Developing Great Writing Pt.1 – Contrasting Ideas

Over the past few years I’ve developed a number of academic sentence structures to use with my students in an effort to improve their writing. I started with generic structures – I had supporting whole school writing in mind – but more recently I’ve developed more subject-specific sentences.

The main focus of my work on improving writing has been A Level, and the fact that I have taught the same syllabus for a number of years now has given me the opportunity to refine and review each year. Whilst I’ve had good feedback from students and teachers who use the sentences, I’m not convinced I’ve fully optimised either the structures or the way I use them in class.

In order to understand what I intend to do next, it might be useful to know a bit of what I’ve done already. In recent years I’ve left extended writing until year 13, believing that students write much better when they know more about the material. Most of year 12 has therefore been spent building up an understanding of the texts, which include Rossetti’s poetry, A Doll’s House and Hamlet

In the main this has proved successful – when students have started writing at length their sentences have been much more controlled and deliberate. I’m beginning to think, however, that their writing could be even better if they mastered a number of specific, high-leverage, sentence forms in year 12 too. I don’t want to lose the focus on knowledge development, but I do want to get them to practise applying some of that knowledge at the point of acquisition through small bursts of writing. I think this will help internalise certain sentence structures, which we can then build upon in year 13 when we turn our attention to synthesising knowledge and understanding in full essays.

So, this year I’ve started building in lots of deliberate practice with the subject-specific sentence structures that I have honed over the past few years. Sometimes we practise single sentences whilst at other times we write whole paragraphs, but with a particular focus on just one or two sentence constructions within that paragraph. I’m constantly using other effective strategies whilst teaching writing, such as including examples and non-examples, live modelling and co-construction with the students, dual coding and frequent oral rehearsal.

My first attempt is illustrated below:

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I spent a couple of minutes recapping students’ understanding of complex sentences, and then showed them how these sentence structures can be used to make simple comparison points, such as to contrast aspects of a character or theme. Through further exemplification we looked at how contrasts can come after the main clause or before it. We considered the stylistic and analytical rationales for each approach.

The next step was a bit of practice in class with the different sentence formulations, including punctuating the clauses correctly.

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What I like about this kind of activity is the ease with which I can get a handle on a whole class’s writing. I have 13 students in my class and I can look at the sentences that each of them produce in just a few minutes. I don’t really give them any detailed individual feedback, but rather look for trends across the class. The students like the quick turnaround and since they frequently make the same kind of errors, they can see the benefit of this approach.

And here are some of the results. Not perfect, of course, but there are some clearly focused comparisons, which we can build upon later on.

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I think my next focus is going to be on weaving in contextual details.

Thanks for reading.

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Room for improvement, or what I’m working on this year

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I’d like to think I am a better teacher than I was say 10 or even 5 years ago. I’d like to think that every year I continue to improve. I’m sure that’s not always the case, and that some years I stagnate. I’m ok with that if my overall trajectory is up, which I think (and hope) it is. As I came to realise some years ago, after a certain point it takes a lot of time and conscious effort to make significant improvements to your practice. It’s bit by bit rather than wholesale.

Having a lighter timetable than some probably helps my development in the classroom. Not because I have an abundance of time to pontificate – I really don’t – but because teaching fewer classes makes it easier to retain a clearer focus on the change to my practice I am making and the impact it is having on my students. I have more bandwidth to make sense of my classroom.

I deliberately refer to change in the singular. Isolating just one variable in teaching, consciously honing it in light of feedback, is hard enough, let along managing multiple changes at once. I’m envious of those who seem able to pick up a new idea and run with it immediately. I prefer to see if the thing I’m working on really is making a difference, and to give it the time and space it needs to work. I also find it difficult to turn successes into habitual practice.

I’ve written before about our approach to professional learning, and the way that we set ourselves classroom-based targets at appraisal – one an overt craft goal; the other an inquiry question. We’ve moved this process on quite a bit since that blog, but the essence of our approach remains the same. We identify one pedagogical goal to work on with an instructional coach, and one question about an aspect of student learning that we undertake through disciplined inquiry.

This year my pedagogical goal is to improve my modelling of sentence structures to aid students’ analytical writing. It may seem odd that I’ve chosen to focus on what you’d think would be bread and butter for an English teacher. What makes it even more perplexing is that I’ve written on this topic before and spoken about developing sentence structures at conferences!

The thing is: whilst I think I’m much better at teaching students to write good sentences and helping them turn their good sentences into good paragraphs, I still don’t think I’m quite good enough. There is still a lot more I can do to help my students set up their ideas, move between their points and introduce and engage with judicious secondary material.

There are doubtless other things I could be working on, but I want to stick with the modelling and deconstruction of sentence structures. Too often we set ourselves improvement targets – whether formally or more personally – and we move to something new before we have truly honed the change or habituliased it into a daily routine. The emphasis is for breadth, not depth.

So, this year I am keeping the main thing the main thing. I am going to build on the gains I’ve already made in this area and make a conscious effort to identity a couple of techniques that I can add to my armoury every time I teach writing. Small little sustainable moves that will have a big impact on my students’ writing, and that I can perhaps share with my colleagues when I am ‘sure’ that they work.

I want to write about my efforts on this blog and to share any successes or failures. I may not get around to doing this, of course, but the intent is there.  And after all, it’s the thought that counts. I will call blogs relating to this focus ‘Developing Great Writing’, so you can choose to read about them or not if you want.

Wish me luck.

Low Cost, High Impact Feedback

Screenshot 2018-06-16 07.12.00When we changed our feedback policy a few years ago, we were quite pleased with it – we’d looked at all the evidence around what makes good feedback, and thought we’d come up with something sensible and fair.

We established several key principles of effective feedback for each department to contextualise, such as providing time for students to do something with the feedback, highlighting the importance of using feedback to inform planning and distinguishing between feedback and marking. There were no silly requirements for different pens or extensive written comments every couple of weeks.

And yet, I don’t think we went far enough.

On reflection we could have spelt out that we do not necessarily expect to see written feedback at all; that we have no centralised expectation as to what feedback looks like in a subject and that we do not stipulate how often feedback should occur at all. We could have done more to stress that policies should be set by departments and to say that quality assurance should only be made against these policies.

I also think we could have done more in providing our teachers with tools and/or exemplification of how to practically implement strategies for giving different kinds of feedback in an efficient manner. It is easy to forget that just because the principles are right and that the intent to alleviate burdensome workload is there that teachers will magically know how to adopt low cost, high impact feedback strategies.

It’s interesting, for instance, to see how whole class feedback has evolved as more and more teachers try it with their classes and understand how to make it better and more efficient. For what it’s worth, many of the examples of it I see being shared still have too many unnecessary and inefficient aspects, potentially undermining the purpose of saving teacher time in the first place!

Our policy is now just one page long and I think now makes it crystal clear that we expect subject leaders to balance the needs of our students with what is reasonable and sustainable. Departments are free to shape their own policies in a way that they think is best with the emphasis on Low Cost, High Impact.

Behind the school policy are also examples of what this might look like in practice. Live Marking, Book Sampling and Whole Class Feedback are not original but perhaps what is different is how we have tried to show how these strategies actually work in practice. Our Low Cost, High Impact guides are the result of trials in classes to work out the most efficient and sustainable approaches.

The important thing is for these or other strategies to become habitualising them into daily practice. Only then are can they really be considered to have High Impact at a Low Cost.

High Impact, Low Cost feedback strategies:

 

Ultimate Flash Cards

In terms of revision, we know what doesn’t work:

reading
highlighting
summarising
copying

and doing nothing!

Conversely, we also know what is likely to be more successful:

generation
retrieval
elaboration
spacing and interleaving
metacognitive strategies

The problem is some students find the language of these strategies off putting. The terms can seem opaque and clinical, no matter how many times you discuss and share the underlying reasoning.

Different terminology can help – words that capture the essence of effective study strategies but present them in more accessible and memorable language.  Often it is best to present things as clearly and simply as possible.

The Five Rs

The five Rs underpin our approach to independent study, including the guidance we give our students on writing effective flash cards.

  • reduce – identifying learning
  • recall – remembering learning
  • rethink – connecting learning
  • review – reflecting on learning
  • repeat – going back over learning

Flash card guidance

  1. Reduce

Create a learning overview by breaking down subjects into topics, units, modules and concepts. Whatever works best. Use the overview to group flash cards together within each subject. This makes revision more manageable and gives it a coherent structure.

  1. Recall

It can be useful to see recall as production and recovery. Production involves writing short prompts that invite retrieval of everything that can be remembered about a given topic, such as write a list or complete a graphic organiser e.g. Venn diagram or table.

Recovery involves recalling factual details using questions as cues. There are simple what/when/where/who questions, with how and why questions also used if appropriate. These questions strengthen memories and prime for rethinking. Three is about right.

  1. Rethink

This is important and involves designing activities that extend understanding by encouraging connections. Not exam tasks, but tasks inviting something to be done with what has been recalled, such as explanations, reasons, comparing and contrasting.

  1. Review

Planning makes study purposeful. Keeping track means weaknesses are prioritised and strengths returned to after forgetting has occurred. Colour coding (red for tomorrow; amber for a few days and green for a week) and adding dates is simple and strategic.

  1. Repeat

Steps 3-5 are repeated lots of time and at intervals. Dated cards and an overview of topics enable planning and reflection at review. Different subjects and different topics can be deliberately woven into a study session. Repetitions are determined by time available.

Example:

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The ‘ultimate’ reference is tongue in cheek – I don’t know if this approach is in any way optimal, but it is more likely to be successful than what is often produced and used.

Thanks for reading

Less is more: pitfalls to avoid when feeding back mocks

lessismore12-171010141840-thumbnail-4It’s that time of the year when GCSE and A Level students up and down the country are sitting mock assessments. Many of these will be dictated by the school calendar, and many students will sit more than one. Whilst there is not the space here to dissect the relative merits of mocks, one would hope schools are thinking carefully about their value and the impact on students and teachers.

However mocks are set, they have to be marked. Given this usually takes hours – particularly for those with multiple exam classes – and students spend hours answering them, teachers understandably want to make the effort count. Often, however, this desire to do the best for our students can lead us to make silly mistakes, to increase our workload and reduce the impact for our students.

The following are some of the pitfalls I try to avoid when feeding back to students. They are based on a combination of my own experiences in the classroom or things that I have seen in the schools where I have worked. I do not intend to rubbish anyone who does any of the following, as we all do things that if we slowed down and thought about we would probably wouldn’t do anymore.

  1. Don’t write detailed individual comments on students’ work

Ok, this may not appear to directly relate to feeding back, but it does affect it. If you go to the trouble of writing copious personalised comments, you inevitably want your students to read them. In my experience, the 2-3 minutes they spend reading your comments, is never worth the 4 or 5 hours you spent writing them. Do yourself a favour and collate misconceptions at class level and invest class time addressing those instead.

  1. Watch out for conveying undesirable messages

Always be mindful of the unintended consequences of the language you use, even when you are trying to motivate students. Comments like, ‘the examiner wants to see X’, or ‘you can pick up easy marks if you do Y’ are actually quite destructive. In the short term, you might come across as clued up on the specification, but in the long term you risk devaluing students’ hard work and contributing to the wider perception that schooling is only about passing exams.

  1. Avoid relying on self-assessment or peer assessment

This is not a criticism of self or peer assessment per se. I am referring to instances where it is used in place of teacher marking. If you need to use students to mark your papers then you probably have too much work and you should address that issue directly, rather than sweeping it under the carpet. Also, longer answers, exam mark schemes and rubrics are hard enough for experts to interpret, let alone children. Students who mark their own work will do it badly, won’t learn anything from the experience and you will get dodgy results.

  1. Going through every question on the paper

Laboriously trawling every question is tempting, but ultimately a waste of time. I totally understand that we want our students to understand exactly why they gained a mark here, or missed a mark there, but this kind of forensic approach pretty much contravenes every rule about attention, working memory and motivation. In other words, the learning process. You would never try and cram so much content into an ‘ordinary’ lesson, so why do so when feeding back?

  1. Wasting time on spontaneous explanations

Closely related to the above is when we try to tell students what they should have written instead. With the possible exception of simple questions where the answer is either one thing or another, this attempt to provide an explanation on the hoof is unlikely to ever work. If students didn’t get something when you explained it carefully the first time round, they are unlikely to achieve an epiphany in a cobbled together explanation you haven’t planned for. Better to plan for addressing common errors in a more systematic way.

  1. Avoid unnecessary and burdensome DIRT activities

Giving students little personalised activities to tackle when they get their papers back sounds a good idea. After all, we want students to be able to recognise where they went wrong and take steps to address their misunderstandings without always having to rely on us. The problem, however, is that to design these kinds of activities well enough so that they are meaningful takes time, which could be better served planning 2-3 high leverage tasks for the whole class or for groups of students. You also run the risk of creating more work for yourself and getting in to a never ending feedback loop you cannot close.

  1. Be careful interpreting at question level

The closer you get to the exam the more sense it makes to focus your time on the questions that students performed badly on, right? Well, yes and maybe no. Obviously, you will be guided by students’ performance on specific questions – identifying areas of weakness before it is too late is surely one of the points of a mock exam. The problem, however, is that sometimes question level analysis can lead you astray. It is not always the whole question that needs addressing, but rather a specific step in a process is missing or a concept has not been fully grasped. Students need to understand what specifically needs attention, not simply to do better next time on the 8 marker question!

So, what to do instead? I am trying to keep to the following three things:

  1. Keep a record of the class strengths and weaknesses
  2. Note down exemplar responses, for better or worse
  3. Use these notes and exemplars in the coming weeks – not all at once

Not terribly original, I know. But it is intended to keep me sane and maximise the impact of my efforts on my students’ learning. Hopefully, I will stick to these principles, though I know this is often easier said than done.