanted to see – the brilliant Louisa Enstone talking about her research into stopping using PEE. You can watch the video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KVt1RzWbuY

and read about it here:

https://www.nate.org.uk/file/2017/03/NATE_TE_Issue-13_33-36-ENSTONE-FINAL.pdf

 

So, bolstered by these ideas, I went back into my classroom determined to try something new and a few years later, I am completely convinced. PEE is an acronym wholly made up in a desperate attempt to get students to pass, and yet what has happened is that students have become completely dependent on it. I have picked up classes in later years and moved them away from PEE, but they keep slipping back because, along the line, they have somehow come to believe it is the ‘right’ way to write, it is the magic formula – except it’s not. It isn’t their fault, and I’ve taught students who get very nervous and antsy when I try and break the PEE addiction, whilst others suddenly flourish, because they can actually write what they are thinking, and not have to follow a formula.

So the basis is this – there are 3 basic things that we need to consider when we are analysing a text.

  • What is the writer telling us about the character/theme/setting?
  • How do they use language/structure/form etc to do this?
  • Why are they doing this?

These 3 questions get them thinking and allow them to explore ideas. Asking them to write a Point and find some evidence just doesn’t….and explain what exactly? Students can become stuck because they feel like it is a puzzle that has to be put together the ‘right’ way. But it really doesn’t. The 3 questions, for those who worry about exams, cover the basic AOs. If they are answering those questions, they are hitting the assessment objectives. I don’t refer ever to assessment objectives, which I know some won’t agree with, but when you are 15 years old and you have 9 different subjects with different assessment objectives, you can be forgiven for not remembering what each objective is. If I said to you, have you include AO2, you might just nod and smile, but if I ask you if you have thought about how the writer uses language you might be much more confident in your answer. I believe AOs do have their place, certainly at A level where there are less subjects and a more in-depth understanding of exam criteria, there most certainly would be a reference to AOs, but at GCSE it really isn’t essential to students passing; there is no AO test on the paper.

Once there is an understanding of the basic questions, they can then be layered up with more questions. I then add:

  • What do they want us to feel as a reader?
  • How does the writer use key words to show this?
  • How does it tell us something about a time that a text was written in?
  • Why have they chosen that language over other language?
  • Why might they want us to interpret it in different ways?

Or anything else that might fit with whatever we are studying at the time – the questions can be fluid, but always be, what, how and why questions.

 

So what does it mean for their writing? Year 11 are currently reading The Sign of Four. We are reading chapter 4 where we are introduced to the character of Thaddeus Sholto. A basic question we might consider is ‘how does Conan Doyle present the character of Thaddeus Sholto?’

Using the ‘What, How, Why’ questions we first pool ideas and students are encouraged to make links to what they have already read.

Slide 1

Students have a list of the questions to consider, or I might add to them in discussion. Then comes the bit where it makes all the difference – they write up their ideas but have to follow no particular formula, just know that they thinking about What, How, Why in their answer.

Student 1 might be a little less confident and follow what might seem natural – What, followed by How and then Why:

Slide 2

Student 2 however, might think they might want to start with the Why ideas from the planning and lead into the What and How:

Slide 3

Whereas Student 3 has gone for the How followed by the What and Why

Slide 4

Obviously this example uses the same ideas to show that the order they are written doesn’t actually matter, in reality, you start to see much more of a variety in their writing. The point is simply that they don’t need to follow any particular formula, they just need to get their ideas down and write. Allowing students the freedom to express themselves in the way they feel most comfortable means that they do write and they don’t waste time worrying about whether it is ordered correctly. The exact same ideas can be expressed in a number of different ways and sometimes this then leads them down different pathways and ideas that they were too afraid to put in a PEE paragraph because they didn’t actually know where it should go, so didn’t bother.

Whenever I have discussed this on Twitter, there has always been those that suggest that there are those students that still need structure. Personally, I would argue that in many cases it is exactly those students that struggle the most with a PEE structure. The constant ‘fill in the grids’, or ‘match the quote with the point’ tasks, don’t get to the core issue – many just do not fundamentally understand what Point and Explain actually mean. They may understand that evidence is directly from the text, but in an exam situation, when they can’t think of a point they don’t even get as far as evidence, because the PEE structure tells them they have already failed, so they don’t bother.

So hopefully, here is an example that might change your mind. This is a target 1-4 class. The average target is 2/3. But because I’m mardy old rebel, they will all get 4s and above if it kills me…we may come back to this in 2 summer’s time. They have been studying Blood Brothers and we were preparing for our first go at an essay.

Firstly, in this case, we tackled the question itself using What, How, Why – I wrote down exactly what they said:

Slide 5

Then we came up with the first set of quotes together and analysed them using What, How, Why, being careful not to put them in any sort of hierarchy. The discussion about these ideas was much more than the bullet points might suggest, but too much in the way of notes might encourage them to simply copy. I have also been working on emotions and feelings with this group, for various reasons, so that was added.

Slide 6

Then they were asked to write it up as a paragraph, the only thing I asked them to do was think about the connectives they used to show similarity and difference. They were nervous at first and asked for a sentence starter, the sentence starter I gave them was….In Act One…They didn’t ask for anything else after that.

Student 1 went with a What, How, Why structure:

Slide 7

Student 2 started with the Why:

Slide 8

And Student 3 started with the How, leading into the What and Why. Student 3 is a New Arrival to the country

Slide 9

 

I truly believe that if I had asked them to follow a PEE structure they would have struggled because they would have worried that their ideas were not in the right order. Although we have a little way to go, I am personally very proud of them for showing their ideas and thinking – in an exam situation they would have covered all the AOs to an extent and they have all shown that they have read and understood that section of the play. Student 3, in particular would really have struggled without a bit of freedom to just tell me their ideas.

So this is why I no longer PEE (like many teachers quite literally during an average school day). I am completely convinced now that it is not the best way for students to write. I often wonder in fact where and when it was actually invented, when was it decided that student needed this strict acronym to follow? I can also categorically say that it makes marking 30 essays a much more pleasant experience and in higher ability students it has encouraged a greater free-flow of ideas and personal academic style. It hasn’t been without its issues; I have picked up students later in their school careers who really pushed against trying to think in any way but PEE. It also is not used across my department, so when we have swapped about for revision sessions and masterclasses, I have had to explain that they haven’t been taught to use PEE. Other subjects also still use PEE. But I am personally content, after sets of results, that What, How, Why allows a student to think, explore and most importantly, to write their ideas in a way that they are comfortable with.

I have sheets that I have laminated for students whenever they are writing, if they feel they need support. I think it needs adapting further to be even less formulaic, but if you would like a copy it is here

The Power of Words

Much has been written recently about the importance of a student having a wide range of vocabulary at their disposal. It’s something that I have considered very important for some time, mostly because of a small research project I undertook in 2016, in the last year of the outgoing English GCSE, which proved to me beyond all doubt the effect that words can have on a student’s ability to express themselves clearly, and the ultimate effect that can have on their GCSE results. It’s something that I’ve meant to blog about for some time, because I like to see hard evidence that something does make a difference, and hopefully this might help others to see the impact that it may have.

A bit of background…

I work at a school of just under 2000 in Peterborough. About 54% of our cohort has English as an Additional Language, with over 80 languages being spoken and our number of disadvantaged students is above average. As part of our appraisal process we set ourselves a target for the year, which can be any number of things, but we are encouraged to conduct research within the classroom.

In the academic year 2015-16 we were about to sit the last session of the outgoing GCSEs. I had a year 11 class which had, through exclusions and other issues, managed to become a class of just 15 students. The students were targeted C-E grades. They were a difficult class, some had very difficult backgrounds and issues that the school were supporting with and some were behaviour issues. In fact, in the end 52 hours of English teaching were lost due to fixed term exclusions across the class. They were hard work.

The students were sitting the English Language IGCSE and the Edexcel Cert for Literature, which apart from the poetry anthology was a closed book exam. Despite their difficult nature, they actually really enjoyed the texts that we studied, Of Mice and Men and Romeo and Juliet and knew the plots and characters really well. We had many heated debated about the texts in the classroom, but when it came to writing about them, they really struggled to put into words what they were trying to say. At the beginning of year 11, all students were working at between D and U grades. I had seen Caroline Spalding @MrsSpalding talk at TLT15 about the importance of Word Wealth and the effect that knowing and using a wide range of vocabulary could have on our students, and decided that as my appraisal research project, I would see if focusing on teaching vocabulary could help push them to the C grades that they needed to get them into college or sixth form.

Research

The first place to start was a bit of research, just why was vocabulary so damned important? I won’t go into lots of detail, but there are many places to go to for ideas and information. Daniel Rigney in his book The Matthew Effect provides some interesting insights, the argument here being that those who are word rich will continue to be word rich and those who are word poor will struggle to compete.

matthew

The comment in orange reminded me very much of my year 11 class, and I’m sure many of you have seen that frustration within the classroom.

David Didau also wrote an interesting blog that looks at some of these ideas. The statistics in particular, I found shocking.

didau

No research project would be complete without reading Isabel Beck et al’s book Bringing Words to Life in which the 3 tiers of vocabulary are explained, something I now see in many resources and blogs on Twitter. Having this understanding really influenced the way that I considered the vocabulary I would teach.

Beck 1Beck 2

Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov et al, is also a fantastic resource in understanding the practicalities of teaching vocabulary through implicit and explicit instruction. It also allows access to videos so you can see what vocabulary teaching can look like in practice.

lemov

Since I carried out this research, much has been written on vocabulary and Alex Quigley’s book Closing The Vocabulary Gap is a really good place to start when considering how to teach vocabulary.

 

How did it work in practice?

The biggest thing that I decided to do was make them revision guides for the 2 texts, Of Mice and Men and Romeo and Juliet, and give them new vocabulary. They were given vocabulary for character…

curley's wife

slim

julietromeo

and for theme…

OMAMomam 1

But they weren’t just given the words, we talked about the words, we used the words in sentences, they defined the words in ways that they would remember and they were tested on the words. They were also encouraged to use the words verbally in responses and to think constantly about what was ‘a better way to say.’

practice

So what was the effect on their writing? 

Slowly,  but surely, I noticed them starting to slip the learned vocabulary into their writing. They were also encouraged to go back and re-write pieces that they had written earlier, using what they had learned to improve. I also noticed a difference in their demeanour, they were proud of what they knew and were able to express themselves in a new way. There was less of that frustrated behaviour and they were much more eager to try. Learning the new vocabulary had an enormous impact in particular on my 2 most recently arrived EAL students, one of whom grew in confidence hugely by the time they sat their exam that summer.

Example 1

example 1

Example 2

example 2

Example 3

example 3

Example 4

example 4

Hopefully, you can see that the vocabulary started to make their answers sound that bit more sophisticated. These were not academic students, they were students who had barriers that were very difficult to overcome, but in a small way, they had started to change the way that they expressed their ideas. Alongside the texts, we also looked in particular at language for expressing emotion for the Language papers.

What was the impact on grades?

So, the all important question, did it impact on grades and progress? Well, I’ll let you decide for yourself. This is a difficult question to answer, there could be any number of variables, but the only thing that I focused on that year was vocabulary. So the results…

  • For all students in the class, English Language and/or Literature was in their top 2 grades across all subjects.
  • All but 2 students met or exceeded their targets.
  • Of the 2 students that entered secondary below a level 1 from Primary, one achieved C/D (Lang/Lit) and the other D/D
  • One student whose target was a C, achieved a B in Language and an A* in Literature
  • One student whose target was a C achieved B grades in both Language and Literature
  • One student whose target was a D achieved C grades in both Language and Literature

As Literature had been my main focus…

64.29% of students made 4 levels of progress
14.29% of students made 5 levels of progress
7.14% of students made 6 levels of progress

So, I was pleased. It was never going to be perfect, I lost 2 students to exclusion permanently right near the end, but I was really proud of what they had achieved in the end and I can’t help but think that a lot of this was done to the time that we had spent learning vocabulary.

How has this changed my practice?

I now have a clear focus on vocabulary in my lessons. At GCSE students create word banks for characters as we go through texts an they are asked to use these continuously to describe a character’s development, in both written and verbal responses. We also use word banks for each poem.

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I try to drop in new vocabulary definitions into lessons, where we can discuss words and how they relate to the topic or theme of the lesson.

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I ask them to choose relevant vocabulary and ask them to explain their ideas.

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I try to always remember to never assume, particularity with such a large EAL cohort, that students know and understand what words mean and provide definitions when we are reading texts.

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As a department we ensure that students have access to vocabulary for each of our units.

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Whole School Strategies

As a school, we decided to buy into the Bedrock vocabulary learning programme and all students across KS3 have a designated Bedrock lesson that is separate to their English lessons. All students across the school have access. The online lessons teach students root words all the way up to GCSE specific words and tests them pre- and post learning. Although we are only in our second full year of use, we are starting to see a positive impact on student’s writing and understanding.

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Academic writing

Spear-headed by my Deputy Head, Kate Simpson-Holley, the school has a focus on Academic Writing which we teach in form times. We are a vertical-tutored school and in one form lesson a week we have a focus on an aspect of academic language, for example, passive voice, noun phrases, nominalisation or writing in the third person. Students are taught to rewrite using higher tier vocabulary and have an understanding of what they should do to make their writing sound more academic.

 

I’ve written this blog in the hope that it might give a little insight into the impact that a vocabulary focus can have. I never wish to tell others what to do, but give ideas of what you could do or try, if like me, you are always looking for ideas. For me, vocabulary teaching is something that I am working on and is constantly evolving. But knowing a great word always makes you feel good, and using it makes you feel proper clever.

Thanks to year 11 from 2016, who happily consented to their work being repeatedly used as part of the project, ‘ cos it’s proper Science.’ I miss them.

 

“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

 

Of Mice and Men revision book

Romeo and Juliet revision book

It’s All Just Fine

Recently, I’ve been struggling a bit. Mostly, it’s the time of year; I find myself staring at my summer maxi dresses in my wardrobe, wondering if they will have been eaten by moths before the sun ever shines again. Spending all your daylight hours at work, is draining for all of us; our bodies crave vitamin D and warmth and summer just seems centuries away.

But that’s not all. I’ve backed away from Twitter a little bit over that last few weeks and haven’t really interacted for a good few days. Because sometimes I think all the people shouting about how brilliant they are is damaging. Sometimes I think that the, ‘you should be doing this’ or ‘you shouldn’t be doing that’ is actually quite wearing. We all work in different schools in different contexts and you know what? What makes us effective as educators is knowing our own context well enough to know what works for us, whilst also being aware that picking up a strategy from another school and plonking it in our own, might not necessarily work. I have extraordinarily high aspirations for the students I work with, just because I do things differently, doesn’t mean I haven’t. I work with Oxbridge candidates down to students with extreme needs who perhaps don’t get the support they need because in some cultures it is too much of a stigma to admit it. I’m KS3 English in my school, to some that might seem low on the leadership scale, but with responsibility for around 1000 students in that key stage, that is more than some are responsible for in an entire school. That’s my context, but it might not be yours, and that’s fine. There are some things we can take from each other, and some things we can’t, and that’s fine.

But the other thing I find slightly worrying is the ‘you can do it all’ attitude. But you’re a woman Becky? And a feminist? Yes, I am but hear me out. I have no aspiration to be a headteacher, sorry but I don’t. My dad and my grandmother were both headteachers, so I do have some awareness of what the job is really like and…no thank you. The highest I would really want to go is HoD because I’m a teacher, I’m a teacher because I enjoy well….teaching. Students have got me through a lot of tough times, the relationships that we build are second to none and the looks on their faces when they feel like they have learnt something new is just bloody well great. Too often we hear things like, ‘But I want to be the one that makes the decisions.’ Well firstly, that’s naivety as to the job itself, but also hints at poor leadership qualities.

It concerns me that there is pressure to ‘do it all’. I have spent the last 21 years as a single parent. I didn’t actually mean to, circumstances and my poor choice in partners just meant that it happened. This year is the first year that my children are both at university…yep, we’ve beaten those single parent stereotypes and I am entirely hopeful that they will earn enough money to put me in a fairly comfortable old people’s home. But, I’m nearly 43 years old and I am exhausted, because well, I tried to do it all.

I had my son in my last year at university, suddenly pregnant and unexpectedly on my own, I had to take him with me some days, this tiny newborn sat in a car seat (this was pre-childcare facilities.) One of my lecturers actually taught once with him nestled in his arm. I was absolutely determined that I should do it all, I couldn’t not, because that would be a failure. So the young son got passed from pillar to post, dragged round wherever I went and I would go to uni during the day and work evenings and weekends…oh and write a dissertation. It’s actually dead easy to take little ones everywhere; they slip easily into your lives because they don’t know any better. Logistically it is hard, but in the grand scheme of things, and with the help of my family, that was the easy bit.

I went on to have a daughter, finding myself with two on my own…I know, I never learn. I worked, trying to make sure that they were always supported and had what they needed. When the youngest went to school, I started work as a Teaching Assistant, then as a HLTA, then as unqualified teacher and finally I trained as a teacher through the old 80:20 GTP programme. But it was as they got older, and actually probably not really until they were both at uni and I could think about it, that I realised the possible effects that my ‘you can have it all’ decisions might have had. Yes, they had learnt that you need to work hard in life to get what you want, yes they had learnt the value of money, yes they both have confidence and adventure and yes, we have a fantastic close relationship. But there are things that perhaps I should have paid more attention to, the ‘you care about the children at school more than us’ comments, the teenage attempts to cuddle up that perhaps I should have recognised as stress, the not doing things with them because there was work to do, or school events. I didn’t spend enough time with them sometimes. Sometimes I think we have a naive opinion that the young years are the hard bit and the older years are much easier, they’re not; they are just as important and becoming an adult human being requires understanding and support at the same level as the child that needs their nappy changing and singing to sleep.

We all know, as teachers, that some of the worst behaved students we ever come across are not the poor students whose parents don’t work, but the privileged children whose parents are at work all the time, throwing material goods at their offspring to entertain them. One of the most poorly behaved students I have ever come across, lived in the biggest house. Some of the children of teachers I have known are often in trouble at school. It doesn’t take a child psychologist to figure out why, we know this and yet sometimes we choose to forget it.

So I guess my point is this, just because we can have it all, should we actually have it all? In our quest for status and promotion do we sometimes forget what really matters? And if we do want it, then we have to remember that it is a very fine balancing act, sometimes, what is happening at home is far more important than what is happening at work. Can we realistically balance that? I think there are times when I should have been a mum above everything else, and there are times when I should have considered ‘me’ so that when they left I wasn’t only left with work. My kids are great and I am dead proud of them. There is still plenty of time for us to spend together and the magic of technology means they are just a FaceTime away. Life isn’t perfect, in my experience it is quite messy and full of unexpected twists and turns, it’s what we treat the humans in our lives that ultimately matters.

But most importantly we should be careful to not consider in all aspects of life that there is one way of doing things. If we choose to use a strategy that works for us in our school and everyone is happy with it, so be it. If we choose not to climb the ladder to the top in our career, because other things are more important then so be it. If we think that we can do it all, then great. It doesn’t make us better or worse people, or teachers.

It’s all just fine.

*Obligatory children photos.

Shiny New Term

 

So we start a new school year, and as ever, we reflect on what worked and didn’t work across the last year. Boy was it a tough year; we were sailing into the unknown, hoping that what we were doing was right. After three days of little sleep, the GCSE results were published. It was all ok. I had two year 11 classes and they had done me proud, in particular, my 1/2/3 and a smattering of 4s class had absolutely smashed it. We had 5s and 6s. I proudly hugged crying students, who were so dumbfounded by their success, that all ‘coolness’ had disappeared. It felt good.

I work in a ‘challenging’ school, with over 50% of our students having English as an Additional Language and with a well above average PP cohort. We have just had the cohort with the lowest points score since 2010 get the highest results. But we can’t just sit on our heels, we have to keep going to work out how to give students the best possible education that we have to offer. But we also can’t burn out. We have to look at ways to make sure that we are all able to stay healthy and sane whilst also knowing that we are doing the best that we can for the students.

I’m not an academic. I’m a teacher who reads and trials ideas and strategies within the context of my classroom, the place where I’m happiest to be. I’ve learnt not to overload myself with new ideas; if I’m overloaded the kids are certainly overloaded. I need to take the things that work, and build on them, and chuck out what doesn’t work and doesn’t matter. I’m a real nitpicker, I dissect everything, and am always looking for ways to get better. So I sat with my exam results this week, and worked out question by question where my students had performed well. I was pleasantly surprised that they were pretty consistent. In fact, their marks for each of the Language papers were spookily close, and if there was anywhere that improvements were to be made, it was the writing tasks on both papers. So some things had worked. So what did I think worked, and what are my plans for the year.

 

Mindset

I become fiercely defensive over my students and I always want each and every one to succeed. When I first started teaching my 1/2/3/a few 4s targets in year 10, I was very aware that many of them felt like they couldn’t do it, that GCSEs were impossible. Many had complex SEN needs, some were EAL, and most were PP – everything that is supposed to be a barrier. But I just told them that we were all aiming for 4s and 5s and we were going to show everyone that we could do it. I kept repeating it. Their end point in my head, was the same as for all other students. I didn’t dumb things down and I never expected less of them, I just sometimes went a bit slower until we had mastered it, I sometimes pushed some of them harder, whilst scaffolding some of them up, but always kept the same end goal in mind. And they believed it. They believed that if they worked hard, they could achieve. We became a unit and on a rainy Wednesday in February half term (my birthday) they turned up for a revision school with a birthday cake for me. They had walked in the rain, with a cake (that got a bit squashed along the way) to come to school in the holiday, because they wanted to do well.

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And they did. I’ll admit that I went home and cried on results day because I had seen 6s on results slips. That may not seem much to some people, but some of these children had arrived at school not even having reached a level 1 in their SATs. So I have learned that it is vitally important to keep the same endpoint in mind for all. Not everyone will succeed, and there were a couple that weren’t ever interested in succeeding, but that we are letting students down if we don’t just expect the same from them, because if we only ever work to a 2 because that’s their target, we don’t know if actually they are capable of so much more, and they do appreciate that you keep that faith. That class will forever remind me of that.

 

Retention and interleaving

I started a personal research project with year 10 in the summer term, looking at interleaving and retention. I also used some of the same ideas with year 11, for revision, but focused mostly on yr 10. I wrote about the project here, if you want to see where the initial ideas stemmed from.

Students learnt quotes each week, and were tested on these. The idea was never that I wanted them just to know lots of quotes, but that they felt confident with the text. Their lessons were also interleaved so that they had lessons each week on prior learning and at the beginning of every lesson, students answered sets of questions on a selection of prior learning. They were also encouraged within lessons to connect across topics. So what did I find out?

Please bear in mind that this is a personal research project, there were lots of variables, it was never going to be perfect as research. I only had the previous year to compare with, so I compared how many quotes had been used in the end of year 10 Literature Paper 1 mock, compared to the same mock at exactly the same time the previous year. It couldn’t be directly comparable, the students were of varying abilities, but I wanted to see if learning the quotes meant that they used the quotes. They had. The orange and blue lines are from the previous year. They were using far less quotes in their answer than the grey and yellow lines, which were this year’s students.

graph

But did it impact on their marks? Well yes it did. The tables below show the results from 2016. The pink shows how many quotes they used,  the yellow their exam grade. We fine grade, so C is low, B middle and A high.

Capture

 

I did exactly the same for the 2017 classes. They had performed better overall in the mock and there was a correlation between the amount of quotes used and their exam performance.

Capture 1

 

Now please don’t jump on me; there are a huge number of variables. Maybe my overall teaching had improved, the students’ ability did not exactly correlate, there are still students that can’t be bothered, any number of things that make this all a load of rubbish….and yes I know that the exam board say that quotes don’t matter. But, for me, it was about making sure that the students felt confident with the texts and to have studied and analysed the language well enough to go into an exam and have something to write about. I think it does make a difference and, it is something that I will continue with.

So this is how this half term looks for me. They will do a piece of extended writing fortnightly, alongside interleaved lessons, but with An Inspector Calls as their main focus. Each week the homework leads into the following week. This worked well last year, with a high completion rate, once they knew that they would be tested and use what they had competed for homework in lessons.

plan

For the last half of the summer term, the students had homework booklets that they completed, where everything was designed to lead into the following week. I have slightly changed that this year, so that they are also learning vocabulary relevant to the topics every week, which they will then be tested on. I will also encourage that vocabulary use within lessons. They also have to complete 20 mins on the Bedrock vocabulary programme online every week, as well as completing pages from their Inspector Calls workbook. So this is how this term looks in terms of homework. The initial idea and template has totally been stolen from @evenbetterif

homework

They have a homework booklet where each week looks like this.

homework 1

The vocabulary and definitions are clear. I will have gone through them before they take them home.

homework 2

So we will see how that pans out. I’m adapting for year 10 and they will be taught using the same principles and interleaved lessons. I’m not claiming it will be perfect, but I am trying to encourage retention, confidence, challenge and independence. If there is one thing that the results have shown me this year, is that hard work makes the difference. The students know that if they learn and revise as they go along, it will make a difference at the end, and they are happy to go along with ‘Miss’s Project’ because they can see that it works.

 

Marking

I have 4 GCSE classes, and I need to improve on getting feedback to students quicker. There is no point in them waiting a week to get feedback, it needs to be as instant as possible. Last term I trialled whole class feedback, which worked really well. That is something that I want to continue this year. I also want to get better at live marking, so that as many students as possible get their feedback immediately and act on it there and then. I also want to play about with the idea of multiple choice questions as part of feedback. As part of our marking policy, we require students to either go back over their work, or answer questions relating to their work, but I want to look at how this can be tightened even more, so that it is instant and lightens my workload of an evening. I also very much like the idea of comparative judgement, but that is one for persuading those above me….watch this space.

 

Keep it simple

Lessons don’t need to have flashy ppts and millions of resources. There is such a thing as overload, and in the past I’ve been guilty of it. I’m teaching An Inspector Calls this term with me, copies of the text, some slides with vocabulary definitions, the students’ ideas and a lot of enthusiasm. Let’s see how that goes.

 

I wish you all a happy and productive year. Be kind to yourselves this year, don’t overload yourself with ideas, just because everyone seems to be doing them. Pick something that you think will work and see how it goes. I’ll leave the last words to a student. When it is dark and grey and we are tired, remember why we do this…because actually, in the end, education opens doors.

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