Moving on – 2

Thanks to all who have subscribed to this blog, and read it over the last year or two. However, on June 10 it will cease to be. If you would like subscribe to my new blog – same posts, merely self-hosted – then follow me here http://justtryingtobebetter.net/ You can subscribe again on the front page on the right hand side,

thanks for all of your support,

Kenny

Moving on.

In two and half years of blogging I have tried to keep things fresh while developing my skills as I go. I started on Blogger then moved here to wordpress.com.  Now, as I hope to develop the blog further I will be moving to a new site justtryingtobebetter.net I hope you follow me there and subscribe once again. Thanks for all of your support and comments. They are always gratefully received,

Kenny

Watching Me, Watching You. Some Thoughts on Observation Lessons

I like to think that I have a good grasp of everything that goes on in my classroom. Fourteen years experience in teaching coupled with meticulous planning allows me to say that confidently. Or so I thought. Experience provides us with an all-seeing eye but does it really tell us everything?  I’ve spent a lot of time in an observer’s role in classrooms recently and it has been revealing in many ways. The concentration on every detail has made me see the teacher through a lot of different eyes. And it has, consequently, made me a better teacher.

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Don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen some amazing teachers recently. Most of the students I see are taught well by them. But I’ve also seen kids floundering in class; seen them totally disengaged from the learning. I’ve seen kids work only when the teacher is close by; seen them hold their hands up for minutes at a time unnoticed. Usually only one, perhaps two, in a class. Easy to be missed, easy to be ignored even.  Some learn nothing. I suppose my questions is then: While we are happy to observe and ‘critique’ others, finding fault as we do so, are we comfortable applying those criteria to ourselves?

I’ve been very guilty of promoting myself on here, blogging about some of the good things I do in class. When I think they work well I write all about it, hoping to share. This week has, however, forced me to consider every student in my class and whether I’m truly, honestly reaching them all. ‘That worked’ is a comment we read and hear a lot in teaching. How do we know it worked for all? Can we ever know? If you could observe yourself, would you see a teacher who takes into consideration all of their students and is it, indeed, possible to always do that?

If you’re one of the, on average, eleven people a day who read my blog – erm, you might well be from Iran, so thank you – you’ll be aware of the marking approach I’ve adapted since Christmas. It has allowed me, at least once a week, to tailor my lessons to every individual in the class. I am much more aware of the least engaged and the least confident. Even so, my experience of focused observation recently has convinced me that I take too much for granted. One child not learning in one lesson is not good enough; but what happens when that becomes two, three, even five or six lessons?

In my experience, one-off observation lessons are never enough. They become box-ticking exercises with little educational value. It takes a series of lessons, ideally with the same class, to develop the skills to do it properly. After fourteen years I have been given the opportunity to do that. It has taught me to notice the little things. If observation is worth doing at all then we must insist that it given the time and respect it deserves. I have discovered this week that, done properly, it could make us all better teachers.

 

It’s All My Fault – And I Blame You

I read with horror this week about the U.S. Senate rejecting background checks for gun owners in the same week the whole country seemed to be focused on the dreadful events in Boston and the capture of the perpetrators. This only a week after the funeral of the most divisive politician of my life time. What becomes clear, when you pause and reflect on these events, is that the polarisation of public discourse results in very little being achieved. When we become so entrenched in our own beliefs that we see any relaxing of our positions as a weakness, we may as well throw up our hands and give up.

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It seems to me that Education, in both Scotland and England, is reaching this point, perhaps for different reasons mind you, but we really need to tone it down a little. In England, it seems to me that the Conservatives and Michael Gove are on an irreversible journey back in time. Recent public statements about shortening holidays and lengthening days were met with outrage and ridicule. Newspaper headlines summed up the mood of teachers and that was that. However, I can’t help but feeling that beneath all of that mistrust and finger-pointing there may well be a discussion to be had about changing the shape and form of the school year. That discussion seems a million miles away.

Shouting at each other might feel like the only available tool at the time but it, ultimately, achieves nothing. In Scotland we are forever caught in the maelstrom of Curriculum for Excellence fury. ‘It is dreadful’ one academic shouts from the roof tops. ‘It is wonderful and the way forward’ bellows another. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. We teachers have to deal with the implementation of the Curriculum every day of our lives. We struggle over Experiences and Outcomes, making them work for our students and we will get there. It is not wonderful yet but it could be. What doesn’t help is the polarisation of the argument. Again, beneath the sniping on both sides of the debate, there is a rational conversation about how we can make it work for all. That discussion seems a million miles away.

I’ve spent most Thursdays of my adult life shouting at ‘Question Time’ on the BBC, as one leading political party points the finger at another and that party does the same back. No-one takes responsibility for the real problems, the things we need to deal with now. And very little happens. From year to year. Ultimately point scoring might make us feel like we’ve won an argument but if very little changes then what have we achieved?

And spending your waking hours on Twitter doesn’t often help. When I tweet or blog I am merely expressing an opinion. Whether I like it or not it doesn’t make me right. Shouting one’s opinions really loudly doesn’t make them facts. Just loud opinions. Entrenching yourself at one end of debate, refusing to budge ain’t helpful I’m afraid.

Education has always been a political football; we shouldn’t expect politicians to always have our best interests at heart. However, when we debate the important issues there must be a time when we listen to what is being said by our so-called opponents. It is too important not to. Let’s tone it down a bit, people. And listen

A Word in their Ears – Podcasting as Feedback

I’m forever trying to find ways to make feedback stick. I suppose it comes from the harsh realisation that much of what we write on pupils’ work goes unread or unattended to. Therefore, the many hours I’ve spent on it is a waste of time. Recent blog posts have dealt in detail with approaches to marking but, in the senior school especially, when the technical side of writing should not be as much of an issue one would hope, I keep looking for ways to get my message through. Last week, I stumbled upon a blogpost which might well help.

I came across a you tube clip (see bottom of post) from Jim Burke, and English teacher in the USA whose blog I have followed for a while now. Jim has written several educational texts which I’ve read and his creative approach to English has been an inspiration to me at times. In this clip, Jim models how he gives feedback to students via iphone. It seemed to me to be a simple but practical way to provide feedback to my students, especially those going into their Fifth year of Secondary school, the big exam year. Written comments were working for some but not all.IMG_0380

Perhaps podcasting would prove to be a more helpful method, for some anyway. And, you never know, I may well cut out some of the time I felt I’d been wasting. I’ve had an iphone for a few months now and am only just getting used to its possibilities in the classroom. I use the camera a lot to connect to the digital projector to display good pieces of work or problems areas we all need to address in writing. If you have one too, then you’ll have the Voice Memo App.IMG_0592

As it was a new strategy I initially asked for ten volunteers from a class of 30. I got fifteen, perhaps due to the novelty factor. The only difference they had to make was to include numbers at each paragraph and an e-mail address. I’d take care of the rest. I also promised to mark them in the usual fashion if they were not happy or comfortable with the result. We’d spent a few weeks looking at persuasive writing and were writing responses to Nick Hornby’s book, ’31 Songs'; a project entitled ‘I Don’t Care What You Think About My Music!’. As a class we came up with ten criteria on Penultimate on ipad:IMG_0594I responded on the Sunday and really enjoyed it. After a couple of practice runs I settled into it and was, on average, creating podcasts of about a minute and half to two minutes. I also felt that I could go into a little more depth in places and definitely use praise more specifically. (I will try and add one of the podcasts here once I learn how to do that.)

I  emailed the podcasts and got very positive feedback in return., They could stop and start their feedback and listen to particular areas in detail. Final drafts were excellent, as I would have expected from this class anyway, but the whole process felt more productive and more personal.

On the whole, I can see the potential of this new approach in the senior school. I wouldn’t dare do it in S1 to 3 (years 8 to 10?) as they need correction as well as feedback. But a more focused, mature connection to students’ work seems to make sense. I don’t think I could make it a blanket policy – I’ll need to give students the option – but it could well work, you know. And, if that feedback is getting through at all, then it has be worth it.

Jim Burke’s you tube clip

The Nigel Hawthorne Effect

For the #blogsync project  “Wasted investment? Why do so many teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years?”

The Hawthorne effect is a form of reactivity whereby subjects improve or modify an aspect of their behaviour being experimentally measured simply in response to the fact that they know they are being studied, not in response to any particular experimental manipulation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawthorne_effect

The Nigel Hawthorne effect is…

The Scottish Curriculum has eight words. That’s all it needs. Those words form the basis of what we would like in the citizens of our country. It struck me, ten years ago now, as a remarkably refreshing view of the world we want to create for the next generation. In only eight words. Who could argue with them? Who could argue that we would want the children in our classrooms to be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors? So isn’t it all the more incredible that those eight words have morphed into this:

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Every teacher is Scotland has one of these somewhere in their classrooms. I haven’t got much stationery and often have to buy my own red pens – don’t get me started again – but I have one of these. These eight words seem to have got out of hand, a bit like the movie Gremlins. We just couldn’t leave them alone, could we? Flicking through this beautifully produced folder you get the feeling that we’ve, somewhere along the line, missed the point. From  a brief, inspirational message of hope in only eight words you can’t open this up without a feeling of despair and it shouldn’t be that way.

We now have to ensure that we are covering outcomes and expectations and referring to them at all times. We must know the lingo and be able to spurt out buzzwords over the morning coffee, the original intention seemingly lost in a miasma of bullshit. The necessity to over regulate is one of the most disenfranchising aspects of our job. Any creativity often crushed beneath a gathering storm of paperwork and box ticking. We turn ourselves inside out sometimes with waffle and jargon. It seems that those who succeed upwards are the ones who have become expert in that waffle and jargon.

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The Hawthorne Effect might suggest that teachers turn into something different when you give them a big folder full of lots of words. Do we modify our behavior accordingly? Is it true that we have to turn into that in order to get on in the profession? Is knowing the jargon more important than being the best teacher you can be? Or should we be striving for both?

The Nigel Hawthorne effect suggests that we turn simple but important concepts and ideas into an overcomplicated gobbledygook. Just because we can.

At the risk of repeating myself, I have always believed that those original eight words should be the bedrock for any curriculum and a basis for everything I do. After a bad week at the office I fully intend to return to them at every opportunity. It doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be like this.