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:


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.


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.

Holding Out For An Aero

Don’t get me wrong now. I love compliments as much as anyone. You take anything you get when you promote your blog on Twitter. But I’m no wonder teacher. My classes are not always the ‘Dead Poets Society’ classes. Sometimes they are but often my day is punctuated with the mundane, workman-like lessons which pupils don’t always appreciate. I teach well most days but I’ve blogged before about the blank slate approach to each new day. Like some never- ending computer game, you get through one level and, in the morning, are faced with a new set of challenges.image

I apologise for returning to my marking approaches so soon but I do want to clarify a couple of things. I don’t want people to think I’m anything out of the ordinary. It has been a challenge marking books every day but I’ve settled into a routine which makes it more than manageable. It’s not easy but this job was never and will never be easy. I don’t work any longer hours than I did before. I don’t sit up to all hours weeping over another apostrophe error. My working hours are merely used in a different way. And I do it because I genuinely see the true value in marking EVERY book.

It is not important to me that the classbooks look nice. I want it to be important to the pupils though. I want them to take pride in perfection and see that the work in the books is valued by me and the school. When that happens they value it themselves. Their subsequent work is better. They are learning.

What is most important is that I am gleaning a huge amount of knowledge about these pupils. This information allows me to prepare lessons which will challenge and extend them. I can much more accurately assess where they are and what their next steps are. And, crucially, I can justify what I do in class. To management, to colleagues, to parents. This is my professional responsibility.

For too long I have succumbed to the internal warnings that I wouldn’t be allowed to try this; or management wouldn’t let me do that. What would be the point in asking? For too long I have assumed that ‘No’ would be the answer to my ambitious project on ‘Of Mice and Men’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Anne Frank’. I have sat idly by, watching opportunities pass me by in the night, turned away by a sense of futility. Now I truly believe that it is my duty to plan the best lessons possible no matter what. If I need permission for something then I can go, safe in the knowledge that what I’ve prepared is based on sound reasoning, classroom practice and awareness of my pupils’ abilities, and ask questions.

What I’ve learned about marking, and what I learn everyday, is that it genuinely allows me to be the most important factor in that child’s education in English. I know their strengths and weaknesses and can plan accordingly. If anyone wants to say ‘No’ to anything I want to try then that’s their decision. I think it is our professional responsibility to ensure that we are preparing the most challenging, engaging and thrilling learning opportunities for our children. If someone is going to say no to that then we have duty not only to let them do that but to make them say it. Don’t assume that no will be the answer. Do the hard stuff. Do the work. If someone says no then it won’t be because I haven’t prepared. Let someone else say ‘No’.

Running Out Of Red Pens

Three weeks on from my most read post ever – on marking – I found myself hitting a bit of a brick wall this week. The demands of what I was doing was onerous and, I admit, the seemingly endless piles of class books were getting me down. I’d been here before, of course. Starting each year with good intentions which, sooner rather than later, fizzled out. This time was different though. While before I marked and marked because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, this time I really know why I’m doing it and why it is so important.

I’m in school before eight every morning and mark ten class books before we start. I mark ten during the day – cover classes, non-contact periods, even lunchtimes if I have to, and then ten at night. Every weekday. Only now am I starting to see the true value in this approach. I am much more confident and aware of the needs of every child. I see things which have passed me by. The hilarious S4 girl who can’t help cracking jokes in almost every paragraph; the silent warriors who leave four lines at the bottom of every page; the girl who couldn’t stop drawing a heart above every ‘i’. She doesn’t do it any more; she knows I’m on to her.

The difference in my approach to class has changed too. Because I’m on top of every classbook, the pupils know they will be asked to completely redraft work which is not perfectly presented. I inform them regularly that I want them to strive for perfection and will not allow them to accept less. As a result, first drafts are much, much better: a true sign of improvement in my eyes. There is a real sense that pupils are taking more pride in their writing. Classbooks are free of mess and filled with good work. Writing has a purpose for them.

I wrote in that post that I ringfence one period a week purely to work on feedback and redrafting. Often it seems like a big commitment but the difference it has made has been huge. A quiet, industrious room filled with students working on individual feedback is surely what we all want at times. They have learned that working in silence is valuable. Hard work is valuable. More importantly they know that I know their individual strengths and weaknesses more than ever.IMG_0453

Now this approach is more of an entrenched habit, the necessity for spending lots of time on each book has lessened. I try to get to every pupil during lessons and mark as I go along so when I look at the whole book there is usually a limited amount of work to correct. That recovers time to prepare other lessons. I’m much happier with writing in my classroom. I write with the class, on OHP believe it or not, and model writing, showing that errors and changes can be made during the process and how writing is always a challenge. They see me making spelling errors, changing vocabulary, extending sentences.

Teaching writing is a constant process but in my class we are beginning to believe in its importance. My new marking approach has brought us all to this point

Lunch Counter Mornings and Coffee Shop Nights

I love my job, I really do.  In fourteen years of teaching there has never been a day when I haven’t got a buzz from going into work. I love the banter with kids, colleagues. I love the chaos of the school day, the unpredictability of a huge establishment full of people. I love learning to be better, helping others to learn to be better.  I have seen the way I can affect change in a child’s life – both positively and negatively – and understand the importance of what I do. Being a teacher is a great life. I love it, but it hasn’t been easy.IMG_0488

Scratch below the surface and you’ll find a teacher who struggles to keep up at times. I’ve seen teachers who are naturally suited to the job. They connect wonderfully with people in and out of the classroom. They immediately click once lessons start. I’m not one of them.  I’ve had to work hard at that. There is much of this job which I find difficult everyday.  I still can be tetchy with kids when my message doesn’t get across. Not often now, I work very hard at that too.  However, the soft side of teaching has been a problem for me in the past. I’m better now.

Added to that, what others outside teaching may not see, are the late, late nights marking and preparing.  The extra early mornings when I need to go in and prepare classes, photocopy etc.  The odd, unfathomable, undeserved, unprepared for parental complaint. The punch in the solar plexus which leaves you winded longer than it really should.  Sacrificing social events, visits to the cinema and the theatre – weekdays especially – that you can never get back. Being a teacher is a wonderful fairground ride but it can make you feel slightly queasy at times.  I think we have responsibility to talk about those things more than we do.

After my last post, on marking, I received some comments from people who felt that marking everything was just not possible. I tried to explain in the post that I only mark things which pupils will work on afterwards. It is challenging but necessary. It takes up an awful lot of my time. I often want to avoid it but I know that I will be doing the children a disservice, and letting myself down. I wrote the post because I thought it was an important change in my teaching life. I wanted to share that.

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I was present at PedagooLondon last week and I heard the great, great John Tomsett talking about how he felt it was his professional responsibility to share. He’s right, of course. However, we must ensure that, for the sake of every colleague out there, that we share the failures and the disasters and the private dark moments we all feel at times.  The ugly things we sometimes feel that we don’t want to do. The sinking feeling we get when we see that pile of marking eyeing us aggressively from the corner of the room on a Sunday night.  The problem pupil who seems to be winning.  The things we try to push out of our minds.

But when we face up to it, do the work and come out at the other end it is, as I said at the start, a job and a life which I absolutely love. I make the sacrifices and I see the benefits of everything I do and it makes me a better teacher. It does us no favours if we turn away from the challenges we face. I started blogging to discuss all things teaching but I now feel more of a responsibility to be honest about the difficulties I face. It is my professional responsibility to do that.

I’ve had discussions with others this week about the life of a teacher, especially now that one starting in the profession may be working until their late sixties, at least. If you’re not up to that, don’t do this. It is a job which never goes away. It’s a commitment that you need to sign up to whole-heartedly or not at all.  I love my job. But it is never easy.