Marking is Feedback is Differentiation is Planning

For the #blogsync project  “A Teaching and Learning strategy intended to elicit the highest levels of student motivation in my subject”

I may be opening myself up to ridicule here but, as an English teacher, I don’t think I’ve ever been as good as I can be when it comes to marking. I’ve always done it, always kept as up-to-date as possible with the mountains of papers we see sometimes as teachers. Especially when, like me, you plan essay returns badly and end up with five class sets at the same time.  However, since Christmas I’ve tried to completely change my approach to marking. Reading about what better teachers than me do successfully (see the list below) has turned my approach around and I love it.

penOn closer inspection I was going for an outcome over process strategy. I spent too long marking, correcting, commenting on what became summative pieces of writing which were rarely used to set next steps. Class jotters were often neglected as I focused on the nice, final product, concerned that inspection, parents, management team would be more concerned with those. So, if I changed from outcome to process – which I should have been doing all along – what would happen?

Here’s a question for you. When you look at your class books/ jotters are you ever embarrassed? Would you be ashamed if a parent had a close look at their child’s book? Would they often see graffiti, empty pages, and unfinished work? Even worse, unmarked work? My books certainly didn’t have all of these flaws…but they occasionally did. Sometimes the odd one slipped through the net. Well, you can’t mark everything, can you? Well, there’s the rub.

‘All the other stuff is of no use whatsoever if you don’t mark your books properly.’ Phil Beadle  ‘How to Teach’

One Monday I sat down with a pile of books. There was a lot of good work in there, a lot of effort and evidence of improvement. Some good advice. Some. But what was more noticeable to me was the odd occasion when students hadn’t worked on the advice I’d given them. Whether that was because of time constraints or I hadn’t bothered to check whether they had is beside the point. I was missing real opportunities for writing progress. At that point I took advice from David Didau and made the decision to plan for one lesson a week to work on feedback. At least then I would know that pupils were working on my comments and that my marking would not be a waste of time.

Now I read every word they write. I correct every mistake, or at least highlight using the school’s correction code. I comment on every piece that they will work on, using questions, mostly, but with the odd reminder about apostrophe use or whatever. Most importantly I give them time to work on my comments. Every week. If I can’t do that, for whatever reason, I will not ask them to write it. I will grade only final drafts but will not correct or comment. This is where I find the time. I am not working harder or longer but smarter. Everything I say or write is used, more or less, and my students are taking more pride in their work. Jotters are neater as they look every week for questions to work on and address. The disengaged, reluctant writers are now seeing a point.

‘…when a kid writes a piece of work for you to read, and you do not read it, it is, to them, like they haven’t written it at all. Not reading it sends all manner of negative messages to the child: effort is pointless, their work is of no value to you and they could have got away with not bothering.’ Phil Beadle ‘How to Teach’

Now in my class, every student is guaranteed an individual lesson plan at least once a week and, while this is not the only differentiation I attempt, it is as good  a Personal Learning Plan as I could ever come up with. How else will I know how much writing help individuals need if I don’t read their writing correctly?

I can also use specific problems which arise to plan next steps. When I fist sat down to address my weakness in marking it took me an age. I worked through every single book – near 150 – and addressed any issues. Now, it takes about an hour a day, throughout the day. S1 books on a Monday, S2 on a Tuesday etc. And do you know what? I love it. It has given me a renewed vigor for correcting. I don’t have the wearying suspicion that I am wasting my time with endless comments. Writing is improving in my class.

It is embarrassing to me that I haven’t been doing this before. I started this post by assuming that I was opening myself up to ridicule and I stand by that but please believe me when I say that my marking was decent. I wasn’t the teacher who never touches books, ignores graffiti. But I wasn’t good enough. Now I’m better.

Headguruteacher Making Feedback Count

Learning Spy Making Feedback Stick

Learning Spy Building Challenge

Goldfish Bowl More Effective Written Feedback

Tait Coles Public Critique

Phil Beadle ‘How To Teach’

No More Hiding Places

Despite the relatively positive vibe in the classroom and despite the vast majority of the thirty eleven and twelve year olds all battering into their writing tasks, I can’t help noticing the sneer and lack of movement at the corner of my eye. She hasn’t opened her jotter yet, hasn’t picked up her pencil. The task is clearly written on whiteboard, success criteria plain to see. She sneers at a teacher who doesn’t see her, she thinks, doesn’t differentiate between her and anyone else in the room. ‘We are all the same to you, aren’t we,’ she seems to want to say. ‘If we don’t say much you’ll leave us alone and everything will be okay.’

lost2But it’s not, is it? She will hope to hide her book in a jungle of thirty other pieces of work, familiar with the rules of the game for some years now. Accepting the overworked teachers and their inability to deal with the real problems in her writing. And who can blame her? Despite being told otherwise, she has been labeled since the first day of Primary school. Placed with others with equal difficulties, she has been inadvertently given work which neither helps nor challenges. Busy work. And perhaps been told of the importance of school, the importance of an education, the need to be resilient and foster a desire to learn. She knows her place.

I wander from pupil to pupil; a quiet word here, a quick pencil comment there, a reminder of the Correction Code placed around the room. She has begun to write. Slowly at first but I leave her be. Whenever I get close she covers up her work with her arm. Primary school elbows, I like to call it. Protect your answers from your peers. She starts to write more, seems to be getting into the subject. I approach again, manage to look over her shoulder. She can write this girl, she can write.

Eventually, towards the end of today’s lesson, I manage a ‘Well Done’: and she doesn’t close up. She keeps writing. I keep wandering around, seeming to concentrate on the others, but I’m watching her. Slowly losing her inhibitions. A knock on the door and a pupil from another class enters with a note from a colleague. She bristles and stops writing for a few minutes. I wonder why. She seems to be looking around for a rubber and is too shy to ask her desk partner. I quietly place one in front of her as I pass. Writing begins once more. Again in passing, I point to a small error which she corrects without problem and I move on.

At the end of the period the class pack up their things and move on. She makes sure her book is not on top or bottom of the pile. Won’t be noticed in the middle. But of course it will be, it always is. Tonight I will make sure she knows that. However, as the class leaves, I do wonder how many more classes like this she will face today. Is it just English? Probably not.

lostThe bell rings and S3 (year 9) enter.

Despite the relatively positive vibe in the classroom and despite the vast majority of the thirty thirteen, fourteen year olds all battering into their writing tasks, I can’t help noticing the sneer and lack of movement at the corner of my eye…

Where is their Blog Post? Finding Focus in a House of Cards.

I’ve been a bit quiet on my blog recently. Not that I haven’t been writing – I have about five posts in draft form, none of which I’m particularly happy with – but I’ve lost a bit of confidence in what I’ve wanted to say. To be honest, I’ve been feeling a bit of a fraud, a house of cards if you like. Writing a regular blog can be a strange old experience. The more you find compliments the more you expect them. But I started the blog as a self-refection exercise. And when I look in that teacher mirror I’m not always happy with what I see.

House of CardsOne of the great joys of writing this blog is that I can share some great things which have been happening in my classroom. It becomes a place to promote the creativity that some of my pupils have and, let’s be honest, promote myself in the process. However, I have started to notice a flaw in that. If I was being honest could I say that every pupil in my class benefits in the same way? I couldn’t. Are there still those disengaged kids who don’t get it, don’t make enough progress and don’t even like my classes? Of course there are. And that makes me feel like a fraud.

I read a post recently about how, when Inspectors are in school, or local dignitaries, the Management team often wheel out the twenty or so perfect students who always wear exemplary uniform and are the brightest of the bright. Like a Supermarket hiding slightly shoddy goods at the back of the shelf, we want our schools to look good, on the surface at least. Yes, it seems, you can judge a book by its cover. And, while I may feel aggrieved at this, I may bristle at the thought, how often does my classroom become a microcosm of that?

I’ve blogged about how wonderful my classroom is at times. I’ve blogged about the true engagement my students display when they produce incredible work and surprise me at every turn.  What I haven’t blogged about is the kid who really doesn’t get it. The one who starts the year slightly resentfully and refuses to join in. The one who doesn’t manage to progress in the same way as the others.  Where is his blog post?

If I’m to take myself seriously as a teacher and, indeed as a blogger, then I have to address that. I could talk all day about the successful learners in my classes; there are loads of them. But those who we often try to forget, try to hide away because, deep down, we know we have failed them in some way, are rarely discussed publicly. Perhaps my blog should focus on them for a while. What did I do to change their expectations? How did I try to improve their learning experiences? As teachers we try to pretend that we don’t promote a hierarchy of success, but we do. All the time. Perhaps by focusing on those whom I don’t reach will give this blog some relevance.

Inequality? Don’t Start Me….

Don’t you feel such pain for the politicians – and Nick Clegg – who are faced with the horrendous choice of whether to send their kids to private school or the local state pile? Of course they must think of what is best for them. Who wouldn’t? But therein lies the rub. Our elected politicians are placed in the very public position of admitting that our states schools are not good enough for them. And, in doing so, very publicly give the finger to the constituents who they represent, who cannot afford to make the decisions over which their elected officials are wringing their hands. Am I envious of the fact that they can? That’s not the point. No one should have to.

The reality is that, according to Dylan Wiliam anyway, pupils don’t get access to better teaching in Private schools.

‘…controlling for the social class of the students, students in state schools and private schools in the UK perform about the same – in fact there is not a single OECD country in which, after controlling for social class, students in private schools do better than in state schools.’ (Wiliam, see reference below)

Shoot me now for saying it. They get access to better equipment; access to better extra curricular facilities. But don’t dare tell me that staff in private schools are better than those in the state sector. Some may well be; some may well be worse.

‘The presence of high-achieving students improves the achievement of others students in the class, so the same student will do better in a selective private school than a state school, but the reason is because of peer group, rather than the quality of the teaching.’ (Wiliam, see reference below)

It might stick in some people’s throats though that support from home – a desk to work at, a warm house, food on the table, visits to galleries and theatre with the family – is the most important key to a better education. Oh and, of course, you can avoid those annoying scruffy kids who only want to mess about. Would that be somewhere nearer the truth?

From my own recent experience I’ve found that, even in my sector, there is a growing divide. Access to Technology is the biggest social divider in schools.

Take two classes. One, a very highly motivated S4 (year 10 or 11?) class who will go on to achieve good grades and further education. I blogged about this class before, here. We studied Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ before Christmas, spent loads of time talking about Atticus’ decision to defend Tom Robinson and how it affected his family and community. But it is so much more than that. Choosing their own topics, they went on to produce some wonderful work. Film, prezi, report, the finished products were wonderful. Of course they had to finish them at home. But they could. They had the equipment and the access. A job well done.

Class two are not so well motivated. Set since the age of twelve they are reminded of their place in the school every day. They see the same kids in every class, the same behaviors. The same disinterest, the same low expectations. We studied ‘Of Mice and Men’ and they loved the book. Discussing the themes of loneliness, the elderly, unemployment, Austerity, they also were given the freedom to choose a topic which they could complete in any way.
They grabbed the opportunity to work on blogs and prezis and short films. A couple of boys attempted to create a Music Festival for Protest Singers. Set lists, biographies, programmes. Amazingly creative.

But, for most of them, the work stopped at the classroom door. They had no Internet access at home. No environment which would encourage the work they were doing in class. They were not likely to give up lunch breaks because it wasn’t part of their culture. Projects were mostly decent but not as good as they could have been. School equipment is often out of date, broken or simply to difficult to gain access to. They have smartphones but they don’t now what to do with them. They can’t use them.

I’m sorry but a society which allows you the opportunity to buy yourself a better education is simply wrong. You’ll never convince me otherwise. It creates the very divisions which the private school educated classes complain about. But before we tackle that issue we need to address the very real social divisions which exist in most state schools in Scotland, I would imagine. If access to technology is to be our children’s future then that must be equal access. Whether that is one-to-one tablets or anything else, more up-to-date equipment in schools, I don’t know, but it needs to happen. Otherwise, an unhealthy divide between state and private sector will be the least of our worries. The state system will be actively contributing to it.

from ‘Are There Good Schools and Bad Schools?’ Dylan Wiliam in ‘Bad Education. Debunking Myths in Education’ ed by Adey and Dillon OU Press,2012