The thing about the beginning of each school year is that you always feel that things will be better. It does not matter how inherently unknown the future might seem in a people profession, the complications of managing people and learning seem to melt behind the pristine columns of long term plans and bulging download folders.
Of course, this is not the case. It does not take long for each class to encounter the same human fallibility of missed deadlines and cold kids, of misdirected angst and falling out with friends. Of course, much of the reactionary nature of managing learning makes an average teacher expert. As I, and others, have often said, the Government feel that anyone can become a teacher. And, truth be told, anyone can tell a room of students to read a text book. And, from that sink-tank expectation, as long as you can get such students to move through the work, then you can earn your money. Schemes of work and long-term plans can give this impression – that moving through content is enough to be a teacher.
Reacting and moulding a lesson according to the human beings in front of you is what makes a teacher a leader. Developing that judgement of what can be taught, and how it should be taught, is what makes a teacher an expert.
But such expertise requires a laser-focus on what you want the students to learn, and how you assess the veracity of that learning. This tension, between organising a curriculum for a class, and moulding it depending on the requirements both short and long term, is what makes a teacher an expert.
Nowhere is that expertise needed more, I think, than in the beginning of a year. It is at this point that expectations that are forged and routines are established. I have an idea of what I want to do this year, and intend to summarise my plans for the year ahead, but before outlining this I would like to reflect on a short history of first lessons.
For many years I began my lessons with the story ‘nail soup’. This folk tale tells of a character who invites himself for dinner at the house of an affluent neighbour. Upon arriving he makes ‘nail soup’: a cauldron of boiling water flavoured solely an iron nail plonked in its bottom. As he begins to cook, though, he suggests his richer partner to place a variety of vegetables and meat into the mix.
At this point in the story, I call upon the students to suggest ingredients to place in the imaginary cauldron and pretend to stir it.
The story ends with our resourceful hero plucking the flavourless nail from the soup and declaring the dish complete. At this point I call upon the students to relate this story to their schooling. The bester students devise an explanation along the lines of ‘you get out of school what you put in’.
The rest of the lesson would largely be administration.
After a year or so of this, I also required my students to create a series of expectations for themselves and myself. This would be fairly substantial, and would lead to 5 or so pointers for themselves and myself.
About four years or so ago, I began to use the Stephen Coveyesque method of requiring the students to imagine their legacy: how would they be remembered? The lesson involved analysing a video on motivation, and recording their desires for a legacy on an envelope that they would be returned at the end of the year. The lesson afterwards would involve administration and a starter on analysing sentence and correcting sentence types.
This year, I desire something different. With the year I have planned ahead, I believe that the motivation video and suchlike can be used later in the opening. As there is a window of about three weeks or so (a honeymoon period of establishing expectations), I think there can be a happy transition into the rigour of the year.
My first lessons this year will be:
a) Having set homework: homeworks over the course of the year will be either maintenance homeworks (for spelling, vocabulary, responding to comments, or responding to marking videos), DARTs homeworks involving one of the three templates, or a Full English homework that will be varied and possibly ongoing.
b) Students having received their books: these will be numbered according to the student name in my/the departmental Markbook. Neatness will be key, although there will be difference between note handwriting and presentation handwriting.
c) Maintenance sheets having been received: spelling sheets; vocabulary sheets; video grammar sheets; homework sheets; template sheets.
d) Assessment, rubrics and marking sheets being shared: book marking explanation; rubric explanation (along with exemplars); stickers or A5 sheet tracking scores.
e) Starter routines established:
Lesson of week Key Stage 3 Key Stage 4
1 Maintenance (see when homework is due) Quizlet/text comprehension
2 Inference sheet Maintenance (see when homework is due)
3 Question Inference sheet
4 Grammar Question
f) Use of analysing fiction, non-fiction and creating writing templates established: students complete a DARTs activity relating to some/most/all aspects of that template. Expectation is that students will find their own key texts, and will create their own key texts based upon these sheets.
g) Full-English lessons shared (and activities voted upon?). Lessons that are not focussed on DARTs will offer analysis based upon Full English lessons. The Full English is a wonderful book written by the exciting Julie Blake that summarises approximately 120 different activities useful for the English classroom outside conventional academic bookwork: debates, storyboarding, drama-based activites are the kind of things to expect. If I give students a choice of 3-5 activities to choose from, these can be planned (and some responsibility given to the students). For me, this also gives students the chance to experience challenge-based learning without the usual issues of not receiving enough academic guidance elsewhere.
h) Initial tests completed for reading and spelling ages: usually completed with accelerated reader, these will be completed at the start and the end of the year. Ideally, this information should inform teaching.
i) Initial surveys completed for start of the year, along with motivation scores (see Geoff Petty) and email addresses garnered: this is especially useful for providing mailing lists for revision material, and for assessing inspiration of students.
j) Learning objective styles understood: the solo taxonomy, the nature of the four levels of questioning, and the Kristian Still learning objective setting.
k) Motivation established and shared: from the key video, and later (as perhaps a text-based task, too).
You are set English homework once per week. You will either:
a) Receive a text to analyse or create using one of our three templates for work in English.
b) Be given explicit time to maintain your books (complete spelling sheets, vocabulary sheets, responding to marking, watch and respond to individualised grammar videos).
c) Complete a ‘Full English’ homework which will be a class-voted creative task (such as prepare for a debate or presentation).
In addition to these homeworks, which will refine the fundamental skills you will learn in class, you will also have the opportunity to extend your skills by:
a) Analysing a text begun in class using other techniques not focussed upon in that particular lesson.
b) Explore exemplars for each of the given techniques to see the highest level of performance to which you should aspire.
Finally, over the course of the year you will expected to:
a) Produce a text of your choosing (poem, song, prose, non-fiction) for the class to analyse.
b) Find a text for the class to analyse, and justify why it has been chosen.
High-performance learning skills are expected.