Sunday, 29 July 2012

Travels with Hamlet, in Coventry

The academic year of 2011 and 2012 presented many challenges, as they always do, but my newest, biggest, potentially most daunting was to be teaching an A level English course for the first time. I was to teach AQA Language and Literarture (Spec B) to year 13, yup, you read that correctly, I was placed straight onto the A2 course. Gulp. 

As with most schools, you share the class with another teacher so we discussed our teaching preferences. I pitched for the exam element of the course, whilst my colleague handled the coursework. The exam is, 'Talk in Life and Literature' which encompasses the study of a drama text analysing how the playwright uses, rejects, employs, or ignores normal patterns of speech and why and then the analysis of two unseen extracts, one of which will be a transcript of unscripted speech and the other an extract from any genre of literary text. Much like the (bad old days) of SATS, the texts will be linked thematically.  I had a new text to learn as well as a revision of and learning of a raft of linguistic and conversational technical terms and theories. If 'Hamlet' is a lion, then I felt I was about to be consumed by the enormity of the text. 

So, what did we (the we including the pupils in the choice) end up choosing, well the clue is in the title of the blog my friend, hardly rocket science now is it?  I was both happy that the pupils had veered towards such a text as this - I had been fortunate enough to watch the Tennant 'Hamlet' in Stratford (the Shakespeare one, not the London one) and such was its energetic, perfectly pitched genius, I was enthused.  I thought, I pondered and recognised it was a literary mountain to climb, the Everest of Shakespeare plays but goodness me, the view when you get to the top is just MAGNIFICENT.  

I began the year with the class with a sense of trepidation. I like to think I gave the impression of the regal swan, gracefully moving through my lessons, while underneath the water I was paddling like [insert own expletive here]. Fortunately, the class of five were accepting of me, bright eyed, bushy tailed and eager to work hard. Some were exceptionally bright, sparky and so downright astute I was in awe of them. 

Soon enough, the Performance Management lesson observation came by and, still feeling deeply insecure about what I was doing, asked to be observed with this group, it could only help me, right? I wanted, needed to know if how I was teaching was at least good enough for these pupils; that as a novice - in this context - I wasn't putting them at a disadvantage. 

The lesson, which I will share with you went like a dream.  This was partly down to the planning, but very much down to the optimum resources used in the lesson, the pupils who were just plain brilliant.

Now, the intention of sharing the lesson is to do just that, just to share, for I remember often when hearing other teachers received Outstanding lesson observations wanting to know, 'But WHAT does it look like on paper?', 'How does it feel?' and never really getting those questions answered. When it comes to writing such lesson plans, I struggle to make explicit the things I need to make explicit, as so much of what I do (we do) is implicit, ergo much head scratching is done whilst writing them. 

Having spent the last few months learning about SOLO via the magic of Twitter, I can now see how progression for the pupils can be very explicit to the pupils, you and the observer.  The lesson is written using my school's proforma. 

I have no pretense of myself as some sort of super-teacher or teaching guru, my teeny, tiny ego would not allow such silly thoughts, however, my journey with 'Hamlet' in Coventry was an enjoyable one and enabled me, in many ways, to become a better teacher. 

In brackets is where I think the thinking is in terms of the SOLO taxonomy, which is as much to help me grasp it as anything else. 

Learning intention - where are we going? 
To discuss family relationships, status and interactions using knowledge of their (our) own families.
To explore Act 1 Sc 3 looking at Status, family interactions and how Shakespeare uses language to show this.
To Analyse Act 1 Sc 4 &5 looking at phatic conversations (casual/polite), and linguistic features of conversation (casual, polite) and defying status. 

Success criteria – how will we know when we've got there?
·   ALL – Have a clear understanding of the relationships between characters in Act 1 Sc 3, 4 and 5 and be able to identify and comment on the key features of constructed conversational language in these scenes. (Unistructural to Multi-structural)

·   MOST  Will also be able to analyse the purpose and effect of the conversational linguistic features be able to explain this to other members of the group.(Relational)

·   SOME  Will also be able to use higher level thinking skills to draw connections between the scenes analysed, other characters and relationships in Act 1. (Extended abstract)

Hook/Engagement: Family hierarchy card sort – mother, father, brother, sister on small cards and arrange in hierarchy according to own family, other fictional and finish with Hamlet’s.  Discuss each arrangement and how these hierachies are shown or revealed to the students and why. (Unistructural to multi-structural)

Setting the scene: Give brief definition of ‘phatic communication’ and pupils write examples of those used between family members e.g. ‘Nice day at work dear?’ Use mini-whiteboards to write down their ideas and responses. (unistructural to multi-structural)

Discuss examples and purpose of phatic communication and draw on examples from school, own friendship groups and family.

Key Q: Would Shakespeare also use phatic communication in his plays? Can they think of examples from texts already studied? Why would he do this? (moving to relational)

Activate (main learning activities):  
(For homework pupils have read the relevant scenes as well as finishing off preparations for display work about soliloquies)

  1. Watch scenes from David Tennant 'Hamlet', refer back to ‘hook’ of family hierarchies and phatic communication.  What did they notice about both language features and how characters used them? (multistructural)
  2. Assign scene(s) to small groups e.g. pair: Ac 1 Sc 3 and group of 3: Act 1, Sc 4 and 5.
  3. Hand out analysis questions and clarify how to use them, e.g. for annotations of scenes or other preferred from of written response or note taking. (relational)
  4. Each group works through questions annotating their scene and writing down key points on A3 to present to other half of the class. Move between groups to discuss their responses and ask higher level thinking Qs if and when needed.  (25mins to 30 approx). Give each group 5-10 mins to prepare their feedback.( countdown timer useful here). (relational moving to extended abstract)
Groups feedback/peer teach their scene and encourage them to: make notes/annotations on copies of scene and ask Qs for debate and clarification. They should note down Qs as other half speaking and save until the end. (Extended Abstract) 

(Now, I'd admit the lesson, as read isn't that 'sparkly' but it is this section that the pupils really flew. Their feedback and peer teaching was focused, insightful, reflective, analytical and abstract. I watched them teach each other, astonished at how much these pupils had learned and how well they could articulate it) 

Learning to learn opportunities: Peer learning and teaching – they work together to analyse the scenes as well as teach other what they have found out. Use of peer questioning for clarification and challenge.

Home learning: Write up analysis into essay format, max 4 sides of A4. The pupils in group of three can choose which scene to write up analysis for.
Q. Analyse the conversational and linguistic features used in your scene and explore what is reveals about the characterisation, their relationships and status. 

This is, to date my best lesson observation - with a course and a text I'd never taught before. However,  I can see that it would be even better if the SOLO taxonomy was used and shared explicitly in the lesson with the pupils.

So, there you have it and now I feel a little naked, a tad exposed to say the least,  but I prefer not to take Polonius's stance of 'neither a borrower, nor a lender be.'

What have I learned from a) this lesson and b) teaching Hamlet? 

I found the confidence to act as facilitator (apologies for the cliche), to unreservedly make them the 'stars' of the lesson; learned that they could find their own path up the Everest of Shakespeare texts whilst enabling them to raise their academic game to beyond what they thought they could achieve. 

I undertook a potentially risky strategy with following lessons, I did not enter the lessons with a heavily annotated scene or scenes we were dissecting, mine was as blank as the pupils. Don't get me wrong, I did to my homework reading and researching the scenes, but I did not want to dictate to them what they should be thinking about it. They were provided with the means to discuss, analyse, form analogies, translate, describe what they needed to but the outcomes of what the text was, could or should be revealing was open to them. Beware, another cliche approaches: the pupils took ownership of it, it became THEIR 'Hamlet'. 
The notion of a more democratic, rather than dictatorial approach trickled into other classes and lessons. Furthermore,  as discussions with @JamesTheo have revealed to me, this concept of classroom praxis (allowing for open ended and unexpected outcomes in lessons) is a liberating and empowering experience for the both teacher and the pupils in your charge. 

Later that year we had a Year 13 parent's evening. Even better than having such a positive lesson observation and feedback were the comments the pupils made about studying 'Hamlet'. One pupil I shall call 'M' (he'd like the media reference) was positively buzzing with enthusiasm for the play, he told me, despite being daunted by it, he 'Absolutely loved it.' What more could I ask or hope for?

Take a gamble, stride purposefully and with conviction to the 'undiscovered country' (Gene Roddenberry swiped it, so can I) when teaching a new course and text.  

Let 'the fear', which in many ways is healthy, fuel your drive for excellence. It need not be a kind of (professional) death that cripples you, ok me, at times, but instead take heed of Hamlet's advice to Horatio:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
 Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." 

NB: Having shared this online for a few days and chatted with some notable tweachers: @lisajaneashes and @hgaldinoshea I lamented the way my lesson was more pedestrian than Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society'.  The lesson plan does not take into account or make obvious some important things:

a) Your relationship with your class
b) You delivery of the lesson
c) Improvised elements - we all do it, don't pretend other wise - that enhance the lesson on the day. 

In short - it was and felt so much better than it reads!

There are, of course, things I'd like to do better - most notably using and applying the SOLO taxonomy with the pupils which would enable AFL and even better 'joined up thinkning.'  When it comes to teaching Miller's 'The Crucible' I shall flutter my fledgling SOLO wings and see where the flight path takes me. 


Friday, 27 July 2012

Tales from the dark side.

For the past few years, as well as working hard at the coal-face of teaching, I have also worked for an exam board. This was mainly due to receiving negligible CPD in my first few years of teaching, so took matters into my own hands and applied to an exam board to mark their A-Level Media Studies papers. At the time, I was leading the Media Studies A-Level, so it was professionally a wise move. I began marking their A2 'Critical Research Study' paper, which took the form of a dissertation but on a smaller scale.  I had a break whilst I moved schools (out of a frying pan into a blazing furnace of hell, but I digress) and changed moderating course work. 

The ellipses is deliberate, for I knew not what I had let myself in for.  Exam marking is hard, it's relentless, punishing and the deadlines are, well, mental, but as I found out later, compared to moderating course work, exam marking is a mere 'Ofsted Inspection monitoring visit' compared to moderating's, 'Full blown Ofsted inspection' stress levels. 

I'll briefly give context for the type of course work I was moderating. Centres are given a range of briefs to choose from in the specification, such as a music video or a short film as the main task, plus two smaller ancillary tasks such as a digi-pak and poster.  This should be preceded by detailed research and planning and at the end an evaluation that answers four compulsory questions. The course work should all be produced and published electronically, preferably on a blog - the specification is very specific about this...not that you'd know it from the many, incorrect, variables I saw. 

You attend the standardisation meeting and you then have six weeks to moderate your allocation.  Six weeks you say? Six weeks? That's got to be better than having just three weeks to mark your exam scripts allocation, brilliant.  

Then you begin opening your grey parcels of doom and reality kicks you in the shin as you notice the poor admin (teachers comments copied and pasted, or one sentence comments) or elements of the course work executed so poorly by the candidates, you become livid, angry for them that they were let down so badly by their school.  In short, I spent six weeks being tired, exhausted, hungry and often angry.  I moderated for two years in a row and my department, having seen me turn into a shadow of myself over the six weeks, made me promise not to do it again, ever.  Hell would need to freeze over and penguins be figure skating upon it before I did it again.  

Now, I could write a list of all the things I learned during my two years working with the grey parcels of doom moderating, however, as therapy at the end of the last session in 2011, I wrote an 'I wish I could have sent this moderator's report.'  Be prepared, it is acerbic to say the least.

The politically incorrect version NOT sent to any Centre, but oh how I wish I could have done....

The Centre is thanked for the submission of the coursework although, to be frank, it was a miracle it arrived judging from the inept way in which it was packaged, for, within my sample I discovered the sample that was meant for the AS moderator.   All coursework had been submitted on paper, whereas the Specification clearly states that all coursework MUST be submitted electronically, which begs the question, did you bother to read the Specification before you started teaching it?  The damning Moderator’s report sent last examination period suggests not. Several emails and a ‘jobs-worth’ examinations officer later, the electronic material turned up, which was discovered in, you guessed it, the AS moderator’s sample. This clearly made the Examination Officer’s assertion that she had ‘carefully packaged up the sample’ somewhat laughable.

The candidates, between the four of them, undertook a 5 minute film in its entirety together with a poster and a magazine article as ancillaries.
It was felt that the marks allocated for Research and Planning were over generous. The candidates’ produced a tedious PowerPoint slide, consisting of dense text that used tiny fonts mainly consisting of work copied from Wikipedia.  It was most interesting that the candidates themselves saw fit to use words and phrases from the mark scheme in said tedious PowerPoint slide show, for example ‘Excellent research into similar products’ without having a clear idea of what the term ‘excellent’ really meant in this context.

For construction, the 5 minute film in it’s entirety, scored in the lower mark bands due to the overuse of a monotonous voice over, which gives the impression that Harrison Ford’s V/O in Blade Runner contains the enthusiasm of Graham Norton. This, combined with ill considered Mise-en-Scene, and the worst wig seen to date in a piece of video coursework, made me greatly relieved when the 5 minutes was up. It begs the question; does your teacher have any interest in the Media at all? The ancillary tasks were massively over-marked due to barely resembling the target product. 

Evaluations were also generously marked due to once again having to sit through poorly executed PowerPoint slides.  All four compulsory questions had been answered, but judging by the content, not necessarily understood.
The Centre is strongly advised to encourage the teacher concerned to sit down and actually read the Specification, perhaps ‘Google’ something about technical codes for moving image even.  More importantly the snooty and unhelpful Examinations Officer should be shown the door and receive her P45 forthwith. 

The Centre is encouraged to continue to take advantage of the resources offered by OCR so the Centre has a clear grasp of what ‘good practice’ actually is. The site at will provide links to resources and examples of work from all units and the new community site at holds an archived forum for information and discussion.

Here endeth the rant.

Never underestimate the value of time spent reading the Specification thoroughly; the value of good administration; clear, detailed summative comments that use words from the mark scheme very explicitly; clear evidence of internal moderation; punctual delivery of your sample to your moderator; easily accessible (for the online coursework) and well packaged samples, and an efficient and competent exams officer.  If all these things have nice big  'ticks' against them, your moderator is already in a good mood. Your Centre can be quickly and efficiently moderated and your marks are less likely to be altered.  

I marked exam papers this year, three weeks, 269 scripts which, for me,  felt like a joyful ride on a carousel in comparison.

Moderating, not for the faint hearted. 

One small step for me, one giant leap for teacher-kind

So, I emerge from my reasonably safe landing craft onto the surface of an altogether new type of moon, the educational or teacher blog.  There, not so bad, just made my first step.

Continuing with the moon landing metaphor, my journey here began many weeks ago by dipping my toes back into Twitter. I'd opened an account a couple of years ago, got bored, couldn't really see the point of it, it went dormant. Then I saw some of my (rather wonderful all girls group) of Yr 11s getting a tad obsessive about Twitter and my curiosity was piqued. After scratching my head, peering back into the mists of time, my username and password emerged out of the ether and I logged back on.

Initially, I trooped down the more frivolous route of finding celebrities I knew or rated and eagerly followed them, much like my Yr 11s. I'm almost, but not terribly, ashamed to admit to being rather over-excited when @EmmaK67 (Emma Kennedy) and @ajhmurray (Al Murray) replied to some direct tweets. 

In my defence, and admittedly, it's a weak one, I was tweeting Emma about her book 'The Tent, The Bucket and Me' If you've never read it, please do, you may well even LOL and ROLF (deliberate use of text speak there, you know, so I'm a bit 'street') and Al Murray when he was having a justifiable moan about tweeter's lack of grammar skills, mainly involving homophones.  I posted him a link of ALL the homophones within our mongrel language and got a reply, and, even more groupie like, kept the emails notifying me of their replies.  I was becoming swept away by the possibility of contact with 'real' celebrities. I could go off on a postmodern, Baudrillardan diatribe here, but think it moot not to, better to move onto the nub of the post.

This did not last long. My twitterverse soon began to change and I think I can lay the blame for this firmly at @ukedchat's door when I stumbled across it while scrolling down my twitter feed, and like Lucy Pevensie stepping into C. S Lewis's beautifully crafted wardrobe, I'd emerged into an altogether more worthwhile Twitterverse.

I emerged wide-eyed and blinking, and rather than happen across a talking fawn, I stumbled across a new acronym.  I'm not a huge fan of acronyms, they are often like getting an eye-lash stuck in your eye, an irritant.  This new, pedagogical one was a mystery and she is called #SOLO.  Baffled, I waded in on a #ukdedchat discussion (every Thursday evening, 8pm, hosted by a different teacher each week) about it and asked some naive, perhaps even blonde questions. The first being, 'What is #SOLO?'  Now, I could have got a barrage of 'You call yourself a teacher?' kind of comments but instead, @ICTEvangelist, that evening's #ukedchat host, posted me a wikipedia link that briefly explained what it was: Structure of Observed Learning Outcome.  I was a little wiser, but not much.  I needed context and I needed it quickly.

Before I knew it, Obi Wan Kenobi, or @Learningspy (David Didau) wondered into my feed, @ICTEvangelist posted me a youtube link of David's that showed him explaining #SOLO to his colleagues. I had a light bulb moment, I translated it into something I understood in my head, and quite simply #SOLO is all about joined up thinking.  The joined up thinking enables students to do so many things but one of the most important is to make considerable progress during the course of a lesson, VERY Deatheater, I mean OFSTED, friendly, but more importantly, fully engage pupils in their learning and even better still, allows them to fully internalise the content of a lesson and understand its content BEYOND that of what you may have expected. The learning is deep and thorough and involves using hexagons in a way you may not have expected.  Have a peak at @David_Triptico's to give you an idea of how hexagons and #SOLO can work together.

So, my light bulb had not just been lit, but sparked, something different and inspiring had entered my brain, a new and better way of teaching, I had to keep returning to my feed and find out more, find more teachers to follow, I had become a very different kind of groupie and kept returning to @ukedchat each Thursday evening and hoovered up twitter teachers as often as I could. Twitter had changed from the celebrity caterpillar into a CPD butterfly.  (I'm going to run out of analogies and metaphors if I'm not careful).

Twitter teachers are full of opinions, ideas, resources, advice, support, friendship, banter and an urge to drink heavily at the end of term.

Many, and I do mean many, of them write blogs. Whilst marking what seemed like an epic amount of OCR A2 Media Studies papers, my wind-down time was spent mooching on twitter, chatting to tweachers, and reading numerous useful, well-written, inspirational, downright scarily good blogs about education and teaching, which was, in many ways, intimidating.  I thought, 'These people aren't just good, they're bloody brilliant.'  which is what has put me off contributing to the blogosphere, cowardice.  However, I have a strong sense of justice and was it really fair me to read all these blogs and not contribute myself? Perhaps not.

I have two tweachers to thank here: @Pekabelo and @kennypieper for encouraging me to blog, advising me of the best platform to use, providing me with a deadline to complete my blog post (yes really) and offering to proof-read and give feedback before going public with it, which is frankly a little terrifying.

So here I am, having my small step for me, but Twitter continues to make its giant leap for teacher kind, and long may it do so.

Here follows a list of tweachers who I follow and often interact with and the very good reasons for doing so. Their blogs are on their Twitter autobiographies.

1. @Learningspy (Obi Wan Kenobi) - writes regular, informative, intelligent, inspiring blogs about teaching and debates (there are so many) that surround it.  Author of 'The Perfect English Ofsted Lesson'. (waiting for me at school along with Pam Hook's books on #SOLO), frequently posts many useful articles about teaching.
2. @hgaldinoshea English and Media Teacher, regular tweeter of interesting opinions, ideas, encouraging and supportive of #SOLO, good twitter tweacher banter.
3. @lisajaneashes English teacher, AST, soon to be published author and advocate of #SOLO, full of enthusiasm, writes a mean blog.
4. @LGolton - Physics teacher, fully fledged #SOLO teacher, excellent blogger.
5. @KDWScience - was an NQT when we 'followed' soon to be Director of Literacy in her school, #SOLO advocate and blogger.
6.@CanonsOPP - always a sage voice amongst the maelstrom of a #ukedchat dabate, well except near the end of term. Blogger of a wide range of educational topics, #SOLO advocate, leader of teaching and learning.
7. @tomboulter - HoF English teacher, blogger and helpful on all things AFL especially with KS3, lots of useful stuff on his school site.
8. @tombennett71 - TES behaviour guru, fabulously entertaining and useful tweets and blogs, a must read.
9. @ICTEvangelist - does what it (he) says on the tin, organiser of teachmeets, all round good egg.
10. @Pekabelo - blogger, first class tweacher banter, encouraged me to blog and set my deadline
11. @kennypieper - blogger, advocate of teacher blogging and encouraged me to do this.
12. @JamesTheo - English teacher, tweeter of ideas, opinions and no end of useful articles, and am eternally grateful for the 'Slinky on a treadmill' youtube clip, which has an infinite number of possible uses; discussions on 'Classroom Praxis' - e.g. planning lessons with very open ended outcomes.
13. @MissBex-M - young, bright eyed and bushy tailed teacher with a beautiful blog on tumblr.
14. @GeorgeEBlack - fellow OCR examiner and has a most excellent blog hub for her AS and A2 Media Students, exemplary (speaking as an ex-A2 Media Studies moderator for OCR).
15 @Bergistra (Nightjar) Head teacher of a primary school with many challenges, writes movingly about them on her blog, posted to Twitter frequently during term time.