I’ve tried to do this two years running and my nerve has failed me a few days in.
I’ve tried to do this two years running and my nerve has failed me a few days in.
When they told me I was teaching The Tempest to a Year 8 middle set a year ago, I went out and re-read it, and instantly thought it was stupid. It’s filled with unfunny Elizabethan comedy, it has about a million characters, it doesn’t seem to have much of a plot and it also doesn’t really seem to have an ending. It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen, and so I did what any good teacher would do: I grafted. I sat down at half-term and worked out how in the world I was going to communicate this weird, sprawling beast of a play to teenagers who didn’t understand the language of Roald Dahl.
After a few hours head-scratching, what I came up with was this. The Tempest is basically a play of recognisable ‘types’ – stock characters who you’d see in fairytales. There’s the wizard, the princess, the monster, the genie, the villain.
They got it, to my surprise. They got it because it was simple. It linked to some of their prior knowledge, they knew the stories and what they were supposed to think about these characters, and they could build on that. It was a good feeling, the first time I felt like something really worked for me as a teacher, and I’ve been trying to recapture that on some level ever since.
I’ve been re-reading Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick recently – lots of people shouting about Switch on the blogosphere at the moment, but I’m just a humble teacher so there’s limits to how much I can do with it – and I like their principles for creating a sticky idea, which have a lot in common with Dan Willingham:
I’m prone to overcomplicating things, but at heart that’s what my best lessons have been – they have taken a complex idea and communicated it in a simple, concrete, story-based way. I remember hearing Katie Ashford talking about the power of narrative at ResearchED and it being a revelation; I went away and came up with Mr Simile, who’s insecure and keeps comparing himself to everyone else and Mr Metaphor, who’s a shapeshifter. It stuck, and my kids have still got it today.
Stories are powerful, and they’re also, deep down, kind of easy to teach – even with the difficult texts. Yes, you have to work at it, but the Tempest sticks with my kids because they can relate to it and identify with the characters, much like The Outsiders has stuck with them; they took a bit of unpicking, sure, but there’s something in both of those stories that they want, something that’s both exciting and profound and will help them see the world in a different way. Even 8X3 got excited about that; who doesn’t get excited about being told a good story?
Only problem now is that we’re done with The Tempest, and next term we’re doing one of those brutal English Language units instead, where they have to explore the language of newspapers and write their own. They don’t read newspapers, and the immediate point of contact isn’t there, and I don’t know how to make it stick. It’s about language for effect, and if anyone knows of a sticky way to teach that I’d love to hear it, as I’m still drawing a blank on that one.
Still, nothing like a challenge eh?
The results are – at least partly – in. 8X3 have finished their reading assessments. As I circulated, it didn’t look like they’d done badly, although there were a fair few of them who had still written half-hearted answers to the ‘long answers’ sections.
There have been no miracles. My HoD walked in the other day and commented on how it was like seeing a different class from the start of the year, which is great. They are more positive and more engaged than they used to be. Their understanding of The Tempest is better than I could have hoped. Their relationship with me is an awful lot better than ever before too.
But their writing is still lacklustre. Imprecise, flabby, and often incoherent.
It is not too much to ask that they will address that, but it is too much to ask one person to achieve. Without a whole school drive and common approaches to reading, I don’t hold out much hope.
In a bleak moment last week, I asked 8X3 if there were any lessons where they worked in silence. They said that “all of our teachers try, but nobody succeeds”, apart from one teacher – and then they begged me not to make my lessons like this teacher’s. I like and respect this teacher, but I have heard similar things about them from other students, and I hear rumblings that SLT are watching them closely, and it leads me to despair. What hope is there for 8X3 if across the school they are not being asked to work rigorously in silence for any time at all – if that is an abnormal situation?
I expect miracles because I have read the blogs from Michaela Community School (like this, this and this, all great) and because I follow Doug Lemov on Twitter, and because I know that they are happening elsewhere. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them either. But I can’t make them happen where I’m going to get in trouble for sending students out if I enforce the rules; I can’t make them happen if I can’t follow up students with any kind of meaningful deterrent; and I can’t make them happen if I, like my friend, am a lone voice in the wilderness crying out for silence and focus. It has to be all of us, or at least most of us, or we’re finished.
What is happening with 8X3 is not a miracle, it’s an improvement. Maybe I should be satisfied with that, but I’m not – because it’s still going to be too little, too late if we’re not careful.
I took a cover lesson today, after which I called a kid up for his behaviour in the lesson. He, like a lot of people in that lesson, was off-task and distracting others, but when I spoke to him afterwards he treated me like something he’d scraped off his shoe. He accused me of being gullible, of not addressing the behaviour of other people in that class, of picking on him because I’d taught him the year before, all in a tone designed to let me know what an idiot I was.
So far, so standard. Right?
It was only when the TA and my Head of Department (who happened to be walking past at the time) heard me venting about the rudeness of some of our kids that I realised that I’d started to take it for granted. I wasn’t planning on doing anything. I felt powerless. From what I gathered, the class teacher was in a similar situation; by all reports, he frequently endures similar rudeness from them.
My HoD insisted on following it up, and I actually protested. I told her I didn’t want the hassle, didn’t want to have to call his parents, and actually didn’t feel like that it was that big a deal. I told her that because when I’ve called students up on uniform misdemeanours in the past they’ve come and sought me out to flaunt their undone top buttons. One student pursued me round the school for three months shouting the word “nonetheless!” at me after I’d spoken to her at break; another repeatedly yells my surname at me in the corridors since I asked her to speak to me properly.
What I feel is bullied. What I feel is that, increasingly, the kids are winning; that they are taking control, and rudeness is increasingly coming to be expected. It’s not helped by a recent SLT policy of criticising teachers who send too many students out of lessons, and the subsequent grilling about the strategies that have been tried beforehand. Many teachers don’t bother sending students out these days, as it reflects poorly on them. We have been declawed, and the students know it.
And so I find myself giving in to a cowardice that is in its own way a kind of strength; accepting that ‘they don’t really mean it’ (even though they probably do) and ‘they’ll thank me one day’ (even though they probably won’t) and all the while trying to sift through what is positive behaviour management and what is inappropriate. It’s enough to drive a man to despair. Say what you will about Tom Sherrington, vilified in the Daily Mail last week, but at least his behaviour policy at HGS is clear and well-enforced. The alternative leads us to where I found myself today, wondering if as a teacher it’s even my responsibility to address that kind of attitude.
It is my responsibility, though. Of course it is.
Whether or not it’s possible is a different matter.
No great news with 8X3 this week, so this is going to be a more reflective post than usual. They’re in the routine, and although it’s resource-heavy (and make no mistake, resource-heavy it is), it actually seems to be working well for them. Now if only we worked at a place with enough photocopiers…
I interview for two jobs on Wednesday and Thursday, which necessitates setting cover, none of which creates anything that’s really worth marking. That’s a shame, but that’s life.
I do get one of the jobs, though.
What is especially striking is the contrast with my other classes – especially my other middle set. I’ve marked 8X3’s books every lesson, and they’re in a routine of responding to DIRT comments now too. They can see the link between completing the tasks they’ve been set and their making progress, because they can remember when I set those tasks. They are positive, engaged and mostly pleasant in a way that they weren’t before.
My Year 7 middle set have their books marked once a week, and are a markedly different kettle of fish, despite actually being a generally more pleasant class. Many of them are stagnating; they are either not making progress or are going through the motions. They are often making the same mistakes over and over again and producing inferior work. I would do the same with them as with my 8s were it not for time; I have rewritten my whole Year 8 scheme of work to make this work for me. I simply don’t have time to do that for Year 7 during term time.
Would I go back to the old way of doing things? I suppose I already have. If I was totally committed to this, I’d have taken it up with my Year 7s already – but I need to sleep, and I need space to get it right, and I want to go home at a sensible time rather than working until 9pm every night. Perhaps that makes me a failure as a teacher, but I think it just makes me human.
I’ve planned almost every lesson I’ve taught in the past two years from scratch. That’s largely because the ones on the system haven’t been up to scratch, but it’s also because I’m a traditionalist and some of my colleagues are progressives, and often we think about things in fundamentally different ways. That’s also meant marking has always been an area of weakness, even though my planning is pretty damn good these days – I just don’t have time. I hope that changes in my new school, but I don’t know that it will. Can I sustain this? I just don’t know. I’d like to.
If I was a Head of Department, I’d never formalise “mark every book every day” in a marking policy, as it would kill my teachers. I shared it in a meeting today, and I dread that happening in the name of “good practice”. That said, having tried it myself, it seems resolutely sensible, both for planning and for feedback. So for the moment, I’m going to work as hard as I can to stick with it as my KS3 strategy to the end of the year, and I’m certainly taking it to my new place too. I’ll keep you posted.
After the debacle of failing to set DIRT tasks at the end of last week, I’m struggling to catch up, as the task that they’ve done (complete a storyboard of the Tempest) doesn’t lend itself to RAG marking at all. This makes lesson starting a little bit less polished, but fortunately Tuesday’s lesson gets us back on track in the end, mostly with some judicious use of rewards.
I circulate and hand out stickers to people who’ve done exceptional work – met success criteria in full, answered in effective detail etc – and then these stickers turn into sweets. It’s a clumsy bit of rewarding, not subtle in any way, but it’s incredible how enthused my Year 8 class can get over a single Fruitella.
At the end of the lesson I have a complete pile of Exit tickets, lots of which are green or at the very least on their way there, and only two languishing on red. I’ve not cracked them yet, but they know that they are very visible and they can’t stand that visibility – especially for something negative. Should I find this kind of public negativity troubling? Perhaps, but I’ve given them every chance and incentive to succeed, and we can’t (and shouldn’t) take peer pressure out of equation. I’m more worried about the people coasting through on half-hearted, only-just-adequate yellows, and that’s something that RAG has both for and against it; it’s a blunt tool, to be sure.
Marking takes me seven minutes, with another three to set DIRT tasks.
Much more like it. After an initial starter, the RAG spreadsheet goes up on the board at the start. The students on red complain, the students who have turned to green celebrate (a victory in itself, this) and I make sure to praise people who’ve been doing consistently well. I reiterate the point of DIRT marking – to make progress where we didn’t make progress yesterday, something that was lost before with my once-weekly marking – and then they’re off.
One major benefit of this is that it’s made DIRT marking actually work. Before, I would write 20 comments on 20 books, and they’d be subtly different and all in my handwriting, and so lots of people would be able to do nothing by pleading that they couldn’t read what I’d written and it would take me half an hour to get to them. Now, they have one of three tasks, and if they genuinely can’t do it there are a whole class of people actually doing the same task who can help, or they can pick another. I genuinely can’t believe I’ve never done it this way before, and I’d never go back.
A definite pride being taken in work here, a definite desire to push for green – I have more ‘green’ dots on Exit tickets today than ever before, and kids actually excited about the prospect of getting their work back. It’s the most positive I’ve seen my class in some time, and considering this lesson was just after lunch and normally a nightmare, that’s a real surprise.
Marking takes me six minutes.
Thursday is World Book Day, and I see 8X3 last period. I decide to cut my losses and schedule our fortnightly lesson of SPAG and Silent Reading into the timetable instead. Perhaps this is admitting defeat; then again, I am only human.
End of the week, and the students seem confident with what they’re doing now. I’ve identified three students as concerns because of the RAG spreadsheet and their attitude in lessons. They continue on their trajectory, but at least I can target them directly and I’ve got a good idea of what their issues are so I can show that I’m doing my best to intervene. Even they are responding to the praise and rewards, too; they want to succeed, both for a reward and so that they’re not in the minority.
As a class, the work they’ve produced today is their best so far – thoughtful, detailed and precise. Most startling is the change in the atmosphere, though; it’s gone from a place where underachievement is admirable to somewhere students are competing to be the best they can be. I don’t know if that will be sustained, but it’s certainly had a beneficial impact on the ‘floating voters’ who were hovering somewhere between good and evil.
Summary of this week:
Quick change of plan. I’m blogging every day, but that doesn’t make for a thrilling read, and even if you’re planning on doing this for yourself, you’re not going to trawl through five weeks’ worth of individual blogs to check how this has developed. Old Andrew lamented at New Year that he had too many blogs to read, and if nothing else, I feel bad for him. Plus, the echo chamber will stop posting them if I’m not careful.
So, instead: I’ll take short notes each day for my own benefit, post a longer reflection on the whole week on a Sunday (probably) and then use the mid-week to post about something broader that’s helped me with middle sets. Et voila. All the benefits of this experiment in one handy package.