When the road narrows

This is another lesson from the Edgbaston Tunnel, which I first used as a metaphor way back in October 2016.

The rather narrow Edgbaston Tunnel

When I first cycled through the tunnel, I was shocked at how narrow it was – there are literally a few centimetres between your handlebars and the wall on one side and the fence on the other. But then after a few turns of the pedal,  maybe 30 metres or so, it seems to get easier.

This isn’t because you are getting used to the tunnel. No, the path widens by a significant few centimetres about half way through, making the second half of the journey far less hair-raising.

But that doesn’t hold true on the return journey. Then, you enter a seemingly vast space and you cycle along with confidence at good pace, until suddenly there is a narrowing of the path and you lurch into this claustrophobic questioning of will I crash or not… it’s really quite scary.

Sometimes the things we do are like that. We start them. They seem easy at first, but then something happens that we hadn’t expected and it makes us lose our confidence. Maybe we have to stop completely and walk slowly to the end. Maybe we carry on blithely and crash. Or maybe we are lucky enough to stay sweet and straight to the end of the tunnel.

What I’ve found is that with practise you can easily cycle through the Edgbaston Tunnel. And at a good pace too. The trick is that you have to keep looking at your destination – the end of the tunnel. don’t think about the wall, or the fence or the handlebars, or what your feet are doing. Let your body live in the moment and keep looking to the end of the journey. It’s a bit like life really.

#28daysofwriting Day 15

Fixated by Feedback

Challenged by Tom Barrett’s #28daysofwriting post about proxies for learning, I began to consider what proxy most transfixed me. Having spent many of the last few posts on the subject of feedback, I knew quite quickly what it was: feedback.

If the feedback in the classroom is good, I consider that there is good learning going on. If the marking in a book is good, I consider that there is a good learning going on. Am I right?

It’s true that good feedback helps learners. But it is not true that the quality of the feedback is directly proportional to the amount of learning that goes on. I could be giving the best feedback in the world but spend my whole time teaching my students about Lithuanian Christmas Jurds and the lifecycle of the Wiggy Boond, both of which I invented*. The students would then have an awful lot of great feedback about things that are completely made up and do not help them at all with the next stages of their education.

Earlier today I was going through one of my pupils books and I noticed a piece of work that was unmarked. Yes I know. Take me outside and shoot me at dawn. It was just a few sentences of the child practising some sentence structure work. It was OK, but the child had gone on to do better things in their subsequent lessons. I realised it had been a lesson where the boys (for, as I’ve said before, it is a boys school) had done some practice, then I’d stopped them and done some modelling on the board and not gone back to the books.

So what did I do, given my feedback fixation? I back-marked it. I wrote a comment that wasn’t for anyone except an inspector.

And then I realised that all I’m doing is creating work for myself. The marking I’ve given doesn’t show the learning of that child. Nor does their performance in their book. The learning lives somewhere in their head. Getting overly fixated on one thing is not helpful.

*Sincere apologies to all those students, many of whom now adults, still believe in Christmas Jurds and the Wiggy Boond.

#28daysofwriting Day 14

Collecting the Good Stuff

One of the reasons I am an inconsistent blogger is that I quickly run out of ideas. I spend a few months building up a list of things I’m bothered about, which I then vomit into my blog. And then I go quiet for a bit.

This is an issue when trying to do #28daysofwriting (1 post for every day in February). Last time I tried this sort of thing, I ran out of steam half way through and didn’t finish.

So to inspire me, I’ve begun collecting other people’s blogs. I use ifttt.com to automatically search twitter for the hashtag #28daysofwriting and send the tweets, including any urls with related content, to a spreadsheet here. It’s been quite good so far. It’s tuned me back into Tom Barrett’s blog and made me see a couple of other people’s posts who have presented me with more food for thought – more ways to stay inspired.

Unfortunately I only thought of this a couple of days ago, so I haven’t collected everything since the start of February, but at least it’s a start!

#28daysofwriting Day 13

When good feedback looks like direct teaching (Lessons in Feedback 7)

#28daysofwriting Day 12

The problem with formative marking is that you can waste valuable minutes at the start of a lesson with children leafing through their exercise books to find the coloured comments of their teachers and make their own written response. This time could be spent teaching.

I’ve found that some of my best lessons have been when I’ve done some cursory marking of a set of work to assess the understanding of the children. I’ve then put the books into piles – rough groups to start the next lesson. I’ve then directed my teaching to each of these groups so that they are all working on their next steps during the lesson.

I’m not sure which of these approaches is more effective, I’m just aware that formative marking can take an awful lot of time and then be an excuse to do less direct teaching.

Maybe I need to do some action research to delve into this further.

When the marking is not for the child (Lessons in Feedback 6b)

#28daysofwriting Day 11

I currently teach Year 1. Virtually none of my marking is for the child.

This is because (a) they can’t read it, and (b) they’re not yet independent or self aware enough for the marking to affect what they do.

Here’s how I use marking to make a difference: I photograph the marked work and send it to their parents. In Year 1, I’ve found that the most effective way of feeding back to the child is via their parents.

But I could do the same thing by not actually marking the work, but just messaging the parents about what their child needs to do next.

So what is my marking for?

Often it’s guilt. It’s the feeling that I should be writing something so that when an observer (senior manager, colleague, inspector) looks at the work they know the teacher has been busy.

This is why a school’s marking policy is so important. It defines how guilty a teacher feels after marking a set of books. Should you tick and flick? Should you mark in various colours, training your children to know what each colour means*? Either can be valid so long as the feedback is good enough to make a difference to the child in the next lesson.

*pink for think, green for good is one example

Testing the Digital Leaders

Many aspire to the badge, but not all can attain it…

#28daysofwriting Day 10

I made a mistake last year in my digital leaders programme. I interviewed each boy (remember – my school is a boys school, so I am not being sexist: there are literally no girls to choose from) based on their technical prowess. I chose them from that, and also a little bit of they’re-not-involved-in-anything-else-so-I-feel-sorry-for-them.

I didn’t look for their ability to work in a team. You’ve probably heard that phrase: ‘you can’t have too much self esteem, you can just wear it badly‘. Exactly. I had a few boys who wore their self esteem badly. Let’s face it they were just plain arrogant. They ended up abusing some of the privileges they had been given and being banned from the computer room.

So this year, I have been choosing the digital leaders more carefully.

Out goes the one-size fits all interview. In comes a presentation session in which they all have to present to each other about why they should be a digital leader.

This was most enlightening.

I actually had one boy declare to the other boys that he was a ‘child genius’ and that’s why he should be a digital leader.

What was even more enlightening was how they listened to each other. Some hung on every word of the other presentations and clapped enthusiastically at the end of each one. Some couldn’t be bothered until it was their turn.

Next I have given them the task of supporting the Year 1 boys in making a ‘Dinosaur Fact website.’ This was interesting as neither the Year 1 boys, nor the Year 6 boys had seen Google Sites before, and yet the Year 6 boys picked up the logging in quickly (the biggest barrier is logging in) and were all pretty good at supporting the younger boys.

My final challenge will be to work on their own ‘Digital Leaders website’, in which each one will have their own section. This will be interesting to see how they collaborate, because it is quite easy to sabotage someone else’s work when building the same website together, and I can imagine it being tempting to do that so that your own pages look the best. But of course I will be looking for good teamwork as my driving criteria.

And soon I will have some Year 6 boys who are no longer ‘Provisional Digital Leaders’, but actual ones.

Who is the feedback for? (Lessons in Feedback 6a)

#28daysofwriting Day 9

One of the questions that came up in our recent book scrutiny was this: who is the marking for?

In some recent posts, I’ve been hinting at a broken logic that exists behind many schools marking policies. This logic looks like this.

  1. We must do brilliant feedback because the Sutton Trust says it’s the most effective way of making a difference to the education of our students.
  2. Marking is the same as feedback so we must do brilliant marking.
  3. We must write a brilliant marking policy so that all teachers do the same brilliant marking.
  4. We must beat our teachers with metaphorical sticks when they fail to comply with the marking policy.

I heard the privilege of listening to one of Her Majesty Inspectors for schools recently. These are like the ninjas of Ofsted inspectors. She explained that when Ofsted visit a school, they are charged with investigating how well the teachers comply with the marking policy of the school. They do not judge the quality of the marking policy. Maybe they should.

It’s a bit like if someone has a cold trying to make them better by observing how they wipe their nose – more broken logic – it’s so many steps away from the thing that actually matters: the quality of the feedback.

The Worst Week

#28daysofwriting Day8

This week is the worst week. As a teacher that is.

You’ve worked super hard all the way through the Autumn term, pulling out all the stops for your students to learn stuff. Sixteen weeks of sheer educational slog.

Then you get to the Christmas Holidays, and do you rest? No. From the Staff Do on the last Friday of term, to the Training Day on the first day back in January, you are completely flat out. It’s a different flat-out, admittedly. A flat-out full of family, friends and food. Possibly alcohol. It’s certainly not a rest.

Then you’re back and it’s January: a month of few redeeming features. The days are short. The evenings are dark. And you’re still tearing up trees for your students to learn stuff. But now you’re tired. You’ve probably already failed in your New Year’s resolutions and so you’re feeling bad about yourself too.

When February starts, Winter illnesses have taken their toll. You’ve had to pick up some work from absent colleagues, adding to your exhaustion. Towards the end of a block of teaching, staff always start getting cranky with each other. So now you’re cranky too. And tired. And angry. And frustrated.

And then this week starts. And when it finishes there is still another week to go before you can rest at Half Term.

But don’t worry, you are past Teary Tuesday. It is now Thursday – the week is almost over. And then it’s just one more week to go before the February half term.

Ah. The bliss. An actual rest!

I can’t wait.

Back into Google Apps

#28Daysofwriting Day 7

It’s been since I posted anything Google-y. I’ve been a bit disconnected from the network over the past couple of years. There are a range of reasons for this, none of which are relevant to this post.

This week, having mainly done work on Paint recently, I got my Year 1s making their own website. The subject was: dinosaurs.

Having already made a fact book, it seemed only logical to produce the same information in html.

The first task was showing the boys how a website is organised. I did this and I set up 6 subpages of the main page, each named after one of the dinosaurs we had chosen: velociraptor, ankylosaurus, diplodocus, stegosaurus, pterodactyl and triceratops.

Then each boy created their own subpage of these subpages (3 layers) and wrote a sentence about each one. We did it all in Google Sites, using the slowly developing Google Apps domain I acquired for the school.

That was on Monday. Today I showed the boys how to insert a photo. I haven’t done the copyright thing yet. It was enough to find a relevant phot and show them how to insert it using a link. The rights and wrongs of fair usage can wait a few weeks.

What was great is that my new digital leaders from Year 6 helped with the process. They hadn’t seen it before, but soon picked it up and helped the little boys with their task.

I’m not sure as yet what the Year 1 boys are learning from the process as typing is a major barrier, so effectively the whole exercise is typing practise.

They always say you need to start your Google Apps implementation with one thing. Last time it was Gmail. Maybe this time it will be Sites.

Lessons in Feedback 5: The Foundation of this Book Scrutiny is Love

#28Daysofwriting Day 6

Albert Rosenfield: [to Sheriff Truman] (courtesy of imdb.com)

Now you listen to me. While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and hatchetman in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and I’ll gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King. My concerns are global. I reject absolutely revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method… is love. I love you Sheriff Truman.

is one of my favourite quotes of all time. And I was reminded of it today during a book scrutiny.

Given that feedback is the thing in education and, as I explained previously, many schools have taken that to mean written feedback is the thing, it follows that looking at what teachers have written in books (a book scrutiny) is a very important process. Perhaps the most important process in school improvement known to mankind.

It was so important at my last school that it became the process for identifying the ‘weak’ teachers and culling them. (Please excuse me. I’m currently doing the topic of ‘dinosaurs’ with my Year 1 class and I am perhaps slightly overcome with the brutal world of the Cretaceous just at the moment. It may be affecting my language.)

As a ‘culled’ teacher, it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I approach a book scrutiny at my new school.

But I am learning that not all book scrutinies are the same. At my current school the foundation of the method is love. The boys (for it is a boys’ school) are all well known, their individual foibles and treats discussed with some affection. They are individuals. And whatever tensions exist between the staff, there is a deep abiding respect and a sense of we’re-in-this-together. It’s almost like love.

What it means is that you can talk about the strengths and weaknesses of your own books with a certain confidence that any criticism will be there to make you a better teacher, not to boot you out of the school, or even mauled by a Postosuchus (that’s another dinosaur reference, this time from the late Triassic).

And I’m sure it means that the feedback gets better as a result. We all look at each other’s books. We can see some good things. It makes us think of things we can do better. We go and do them.

It’s quite nice really. A bit like Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks, even though he’s an arrogant bastard when you first meet him.