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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
They have a homework booklet where each week looks like this.
The vocabulary and definitions are clear. I will have gone through them before they take them home.
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.
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.