Picture him. For 200 metres he strides ahead, his pale legs pumping like pistons; to the other runners, he is a dot, hitting the second bend as they finish the first. And then, suddenly, mid-stride, he stops. He bends, gripping his right side, wincing. He runs a little. He stops again. And starts.
The pack, dispassionate hunters now, run him down – quickly leaving his unstable legs in their wake. He walks the last 400 metres, and only once attempts to break into a run. Thankfully, he does manage to finish. Last.
I was that kid on sports day.
And, to be honest, I still am.
Pacing ourselves across an academic year is a hard thing. Our mental and emotional resources are finite and each year many of us overestimate what we can realistically achieve in such a short space of time. So much competes for our attention and so much crops up unexpectedly. Like my sports day version of Aesop’s hare and tortoise, many of us get off to flyer and end with a whimper.
Instead, I propose that we keep our personal improvement focuses simple and modest. I also propose that, despite the temptation to rip everything up and start again, we stick to only three areas. Finally, I suggest that we should counterbalance these by removing (or reducing) three time-consuming practices that most probably have little impact.
So, the three to go are …
1. Worksheets. Just recently I filled three green bins with retired worksheets. I have wasted so much of my time walking to the printer, guillotining them, handing them out, picking them off the floor and re-printing for those who have lost them. Most questions and tasks can be projected from the front of the classroom. If students need grids, tables and diagrams they can draw them for themselves. If we want to teach organisation habits, then perhaps this is a good first step!
2. Typing on a slideshow what I could write on the board. So often my planning consists of writing things on a slide before a lesson that I could just as easily write on the board during the lesson! In fact, students seem to find this easier to follow – perhaps because their working memories are less likely to be bombarded with too much information. Of course, there are many benefits to projecting images, models and task lists but much of what I pre-prepare could simply be written there-and-then. (I appreciate that this is harder for inexperienced teachers.)
3. Homework that requires unnecessary marking. I have been experimenting with this over the last year by setting grammar tasks that students complete at home and then self-mark as I guide the whole group through the answers. They do not miss out. They get careful, detailed feedback and are helped to understand where and how they have gone wrong. What’s more, I pepper them with further questions to check their understanding is not superficial. It also allows them to experience a new concept three times – in class, for homework and again in class – something Graham Nuthall’s research demonstrates is vital for long-term retention. It is very possible to give students clear feedback on their homework without lifting a red pen.
And the three to work on are …
1. Systematic building of subject specific vocabulary for retention and transfer. In English, students encounter certain terms and concepts over and over again in different contexts: grammatical terminology, literary devices and conventions, etc. Despite my best efforts, I find that I still have top-set year 10 students who do not know what a verb is. My plan is to develop a generic list of key terms that we will cover through the year in various contexts. On their first encounter of each, students will receive a definition, an associated image (as a cue) and some kind of mnemonic. They will write these in the last two pages of their exercise books. Through the year their knowledge and understanding of these will be regularly quizzed and they will revisit them in a range of texts and situations (including their favourite game: Shoot Down). They will be expected to provide precise definitions. In the spring term, I will set my year 7 group and my top set year 11 group – who will have been exposed to these terms in my usual, less systematic way – the same test so that I can compare their knowledge and understanding. Granted, my experimental design lacks scientific rigour, but these results and my observations should be useful in informing me whether this is a fruitful path to follow in future.
2. Improve my teaching of rhetorical writing. Too often, I have been guilty of ‘persuasion by numbers’ – i.e. giving students a list of simple devices and asking them to tick them off as they write. This tends to lead to artficial and bloated writing. I want my students instead to choose and employ devices as and when necessary so that they think about the clarity and overall impact of their work. I’ve also just ordered Sam Leith’s ‘You Talking To Me?’: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. I’m hoping it will give me some useful pointers.
3. Better prepared explanations and questions. With the time saved by producing fewer worksheets and less elaborate slideshows, I will plan my delivery more carefully – see my post on better explanations here. This might mean mugging up on grammar rules, googling the best mnemonic for spelling a tricky word or annotating texts carefully before I teach them. Having just co-written a book that argues the importance of modelling and questioning, it is high time I started to practise what I preach.
With the new language and Literature GCSEs rolling out from September, along with the fact that we have our first ever Year 7 cohort, I will have more than enough to attend to. That’s why I have to keep it simple.
Have a wonderful summer. I’ll see you next term.
And remember: keep next year’s planning realistic.
What do you plan to add and subtract?