The Exercise Bike Principle

You know what I mean. Towering hopes and lofty intentions. The shiny bike that will change everything. You’ve heard about it from others; it comes highly recommended from people you should respect. You’ve even seen it in action at the training day; great examples from highly satisfied customers. So, after walking about with a big dream bubble above you for a few days, you go out and spend your budget on it. This is what you’ve been waiting for. This is the answer to your prayers.

The introductions to Aifl and Co-operative learning were a bit like that. We were all gathered into a big room to see how it worked. We were given examples of fantastic ways to use it, ways it would make us fitter, stronger, better teachers. It was a guarantee that our students would be fitter, stronger, better learners. So we headed back to our classrooms with this shiny new bike which would change everything. And it all started reasonably well, didn’t it? First couple of days, the memory of the enthusiastic sales pitch still fresh in our memories. Then things start to go wrong.

So what happened? Like countless hack golfers up and down the country, because we’re not proficient at cycling in our bedrooms immediately, we give up when we encounter difficulty. It wasn’t like this in the manual. It wasn’t like this on the training day. We’re not used to being in that position of weakness, we teachers. We like the comfort of the known, the familiar. We’re  happy with the things we know we can do, things which have served us well. They’ve perhaps not served our students that well at times, but we like them…

The problem with the Exercise Bike Principle is that it fails to inform us that buying the bike and playing about with it for a while will be ultimately fruitless. What it should be about is habit changing and teachers are the worst at that. As the joke goes:

‘How many teachers does it take to change a light bulb?


What we need to do – like those exercise and diet programmes do so successfully- is work together as teams to change long term approaches to Aifl and co-operative learning. ( add your own here) We need to avoid going back to our own bubble and peddling away alone. The future of Professional Development in Education needs to see a radical overhaul in approach to how we, as educators, learn.

What have attempted to do over the last year is to gather like minded teachers to try and do just that; to change our approach to CPD and maybe change our habits. We want teachers to come together and change long term approaches to learning and, ultimately, change habits. We organised the Scottish Leaning Festival Fringe event because many teachers were finding it more and more difficult to get out of school for a day. We are gathering one hundred educators in a room, on a Saturday, to share ideas and strong opinions. It’s not that we don’t have to work in a bubble any more, it is that we must not. We need to stop cycling away in our rooms on our own and, lest face it, going nowhere.

That First Marked Piece of Writing

The first piece of writing you mark is, I think, the most important one you will mark all year. Do it right and you can set a path for some valuable feedback and great improvement in the writing of your students. Do it wrong and you could cause confusion and tension for the rest of the year. In that opening term eagerness to impress, the energetic burst of work which you allow yourself before tiredness and disillusion begin to set in, it is very easy to return marked writing too soon. It’s worth taking time over it though.

As an English teacher there is nothing which overwhelms me more than the marking load which, despite my attempts to time it better, seems to arrive from every class on the same day. Potentially one hundred and fifty students will hand work to me which needs my attention. Each one needs me to give feedback which will help them to improve. So I have to play the long game here. Correcting every error in a piece of writing will not make someone a better writer. Depending on the success criteria of the task, technical details will be the last thing I look at. Of course I want them to be technically efficient writers but I’ll address the needs of the content first.

One of the most effective pieces of advice I’ve gleaned is from Kelly Gallagher’s book, ‘Teaching Adolescent Writers’. Reading and assessing students’ written work during the process of writing is far more effective than waiting until they finish. Much of existing practice suggests that many students, especially in the upper school, are given written tasks to take away as homework. What we are in effect doing there is closing off some excellent opportunities for real assessment. Assessing the process rather than the outcome is far more valuable than a comment or, even worse, a grade on a piece of writing. Roll your sleeves up and get down into it with them.

As much as we’d like to mark everything, self-preservation is really important. You need a life. This is when true peer assessment come into play.  Students need to be shown how to do this properly. Too often they are handed a list of criteria and asked to tick boxes. That might lighten your workload but it teaches them nothing. See Dylan William’s ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’ for some fantastic strategies. (This book is essential reading and I must write a post about it exclusively.)

If there is a Departmental or, hopefully, a school correction code then you must use it when you correct the technical weaknesses in writing. Often it is slapped up on the wall and pointed to occasionally or hidden in a homework diary. Have them keep it open on their desks and teach them how to use it right away.  They will begin to see it as a natural extension of their work and it will serve them well throughout their school lives.

You will also need to keep reminding yourself why you are marking this writing. It will be school policy; it certainly should be departmental policy; you may well do it to get it out of the way before the next pile of marking comes in. But you are marking this in order to help the student improve. If your feedback is not geared towards future improvement, if it is not solely based on the previously agreed success criteria, if your words remind the student of how poor they have done, it will all have been a waste of time. ‘This is what you did well.’ ‘This is where you need to improve.’ Be specific. ‘Can you explain this metaphor more clearly, please?’ ‘How many question marks should be in this paragraph?’ ‘Which character have you missed from this list?’ The student knows exactly how to improve the piece.

And, there’s the rub. Nothing makes me angrier than teachers who say they have no time to spend on allowing students to rewrite work. You have to move on. So you find yourself writing the same thing on essay after essay, jotter after jotter. Why don’t they learn? Because you haven’t given them the time or support to do so. Marking work is the only time you can teach kids to learn from their mistakes, perhaps the greatest way to learn. Time spent on it makes it clear that you are interested in them getting better.  It can be an important link to parents. As Phil Beadle rightly states in his book ‘How to Teach’:

‘Nothing  speaks louder to an observer or parent of your uselessness than an exercise book containing loads of work and no marking. It is genuinely offensive to them, and for good reason.’

Someone once said that you should treat students as if their parents were in the room. Can you say the same about their written work?

Beadle, Phil 2010 ‘How to Teach’  (Crown House Publishing, Carmarthen)

Gallagher, Kelly 2006 ‘Teaching Adolescent Writers’ ( Stenhouse Publishers, Portland Maine)

Wiliam, Dylan 2011 ‘Embedded Formative assessment’  (Solution Tree Press, Bloomington)

Introducing the Class Novel

One of the great joys of being an English teacher is the freedom, to an extent, to take any book you’ve read into the classroom and teach your lessons around it. I could read a short story on the Sunday night, have an idea, and construct a lesson around it first thing on Monday. I very often tear a page out of the Sunday paper and ask my classes to analyse the language. Other teachers may look on enviously but seeing the learning potential in everything I read does bring its own problems. So, how do you approach an introduction to the novel in class?

Ask anyone in the English Department and they’ll agree that teaching your favorite books in class is never a good idea, despite the temptation. It is almost guaranteed that your students will not like it as much as you do and, more often than not, you’ll resent each other because of that. So, first piece of advice would be to keep that book to yourself. I’ve never taught The Great Gatsby because I’ve been aware of disasters occurring in other classrooms. Choose a book which will allow you to tackle the language areas they need and will, hopefully, resonate with their lives in some way. Now, that doesn’t need to be modern or contemporary – teenagers in Scotland do get Shakespeare and enjoy the plays when they are taught well – but think carefully about what you want them to take away from the book.

Crucially, you should read the book again in its entirety. It will be fresher in your mind and you will without doubt find some new gem of wisdom in there, even if you have read it every year since forever. I teach The Catcher in the Rye almost every year and read it every summer. The book may not change but I certainly do. And I find a new angle almost every time. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that you know what’s coming. You will almost certainly miss something.

Your book has been chosen. You have reread it. You’re ready to go. How do you approach the first lesson? Think carefully about what you want them to learn from the book. At the end of the process what will be the knowledge and skills they have acquired? Returning to The Catcher in the Rye, as well as studying the novel’s symbolism and narrative stance, I want my students to think about the origin of the teenager from the time of the novel up to the present day. We may read about James Dean and Elvis, about teenage rebellion and its post World War Two roots. We end up discussing the difficulties of the teenager in the modern day. So submerge yourself in sources. Newspaper articles, film clips, anything you can get your hands on.

The danger now is to charge meaningfully into chapter one; but readers don’t always work like that, do we? We can judge a book by its cover. So start by asking students to predict what the book may be about from the front cover, or even the covers from a series different editions. As a class, write twenty questions about the first chapter which we need to answer as we read. A new class novel can be an intimidating thing for some kids but embrace the confusion, use that to your advantage. We need teach kids to be persistent with challenging reading and predicting is one of the main skills good readers possess.

Now you’re ready to read. Reading out loud is one of the greatest pleasures of my job. I very rarely ask students to read out as they don’t always get the emphasis right and I want them to appreciate every word. However, depending on the ability of the class, I start to pull back after the first half of the book and ask them to read sections at home. They can’t always do that from the start so my job is to show them what to look for and allow them to find their way to the end.

I love it when I overhear students talking about the novels we read in class. Taking that little bit of time before you start, should help them get there.

Why ‘That Really Works’ is Never Enough

What do we mean when we say that something ‘worked in the class? After reading Dylan Wiliam’s ‘Embedded Effective Assessment’ and John  Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’ it is a question which I’ve been considering a great deal lately. It could be a lesson that seemed to work. It could be a new strategy or a new resource or a text; or something that produced good work. But we do that don’t we. We tell colleagues that this ‘thing’ really worked and we would definitely recommend it. The trouble is, how do we know? How do we know that it really worked and what was the purpose in the first place?

When we construct (hopefully) excellent lessons for our students do we consider the criteria that will convince us that some thing ‘worked’? I’m not merely talking about success criteria here, which are important but not everything. If our classes achieve great exam results, can we say that it ‘worked’? If you collect in a set of excellent essays can you say that it ‘worked’? If it keeps that difficult class busy for forty five minutes, can we say that it ‘worked’? It worries me that, in essence, much of my blog seems to be about this topic.

If you think about it, in the context of education, our definitions of the word ‘effective’ can often be very vague. It can mean all of the above. It can mean there was some really good learning today. However, even that, out of context, is fairly difficult to gauge in the long term. I’ve been guilty of doing that at times. I blog about great lessons I’ve taught, great projects and great strategies but where I think I’ve failed is that I too often talk about the process rather than the outcomes. And when I say outcomes I mean real student learning, not a ticked box. So I’ve come to realise that it’s not enough to talk about shiny lessons; I need to talk about how students have learned from them. As Hattie says:

‘What is most important is that teaching is visible to the student, and that the learning is visible to the teacher.’

(Visible Learning for Teachers, p17)

Having jazzy lessons is all well and good, and I’m not deriding the glitzy lesson, but I’ve been thinking more about the effects of that. Not merely that students have responded to the lesson and successfully achieved the criteria for learning, but they have developed as learners and seen why the information and skills they have been working on are important to their lives. We can al tell tales of when we were on the top of our game in classroom and everything seemed to be clicking; but we never really know when it’s clicking for every kid in the class.

So we should be asking that question of each other in the staffroom. How did that work? What do we mean by ‘worked’? What makes something ‘effective’? It might prove to be the most effective CPD we could have. But what do I mean by effective….?

That First Trip to the Library

I’ve always been drawn to books and bookshelves. When I enter the homes of friends the first thing I look for is a bookcase. You can tell so much about someone from their collection of books. Libraries also held, and still hold, a certain wonder and awe. The information they hold, alongside all of those stories and imagination still holds me speechless. That’s why the first visit to the library with any class of mine is so important. If a love for reading is the reason which lead me to teaching then it is essential that I try and pass that on. And, unless you do it right, it can go horribly wrong in a way which will leave you trying to catch up all year.
One of the first things I do is ensure that my classes not only get to visit the library but that they are timetabled to do so at the same time every week. Reading is as much of a routine as anything and taking one trip up to get a book every now and again just won’t kick it I’m afraid. Students need to know that they will be there every week to ensure that good books are always available to them. They need to be given the opportunity to talk to the librarian regularly and to change books they may not be enjoying. They will also see that you take reading and the library seriously. There is nothing so dispiriting as being told that we cannot visit the library because ‘we have other things to do’. It may seem like a lot of time but it is not a sacrifice believe me. If you use your library time constructively, in conjunction with literacy lessons, then it can be the most productive period of the week.
As their teacher, I make sure that I prepare fully for these library visits. I want the students to make the best use of their time so I will work closely with our librarian. I will find out about new books, book awards, availability of PCs for blogging purposes. It is not acceptable to allow this to be a ‘free’ reading period without your input. Yes, they need and should get private reading time. But I need to know about the progress of their comprehension, their ‘reading out loud skills’. I need to know if that book is too easy, too hard. I need to know that they are beginning  to understand imagery, recognise sentence structure. In short, I believe that this period is the one to bring a lot of things together if you prepare and work with your librarian.
Many of the kids who come into my classes are experienced library visitors. They have gone with parents since early childhood. However, many are not. I want every one of them to learn about the life of the library. They need to learn about silence and what a reading atmosphere is. They need to discover encyclopedias and non-fiction of all sorts. They need to develop inquiring minds. Last year, I worked with our librarian to set small tasks and quizzes to open up all areas of the library. Libraries are more than just fiction depositories. They contain a world of information both electronically and in book form. But how much of that information is used correctly?
I am very lucky to have a great librarian. ( @stenmeister on Twitter) He is very much a pro-active librarian who is never happier when his library is full of active learners. We very often call him our Fifth Beatle in the English department. We could not cope without him. However, more importantly, neither could the students. I often pinch myself when I realise that I work in a  building which has a library. It is the most important room in any school so it is our duty to use it well.

Meeting a New Class

There  will be many of you reading this who are about to undertake their first year in Teaching, perhaps after a successful student year, or even a successful probationary year. Many more of us have been through that ‘about to go back to work’ summer feeling many times. For some it is a bright new opportunity for new things and better possibilities; for others a feeling of dread prevails. Meeting a new class for the first time is one of the most never-wracking experiences and it never really goes away. Experienced or not, every class is a new one, with pitfalls and possibilities. So, here are some of things I would suggest.

First of all, and you should try to do this for every lesson,  stand at your door and welcome your students as they enter. You may want to line them up; you may allow them to wander in; but be there. It’s an age-old piece of advice and a case of common sense but you’d be surprised how often it doesn’t happen. You will be tempted not to do this at times because you are busy getting the lessons ready. But always be standing at the door. A smile is contagious. You will be presenting yourself to them in a particular manner, as much as the other way around. Being at the door allows you to negate any corridor indiscipline; it allows you to speak to every student who walks into your class, say hello, morning, afternoon, whatever and insist on a response. And I would insist on a response. It is only manners.

So, they’re in the classroom and sitting down. You’ve managed to persuade them to take off jackets and get pens/ pencils at the ready. What about a seating plan? Well, bottom line is that you’d be mad not to have a seating plan. You don’t know them, they don’t know you. You may have one hundred and fifty names to learn at the beginning of term. Having them on a plan is the easiest way, I’ve found. However, despite the temptation, don’t do it on the first day. Perhaps not even on the second or even the third. I usually leave it until the end of the first week. The ones liable to disrupt your lesson will have had more than enough  time to make themselves known. You will have a clearer idea of where you want students to sit. And, more importantly, if you change things once and stick to it, you will be making a clear statement. You are the boss. Making a seating plan after a day or two and then changing it suggests a weakness. By all means change seating for particular tasks but have a default seating plan.

Should you have class rules? Of course you should. Again, you’d be mad not to. But what form do they take and how do you compile them? If you think about it, the class sitting in front of you may have written class rules in every lesson that day. How bored of it will they be? How original will they be? How much will they know the game and tell you what you want to hear instead of compiling an effective set of rules to which you will all adhere? Hmm. Unlikely isn’t it? Again, leave the rules for a day or two. Or why not ask them to come up with five rules as their first homework task? Use this as the basis for lesson two. What is a good rule and what isn’t? Then, you come up with a collaborative set of rules which maybe, just maybe, will stick. Try it.

So where do you go from here? Ideas for a first lesson may take a whole new post but remember that you are there to extend their learning beyond their potential. Much time can be wasted assessing students when you first meet them. That evidence should already be there from their previous teachers. Spend time carefully looking through previous work.. Extend students from the beginning. Your time with them is limited so set high standards from day one. Our job is to set a bar high and work with and encourage them to reach beyond that. You’ve come this far. But this is only the beginning.