As I said (at some length!) in my last post, each year brings with it the promise of the next being better. Of course, the ambition of the year must fight against the tricky tides of mood and promise; schemes of work must be breathed into life by Year 9 on a Friday afternoon when the wind blows strongest.
This year has been pleasing. Here are some points to make:
1) Photocopying material onto an A4 booklet (so the material is A5) scaffolds note taking and facilitate marking. It also looks coherent, too. Books so far are a pleasing mix of extended writing, cloze exercises, and template completion. The quality of texts that my students have enjoyed so far has also, as a point, risen: they (and I) seem happier to tackle trickier extracts from canonical texts.
2) My structure of starter types have released cognitive capacity for myself and my students to form useful routines. For too long I ‘relied’ upon resources from the usual banks (TES/TeachIt/Red Hot Starters/Badger Starters) and found them somewhat lacking. My use of rigorous 1970s/80s text book material (I know!) has enough stretch and support for my classes to begin as soon as they enter the room. My students have an explicit grammar lesson (to which I will come to shortly) once every two weeks, and an explicit grammar starter once every week. I used to use explicit grammar starters every lesson. This system seems more rigorous: students revisit and reinforce similar points of grammar over the two weeks.
3) My UK training, and the desire to maintain 100% (O)utstanding lessons(!), means that the very students who need an academic ‘grind’ to establish the foundations needed to interpret texts deeper than a denotational level do not often do so. By this, I do not often let my (currently) weaker students write at length independently out of exam situations. The reasons why are manifold. Often the only thing at length in such situations is the time given. Without focus, the writing (whether it be creative or analytical) is often desperately short. These students, who may literally never write outside of mandatory school tasks, might dedicate time and energy to avoiding the task (which for some inner-city teachers should be seen as a euphemism).
What this means is this: this week saw me able to give my weaker students 20-25 minutes of independent writing time to analyse a literary texts after three hours of modelling from previous lessons. The lesson itself was planned for the time of day, the grammatical starter and the individualised instructions for each table. While the output was ‘only’ between 4 and 12 sentences (with a mode of 6), the quality demonstrated was a quantum leap from the previous year. Techniques were identified (with figurative language, verb choices, word order and advanced punctuation addressed) and analysis was almost universally specific. Students from our EAL programme with little-to-no practice in analysing literature explicitly made seemingly significant strides towards autonomous analysis.
Even a few years ago, such students might have analysed in a whole-class scenario or only in timed-essays. Their analytical experience is so shaky that often a generic form of analysis (the short sentence offers emphasis) that might hit a D/C (with coursework, and speaking and listening) is all they achieve. Now, specific, independent analysis seems possible for even the weakest of students in class on a regular (once a week/fortnightly) basis.
At this point I should like to express my view on the notion that teachers are made, not born. I do believe that a reflective, organised practitioner will eventually trump a charismatic, sharp performer. However, to guide students towards investing the substantial emotional and intellectual cost of learning my subject requires no little charisma. They have to feel the purpose I express, and they have to feel safe to write failing analysis. The idea of ‘rapid progress’ is flawed, save when it is observed in a judicious manner. For the first time in my career, I feel able to let such learning peculate through the lives of all my students – especially those for whom English is a dire experience normally.
4) My marking has been manageable so far this year. Although I have yet to transfer rubric grading to either my (or their!) rubric sheets, I have marked them. I feel that having an explicit lesson near the start of the year where I guide students through their path on the rubric sheet will help them understand how to improve more effectively, and me with my tracking of student achievement.
In schools there is often criticism for sharing criteria with the students that uses concepts that they or their parents might be able to somewhat do, but cannot easily explain (e.g. analyse/ evaluate/ compose/ contrast). For me, there is a fine line between sharing this criteria with my students, and empowering them to use those terms in an applicable way themselves. However, to not simplify these words to the point where they are not used is not a permanent (or perhaps even ideal) solution.
I am reminded of TES anecdotes that present the ‘teacher who the kids, parents and SMT love’ who achieves mixed results, and the curmudgeon that ‘is not disliked, but not loved’ who ‘often’ achieves great results. The deciding factor is expectation. Teaching with terms that will empower the students if they truly understand them surely has to be done. The ideal, though, is that such terms are used with the charisma and clarity to sell them.
5) My planning has become streamlined between a single MTP document for each class (complete with banks for DARTs Lessons, Principle Lessons, and Full English Lessons) and my Planning for Students PowerPoint. I have moved away from the ‘Planning for Teachers’ document as it was difficult to manage, and it was never read usefully by other teachers, anyway.
6) I have slowly released my maintenance sheets for my students: the upcoming Mondays will see students working on keeping them going. So far, so good.
We will be inspected in five weeks or so, and so I will see how my routines continue. After a reasonably long career of kudos-driven observations, I feel that my teaching is more connected and coherent than ever. I feel lucky that this has continued even though I have moved away from teaching Full English Lessons (i.e. ‘engaging, prop-based lessons’) for observations. Instead, I would want an observer to discern the connections students make between their lessons, and of the individualised, empowered curriculum they follow.
Of course, this requires the observer to have themselves taught (or have desired to teach) beyond a prescribed and linear scheme of work. My lifestyle and experience allows me to do this: my ambition to seek alternative lifestyles while still maintaining the standard I demand of my profession.
That is the next step.