Online Course: ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’

I’ve just launched a new online course on C. S. Lewis’ perennially popular classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, aimed at 9-12 year old readers. The course runs over eight weeks, with one lesson per week. There is also a taster lesson available for this course. Follow the links below to find out more.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe eight-week course.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe taster lesson.

Find out about all the courses I’m running on my new website here:

https://lovetheclassics.net/courses/

Image of a lion from Wikimedia Commons. Author: Clément Bardot

Online Course: ‘The Hobbit’

I’m now offering an online course on Tolkien’s miniature masterpiece, The Hobbit, aimed at 9-12 year old readers. The course runs over ten weeks, with one lesson per week. There is also a taster lesson available for this course. Follow the links below to find out more.

The Hobbit ten week course.

The Hobbit taster lesson.

Find out about all the courses I’m running on my new website here:

Image of a hobbit from Wikimedia Commons. Author: Antoine Glédel.

What Can We Learn from DI About Data and Assessment?

The best way to understand proper use of data and assessment is to look at an intricately designed course that makes use of it faultlessly. In other words, look at a Direct Instruction course. Within Expressive Writing, for example, there is a lot of data generated within each lesson, but it is not the teacher who makes use of it; it is the students. In other words, the students get the chance to self-correct when they find out during the ‘Check Your Work’ section of an activity that they have got some of it wrong. But there is no action for the teacher here, other than circulating and checking that the students are in fact self-correcting. There is no instruction in the DI script for the teacher to gather data about how many mistakes students have made and re-do the activity if there are too many. Evidently, the authors of the programme have judged that this is not a useful time for gathering that sort of data. The focus here is not on data-gathering but on repeated practice with rapid feedback.

The authors of Expressive Writing have judged that the time for gathering data about mastery and reteaching where necessary is not lesson by lesson, but at regular, well-spaced intervals. It is done through the mastery tests, which are every 10-15 lessons or so. It is at this point that the teacher makes decisions about what to reteach based on specifically identified gaps in student knowledge. These are the interim assessments of the programme. But they are not designed to look like any final assessment, such as American AP exams or English GCSEs. They don’t even look like the final mastery test at the end of Expressive Writing. Instead, these interim assessments are precisely designed to test the components of writing that the programme has taught up to that point.

What we have here is a highly effective programme for improving the accuracy and effectiveness of students’ writing that looks nothing like an English Language GCSE or an American AP exam. But there is no doubt that it will help students do better in such exams, because it will mean that they are able to punctuate correctly and write clearly, keeping control of their tense. It will mean that they are able to lay out speech correctly. It will mean that they are able to structure their writing effectively into paragraphs. It is courses like this which are the best antidote to the tedious and ineffective method that has become so common in England and America, whereby teachers believe that the best way to improve performance in summative tests is by repeatedly doing mocked-up versions of such tests.

DI courses are also an excellent remedy for the idea that teachers have to be continually gathering data and acting on it in every lesson. When a course is well designed with repeated practice of multiple strands built into it, there is no need for this sort of frenetic data gathering. It may well be that some students are getting some things wrong some of the time, but instead of trying to act on that in the moment by adjusting our lesson plan on the fly, we should have a robustly designed programme of instruction which takes this into account by building in lots of practice along with rapid feedback and opportunities for student self-correction.

And even when all students are getting everything right, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to move on, because a well-designed programme of instruction will continue practice beyond this point in order to make things really stick through overlearning.

There are no DI programmes available for much of what we need to teach. For example, there is no DI English literature course. But we should be looking to DI as the gold standard for how to design our own programmes of instruction. Whatever question we have about designing instructional sequences — whether it is how often to assess, or how to design assessments, or how to analyse assessments, or how much practice students need — we will find answers if we carefully study the masters at work by considering how these things are done by the authors of DI programmes.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Whole-School Poetry at GYCA

File:Charge of the Light Brigade.jpg

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (1856-1927)

At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we always have a poem or a speech which all staff and pupils are working on learning together. This has so many academic and cultural benefits.

Firstly, there is the obvious benefit of cultural capital being acquired by both staff and pupils. Learning classic poems or speeches from Shakespeare builds an intimacy with the language and symbolism of great works of literature that enables genuine engagement with the best that has been thought and said. It sparks curiosity and a desire to know more about where these great words, beautiful cadences and inspiring ideas come from. The curiosity thus created extends beyond the literary into the historical and the philosophical. I had some enlightening discussions about the Crimean War with our head of history last half-term which would not have happened had we not all been memorising ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. This half-term, I’m curious to learn more about the Hundred Years War because we’re all learning the famous speech from Henry V that begins ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’.

Learning poetry and speeches is a shared, communal experiences at Charter. The poetry is heard in assemblies and during morning staff briefing. It is heard in the corridors and in the playgrounds. The walls of Charter echo with the sound of stirring words. When pupils are held up in their progress down the corridors, there is no need for this to be dead time. There are document holders scattered around the school containing the whole-school poetry, so even if staff haven’t quite finished memorising the poems yet, they can grab a booklet and lead some chanting while pupils are waiting to move forwards through the corridors. Moments which could have been filled with boredom, aggravation or just idle chatter are transformed into a joyful shared experience of great words and inspiring ideas.

The poetry which we learn together is chosen for moral as well as academic value. Classics such as ‘If-’ by Rudyard Kipling celebrate great human virtues such as fortitude: perseverance in the face of difficulties. These are the virtues which we want our pupils to acquire during their time at Charter, and the encouragement of the stirring words of great writers adds an extra dimension to the character building which we are doing at the school. When we talk to Y11s about their work ethic as exams approach, we can ask them if they are filling ‘the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run’. When we are encouraging pupils not to give up in the face of difficulties and challenges, we can cite the courage of the Light Brigade, who fought against impossible odds and won eternal glory.

Learning poetry together also teaches us all about the process of learning itself. Pupils see staff struggling to master the poetry. Staff ask pupils to test them on their poetry, giving them the booklet so they can follow and offer feedback. Pupils see that it takes effort and practice to master anything, however clever you are. They are encouraged and inspired by their teachers’ efforts to learn the poetry, even when it is difficult to do so. The experience influences the methods of teachers because they are continually being reminded of how much practice is needed before something really sticks, which leads them to reconsider how often they revisit key knowledge. Are they teaching so that pupils really know it, or only nearly know it? The experience of struggling to master the whole-school poetry is a salutary lesson for all staff on how easily we forget something that we have not truly mastered, which leads them to reconsider their planning and delivery in the classroom.

Last, but by no means least, learning poetry together builds relationships between staff and pupils. Struggling together to master the poetry builds camaraderie, so that pupils feel that we are all on the same team. At breaks and during lesson changeovers, the shared experience of learning whole-school poetry makes conversation easy. We don’t have to make small talk. We can talk about Tennyson or Shakespeare, and what we’ve noticed about the words and ideas which we are working every day to absorb into our long-term memories.

Whole-school poetry memorisation is one of the most distinctive and most joyful aspects of the culture of Charter. It’s one of the things which guests most often comment upon. It’s an experience that cheers one up immensely on a grey January afternoon. Filling your lungs, projecting your voice, and belting out some classic poetry brings life and colour even when the North Sea fog has blotted it out, and when the sun is shining, as it has been lately, poetry recitation only adds to the happiness of working in this very special place.

Whole Class Feedback: Simple and Effective Recording

Last October, I blogged about our use of whole class feedback at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. It’s a simple and effective approach which maximises learning return on time invested. Teachers read books regularly; they reflect carefully on what they read; they revisit key concepts as necessary. We call this the cycle of the three Rs.

When I blogged about this last year, I received a few queries about the systems which we use at Charter for keeping track of feedback. We have a simple, consistent, whole-school approach to recording feedback, which allows for maximum visibility and collaboration with minimal effort. Every department has its own Google spreadsheet in which they record their feedback. I created all of the spreadsheets and organised them within the the SLT team drive, but departments are encouraged to adapt the format to suit their particular needs.

These shared spreadsheets have many benefits. Because everyone can see everyone else’s feedback, they can lead easily into departmental discussions about key misconceptions that need to be addressed, as well as deeper long-term thinking about the curriculum. They also make line management very easy and streamlined, as SLT have all the information at their fingertips when discussing pupil work and teacher feedback with heads of department.

To make this more concrete, I’ve made an example spreadsheet based on the one used by our English department. I hope it’s useful as a tool for enabling other schools to adopt whole-class feedback. It’s one of the most powerful and effective policies any school can have for increasing teacher effectiveness and improving work-life balance.

Whole Class Feedback: A Winner All Round

Hoop jumpingWhole class feedback can be seen as a lazy option. Surely teachers are just avoiding the necessary work of giving individual feedback because they want to have more free time? But this view ignores the important point about opportunity cost, which must always be considered. Time spent on writing individual feedback in exercise books is time not spent on improving resources, or developing subject knowledge. Individualised feedback is enormously time-consuming and of doubtful benefit. In comparison, improving teaching materials will certainly benefit large numbers of pupils, and will continue to do so time and again, as the resources are used year after year.

This view also ignores the personal cost of excessively time-consuming practices which are of doubtful benefit. Teachers have families and friends. They cannot work every hour of the day and night; nor should they. If we want teaching to be a sustainable and an attractive profession, we must consider the work-life balance of staff.

At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we have introduced a school wide policy on whole-class feedback. As with everything at GYCA, we are aiming for consistency across the school, so that pupils know exactly what to expect. We are are also aiming, as always, for the maximum learning return on time invested.

As a school we require teachers to read all of their pupils’ books regularly and to make notes, for their own use, in a shared Google spreadsheet which can be accessed by their department and by the senior leadership team. The spreadsheet contains columns for notes which pertain to feedback to be given directly to the class as a result of reading the books, but the more important column is where teachers note feedback for themselves. What are they going to do differently based upon what they have seen in the books? What are they going to teach differently? What are they going to lay greater emphasis upon, or less? Which common misconceptions are they going to address, and how? How might their resources be further developed and refined?

The most important feedback from reading pupil work is not to the pupil but to the teacher. The greatest impact will be had if the teacher reflects on how to improve their teaching based on what they have read. For example, when I read the year ten English literature exams at the end of last year, I noticed that the pupils did not have a clear enough concept of setting. Therefore I updated all of our GCSE literature study guides to include a setting section, to make this more explicit for them. I am also making a point of mentioning the term more often in my teaching of literature, and guiding pupils to write analysis based around aspects of setting in, for example, the Victorian London of Jekyll and Hyde.

At GYCA, teachers have the time and space to reflect on their teaching and respond to what they are seeing in the books. They’ll be doing this in class, as well, as they look over shoulders during writing tasks, which are always done in silence, but the regular look through the whole class sets of books gives a particularly powerful opportunity to reflect on their teaching and how to improve it.

Another huge benefit of our light-touch approach to feedback is that teachers no longer need to be afraid of pupils writing lots and lots and lots. I’m sure many teachers reading this have had a sinking feeling as they watched their classes of thirty-two filling up the pages, and they pictured the piles of books which they would have to fill with extensive, personalised, multicoloured feedback as a result. In contrast, teachers at GYCA are liberated to get pupils to do lots of writing, and they know that they will be able to read it and discuss it without the burden of time-consuming processes imposed on them from above.

It’s a winner all round: lots of writing in silence, lots of guidance before and during that writing, lots of time to produce ever-better resources, and a reasonable work-life balance. That’s why we’re committed to whole-class feedback at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy.

(Image from Wikimedia)

Direct Instruction Principles for Guided Writing Practice

stower_titanic_colourizedI’ve been a fan of Expressive Writing for a number of years. It is exquisitely designed, and like all of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programmes, the principles on which it is based can teach us much about how to teach effectively across the board. It is particularly relevant, though, to how we think about practising writing.

David Didau recently blogged about what can be practised in English lessons. He argued against practising writing essays or analytical paragraphs on literature, favouring instead the teaching of sentence construction, as sentences are the building blocks of good writing. He also argued that it would be a good idea to use plenty of oral practice of good sentences, as this would result in better retention of knowledge.

I agree that we need to practise the components of writing, and we need to use plenty of oral drill, but it doesn’t have to be either/or. In Expressive Writing, pupils go through a carefully designed, incremental sequence of practice exercises, moving from oral drill, to editing sentences, to writing sentences, to writing paragraphs, to writing multiple paragraphs. The ultimate goal of the oral drill and the written exercises is to enable pupils to produce extended narrative writing fluently and accurately. This has to be our goal with analytical writing as well, and we can use similar methods.

Guided writing practice involves a series of steps. Let’s take the example of writing about An Inspector Calls, J B Priestley’s perennially popular piece of socialist propaganda. Our ultimate goal is that pupils can produce extended analytical writing on a given theme or character in the play. They might have to answer a question like this:

‘How does Priestley use the character of Mr Birling to present ideas about capitalism?’

In a lesson where our goal was for pupils to write a paragraph on this topic, we would teach specific examples of how Birling shows a complacent attitude. We’d teach (or revise) the definition of ‘complacent’ of course – ‘smugly satisfied with your own achievements’. We’d have the class chant that definition, and ask multiple pupils to repeat it using cold-calling. We’d chant key quotations, such as ‘the Titanic […] unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’. We’d model how to analyse such quotations orally, having the whole class and individual pupils repeat sentences such as ‘Using this image, Priestley depicts capitalism as doomed to destruction’.

All of this oral drill would be done briskly, and no pupil would be able to hide, because they would all be expected to join in when the whole class chanted a particular word, phrase or sentence, and they would know that they could be cold-called at any time. Only after having been through this fast-paced, interactive whole class teaching would we ask any pupil to put pen to paper. And when they did put pen to paper, they would start by copying an opening sentence, to ensure that they began as we intended them to go on. The opening sentence could be something like this:

‘Priestley makes abundantly clear to the audience that Birling’s confidence is misplaced, particularly through Birling’s reference to the Titanic as being ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’.’

This sort of closely guided writing practice, preceded by fast-paced oral drill, means that writing is focused, and pupils are continually building knowledge and vocabulary as well as the ability to write analytically. It can be extended to essay length as time goes on, but always under the guidance of the teacher.

If we want our pupils to write well, they need to practise writing, but it doesn’t have to be mechanical Point-Evidence-Explanation; it doesn’t have to be a confusing and futile exercise in building a mythical generic skill of analysis; it doesn’t have to be a pretend mini-GCSE to generate junk data. It can be satisfying, interesting and effective, if we apply the principles of Direct Instruction.

Footnote:

British English:
verb – practise
noun/adjective – practice

American English:
verb and noun/adjective – practice

[Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic]