Today we are learning to…ask questions

Can I be quite controversial here and say that I’ve always been a little disconcerted by Learning Intentions? Not that I’ve anything against intending to learn in the classroom, or even allowing the students in front of me to learn. Indeed, on some days I think it is a positive thing. It is, however, the very prescribed nature of how they are used and how we seem to have taken Dylan Wiliam’s original intention (Learning Intention) a bit too literally which discomforts me.
I had the recent pleasure of mentoring a student teacher who, I’m sure, will go on and be a fabulous educator. She worked closely with my lovely S1 class (eleven and twelve year olds) and they did some great work together. By the time her assessed lesson came around – or ‘Crit’ as some of you may better know them – she was well-prepared and ready to go. Indeed, the lesson appeared to go very well and I caught some the kids leaving class beaming widely and giving me the ‘thumbs up’. ‘She got the job’ said one of them, endearingly.
The feedback session, at which I was present, took me by surprise though. Student had not spent enough time talking through each of the three Learning Intentions. Even less going through each of the success criteria at the end. My God, I thought, how much time would there be left for teaching? I want the kids to know what they are learning, of course, but are we not getting bogged down in an overly homogenous approach to lesson planning? Over planning your lesson to the point where you are limiting yourself to two or three ‘things to learn’  is, in my opinion, a recipe for bad teaching.
 Dylan Wiliam, to my understanding, asked us to think about the way we teach. I don’t think he envisaged a world where we would be saying ‘Today I am doing Assessment is for Learning’ or ‘Today I think I’ll do some of that co-operative learning.’ So what’s the answer?
Having just read Padgett Powell’s ‘The Interrogative Mood’ , a book in which every sentence is a question, I have begun to think carefully about the questions I use in class. Not necessarily questioning techniques- I happen to believe I’m pretty good at that- but the questions themselves.  Powell’s book is an infuriating thing, never seeming to be going anywhere but, for some reason, it works. The questions, seemingly unlinked in anyway, got to me at times, and the book began to make sense. It reminded me that the questions we formulate for our classrooms should supersede any Learning intention we might be tempted to write on the board.
Mike Schmoker, in his sometimes controversial but always thought-provoking book, Focus, says: ‘The quality and availability of good questions is essential to engagement and interest as students read, discuss and write.’
What if the most important part of any lesson or course was a series of well thought through questions which we would expect our students to be able address (not necessarily answer) by the end of their learning?  Just asking…

Things to do in Ten Minutes

In his wonderful 2002 memoir, Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference, Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, touchingly recalls the book which changed his life. He had been a football player, one who lived for sport and never the academic life until he was introduced to Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.

“I read in a rage that so much that was palpably my business had been kept from me. It’s like finding that the post office has for years been siphoning away packet after packet of the most engrossing letters – some of them approaching love letters, no less – addressed personally to me. And who has been guilty of this malfeasance? Who are the corrupt officials? The faculty of Medford High are the main conspirators…A line by the poet Richard Brautigan summed it all up: My teachers could have ridden with Jesse James for all they stole from me. I read it and wept angry tears sliding over my face and down onto the bucking mustang.”
(Teacher:The One Who Made the Difference, Edmundson,
Vintage, New York, 2002)
A young boy in my class this week failed an Assessment fairly badly. He is a fairly unengaged kid, likeable but disinterested. While I had hoped that he would have passed the paper comfortably – he has made some great progress this year – he barely completed half of the questions. What I then discovered was that he had been reading Nick Hornby’s ‘Slam’ underneath the desk. This is a boy who definitely had not been a reader. He reads for the first ten minutes of every lesson, as do all of my classes, and I am, secretly, very proud of him.
Should I be? Should I have been more observant? Perhaps. However, that boy is a reader and I’d like to think that has something to do with me.  This class is challenging for many reasons. I have laughed and cried over them. We have had some magical moments this year: and some horrible ones. But I have persisted with the ten minutes reading at the beginning of each period. Even when pressures of coverage, resistance to any reading from some and, at times, open hostility made it extremely tempting to give up and do something else.
Ten minutes. Everyday. Some had never read a whole book on their own. One has now read four of five. The cumulative effect of ten minutes reading has turned some of them into readers. So it’s worth it, isn’t it? What else can you do in ten minutes? Walk to the local shop for a paper? Have a cup of tea? Relax during half time at the football? Listen to three songs on your Ipod? So providing – and I use that word deliberately – ten minutes for every single pupil to read whatever they like can be transformative over time.
If you are an English Teacher and you are contemplating dropping Library/ Reading time because that essay needs finished, please don’t. I beg of you. Be patient and you could, perhaps, change someone’s life.

‘Inanimate Alice’ – Preview of Coming Attractions

Sometime you’ve just got to let the kids speak for themselves. Digital Narratives due, hopefully, by Friday, after our Red Carpet Premiere, Period Two.

Morgan
‘Alice watched as the beautiful Scottish countryside whizzed past the train window into the heart of Glasgow. Although she wasn’t concentrating on any of the massive green fields containing lovely little lambs and their mothers or the horses that resembled Black Beauty, her favourite childhood book. Alice was thinking about the most important thing that was happening in her life so far and it was happening today…’
Craig
‘I’m being chased by a boy that I met on a plane on my journey to see my mum. I’ve been running for ages and I’m starting to find it hard to breathe. He is right behind me and I can feel him breathing down my neck. It is dark; however, I can still see the faint shadow of the boy behind me. I sprint round a few corners but my energy is wearing thin. I suddenly stop…I take a breath…And turn round. That faint shadow has gone.  My heart is racing and my legs are shaking like jelly…’
Catherine
‘Alice can’t concentrate on anything at the moment, not even the Sudoku puzzle in front of her. She is too excited. If this day goes well, her life will completely change. Most seventeen year olds would be panicking at this moment in time, but not Alice; she is very confident that this day will go well. After moving to Edinburgh, Scotland, Alice has become a much happier person. She even has a job, she works at the Apple Store in Glasgow and she finds out if she gets a promotion today. That is why she is excited. If she gets this job she will be an App Designer…’
Beth
‘I don’t enjoy being alone, but what’s worse is being alone in the dark. Today was supposed to be an amazing day. Now, I just want it to be over. Nikki and I spent ages planning to go to a theme park for a day. Nikki’s my best friend; we do everything together. It took ages to convince Ming and John to let me go today, after what happened when we lived in England. I promised them I’d be really careful, that I wouldn’t do anything stupid…’
Marc
‘I’m really excited. I’ve never been on a trip like this before. I’m even more excited because my parents are coming with me! We never go on trips together. The last trip we all went on was when we flew over here from Russia, but that wasn’t really a trip.
Let’s see, have I got everything I need? Book? Check! Extra Shoes? Check? Ba-xi? Check? Water bottle? Oh no, I’ve forgotten my water! I’ll need to rush back quickly to get it…’
Teachers, do you know those days you get when you are reminded that you have the best job in the world? Today was one of those. I’ve a feeling Friday might top it, though.

How We Are Demotivating Readers

I read today in the TESS that East Lothian Council was leading the way in the use of Accelerated Reader and my heart sank. Have we not moved on from all of that?

You see the problem with packages like this is that they look really nice. They also ensure children read lots of books, which is never a bad thing, is it? Well, that depends on what we want from our children. Do we want to encourage them to read, to allow them to develop into lifelong readers who’ll value the things that we value? Or do we just want to make sure they are reading?
With Accelerated Reader, books are assigned points and pupils must complete a multiple choice (yes, multiple choice) test on the computer after reading to get the points. There appears to be free choice but only if there is a test for that particular book. Everyone in the class reads though. Why wouldn’t they? They get to go on the computer at the end. So what’s my beef?
Well, if all you want is to look into a classroom and see a class full of wee kids reading then Accelerated Reader is your man. However, I will throw a wee spanner in to the works. I would suggest that Accelerated Reader not only fails to encourage children to read for pleasure, it actually causes damage in the long term.
I was initially fairly impressed with the package the first time I tried it. A relatively reluctant class of mostly boys were quite happy to read away and complete their multiple choice tasks. Then I started to notice something. The boys began to look at the number of points assigned to a book before they’d even read the blurb or, dare I say it, judged it by its cover. So the book was valued on its points rather on the value of the book itself. After we moved on from Accelerated Reader, which they all must at some point, they stopped reading.
What happens when these children move on is that they become de-motivated when those points are not there anymore. Children are taught to read for the wrong reasons. The short term successes have serious long term drawbacks.
In his book ‘Readicide’, Kelly Gallagher cites some research done in the USA by Karin Chenowith. She found that:
            “…although students did a significant amount of reading in the program (sic) , their reading dropped lower than nonparticipants within one month of exiting Accelerated Reader. Without the points, their motivation significantly decreased.’
                                                            (Readicide, Gallagher, p.75)
Some teachers like the programme because it ensures a class full of readers; but believe me when I say it is merely window dressing.

Seth Godin and Curriculum for Excellence

‘Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them.’

                                                     Seth Godin
Reading Seth Godin’s excellent  book, ‘Poke the Box’ this week gave me a wee jolt, one I had not been expecting. I always find his work thought –provoking, even inspiring, but this one hit home on many levels. I read books like this with one eye on my personal life and one on my teaching life. I like to think that I can always push myself onto a new level, can enjoy myself on a more satisfying level ; but I also want to improve as a teacher, an educator, a colleague and a professional.  
With this in mind, Godin’s book  led me to some interesting thoughts about the current journey towards the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland. Godin’s main thrust is that the biggest block to progress is a reticence to ‘do’ things while spending too much time preparing, discussing, chin scratching.  As he says: ‘Whether polishing a piece of furniture or an idea, the benefits diminish quickly. The polishing turns into stalling.’
I began to think of the times I’ve spent on Working Groups, Teacher Learning Communities and others such bodies. All well- intentioned, some fantastic in terms of collaboration if not product , or product if not collaboration. Some relatively pointless. Familiar tale?
Godin discusses in detail the effects of this lack of action in large organisations. Without moving forward you don’t stand still, you go backwards. If management block or fail to encourage progress and creativity then it becomes all the more difficult for these organisations to move and react to large necessary changes.
Could this be one of the real problems with the less than smooth transition to Curriculum for Excellence? Could it be argued that teachers have been discouraged from thinking freely and acting creatively for so long that the profession finds it difficult to suddenly be ‘given’ so much freedom? Have we been pinned back so much that we simply cannot, as a collective body, ‘poke the box’? 
It seems that we have been discussing the implications of the Curriculum for Excellence for years. Our cupboards have some lovely looking folders filled with some beautifully produced documents. We have unpacked outcomes alone and with colleagues. We have, perhaps, created new units of work, cross-curricular on occasion. And there are some wonderful things going on out there. However, as a profession, is it time we all stopped the discussion and started as Godin says, ‘taking the initiative to do work you decide is worth doing’?
A final quotation for ‘Poke the Box’ sums it perfectly. He recalls Scott Fitzgerald’s line from Jay Gatsby, attempting to impress the already lost Daisy.
“What would be the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do?”
And we all remember what happened to him, don’t we?

Thinking Beyond Alice

I’ve been teaching with ‘Inanimate Alice’ since January and it has been a long old term. We are coming to the end of the session and closer to the day when we will leave Alice behind. So what has changed? What have we all learned?
Throughout this series of lessons and Blog Posts I have tried to be open and honest about what I expect to get from ‘Inanimate Alice’ as well as providing great lessons for my students. From the beginning I looked at this as a learning process for me as much as anyone.  
Increasingly aware that the assessment tail was more and more wagging the dog, as an English teacher I have been for some time questioning the value of some of the Writing in my classes. Indeed, beyond a very shallow assessment remit, Writing is more and more becoming a redundant exercise in schools. How much of what we get the kids to write in class ends up in the bin at the end of the day? Or gets sent off to some anonymous marker at SQA? If we cannot convince students that Writing is important beyond the narrow assessment criteria we present to them then how can we expect them to value writing?
As well as creating their own digital episodes – I hope to post them in the next week or two -my class will write about ‘Alice’. But they will publish their writing in a blog and use those posts as part of a submitted report. They will develop their episodes into more traditional creative writing and produce a class ‘book’ of stories. For if they have learned one thing from their study of ‘Inanimate Alice’ it is the importance of audience. Using words like ‘publish’ and ‘create’ seems to have given what I foolishly perceived as a class of not overly talented pupils in English a greater sense of purpose and enthusiasm.
Standing back and watching these kids completely submerged in their work has shown me that Curriculum for Excellence can and must work. The cross curricular elements married to the collaborative possibilities Alice provides, suggests, I think, that if we are to engage our young people in the future we must construct lessons in which the process of learning is at least as important as the end product. Assessing their ability to try new things in new situations, to be given the time and space to take risks without worrying about narrow criteria has shown me that there is a better way.
It’s no longer Education, Education, Education. It’s Engagement, Engagement, Engagement!