Slamming the door on bad writing habits

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Image: @jasonramasami

“DON’T SLAM THE DOOR!”

Over the last few weeks, I have been the recipient of this wearily repeated phrase plenty of times. You see, I am an inveterate door-slammer. As a conscientious child I would close doors softly and carefully, yet since we moved into our house, nearly six years ago, I have fallen into a new and clattering routine. In recent months, some suspicious-looking cracks have started to snake their way up our living room walls, and my partner has decided that enough is enough and it is time that I kicked the habit.

The trouble is, though, that I can’t. When I am reminded of the new rule, I happily comply, and for a moment or two kid myself that I am genuinely getting better. Unfortunately, everything falls apart the next time I absent-mindedly saunter over the threshold with something else on my mind. The tremor of seismic proportions that follows me leaves me wincing with guilt when I realise what I have done.

My door-slamming shame serves as a useful metaphor for what I notice about student writing. Bad student writing habits are so difficult to shift because they, like my door slamming, happen at an unthinking, automatic level. In Practice Perfect, Lemov et al write about how ‘practice becomes permanent’. If we do something over and over again it is hard to shift, and if that something is undesirable, it can have quite serious long-term ramifications.

At a parents’ evening last week, I found myself saying the same thing over and over:

“I know that [insert name] knows how to use a [insert grammar/punctuation rule] because when I ask or remind  [insert name] to do it he/she does it immediately. However, when [insert name] is writing an extended piece everything goes out the window and he/she seems to forget how to use a [insert grammar/punctuation rule].”

In fact, I have been repeating this statement at parents’ evenings for nine years now and it has rarely made a difference. I am also ashamed to admit that there are a few students I have taught for their whole time at the school who still repeat the mistakes they were making four years ago. Their habits are just as entrenched as my door-slamming. Even through I have taught them how to use, say, a possessive apotrophe, and even though they can explain to me how use one, they forget when they are writing. There is a sizeable gap between knowledge and regular application.

I am trying to work out some simple, sensible ways that we, as teachers of writing, can find a solution. What follows are some of the ideas I am beginning to pursue.

Literacy targets

Students need one or two long-term targets that feed-forward from task to task. Even though DIRT, editing, proofreading and redrafting are clearly useful, I am becoming less convinced that they are the sole answer. Do they really address the problems at their source? Let us return to my little front-door peccadillo. After feedback from my significant other, I could go outside, come back in again and shut the door more carefully, but would that lead me to remember it for next time? I’m not convinced.

In Embedded Formative Assessment (2011) Dylan Wiliam writes that feedback ‘must provide a recipe for future action’. However valid this point, this ‘recipe for future action’ is only useful if the student remembers to follow it!

The thing is, they have to be thinking about these targets as they are putting pen to paper; after is too late. The best hope we have, then, must be to make these targets very visible – in their books, on wall displays and slides, with regular reminders from us, too. Moreover, I think that the current obsession with ‘progress’ has dropped many of us into a further quagmire. I know, for instance, that I am regularly guilty of setting a child new targets before they have  successfully fulfilled their previous one. If a student has still not managed to master, say, using a full-stop accurately – even after a year of trying – then the target should not be changed, even if it makes me look like a ‘bad teacher’. If the target changes before the child achieves mastery then the implicit message might become: I don’t think you will ever be able to do it so I am changing the target.

Indeed, even if the child has been successful a few times, it would be wise for me to keep the target in place until I am completely convinced that the habit has changed. In other words, if I have any hope of defeating my demons at all a sign reading ‘DO NOT SLAM THE DOOR’  needs to be affixed to either side of my front door for the foreseeable future. It certainly should not be removed as soon as I get it right for the first time; I would inevitably fall back into the habit.


Shorter, focussed writing tasks

I alluded to much of this – here – on the importance of giving children time to write. I think that the principle of ‘challenge’ can be misapplied to writing. We often ask students to write extended pieces before they are really ready, in the belief that we are challenging them more rigourously. Sadly, for many, these longer pieces are counterproductive. Effort and thinking are expended on getting the pieces finished, rather than writing them at high quality. Ideally, we want students to be thinking about the what and the how as they are writing – i.e. the content they are writing about and the best way to express this in academic language.

The key, then, is to spend more time  on practising grammatical structures and well-developed paragraphs as they move incrementally towards longer pieces. Professional footballers rarely train by playing full-scale competitive matches – instead, they practise and fine-tune the parts of the game that eventually make up the whole. Students need time to think about their weaknesses in isolation, away from the extraneous stress created by having to complete longer tasks before they are ready.

As much as children tend to enjoy writing detailed stories, these can provide vehicles for bad practice. I am not against creative writing, not at all, but I have often found that if these tasks are not tightly structured, children become worse, not better, writers. It is no wonder, then, that scaffolding strategies, like David Didau’s slow writing have caught on so much. They force students into thinking carefully as they are writing.


Consider how much students are writing

What we need is not more writing per se, but more high-quality writing. Don’t forget, children are writing all the time – in lessons and for homework. For some, this is the deliberate practice they need to hone and sharpen their skill. For others, this provides the bad practice that leads to permanent, intractable literacy issues.

We are in a quandary. We cannot stop students from writing because, naturally, they can only get better through doing it; yet, for others, it is unrestricted writing itself that causes the bad habits to become entrenched. We simply do not have the time or resources to provide instant feedback to every child every time they make a mistake and, as I have suggested before, editing and proofreading, although useful, will not solve the problem at its origin. There is no perfect solution, but this is surely where robust whole-school literacy policies must play their hand. English teachers will never be successful in unpicking bad writing habits if they are overlooked in other subject areas. This is particularly true for our weaker writers.

***

I think the answer to these problems might one day lie in technology. Unfortunately, current word-processing programmes like Word do all the thinking and correcting for the students; in my opinion they compound, rather than solve, the problem. However, imagine if, after diagnosing a child’s bespoke literacy needs , we could hook them up to a programme that prompted them with immediate feedback every time they performed particular errors. I am sure that this idea has plenty of exciting permutations, especially if the software producers were informed by the evidence from cognitive science.

Perhaps, then, we could finally slam the door on all those needless bad habits.

SLAM!

Damn, not again!

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The Everest writing scaffold

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On 29 May 1953, Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers officially confirmed to have reached the 8,848-metre summit of Mount Everest. After the failure of many previous expeditions, their feat has become a legendary benchmark of human commitment and ambition.

So what has this piece of mountaineering history got to do with learning in a modern secondary setting? Well, I think that their success provides a perfect analogy for the importance of, and interplay between, the modelling and scaffolding of extended writing.

Hilary and Norgay’s success would not have been possible without the use of scaffolds: a series of basecamps, a slow acclimatisation to high altitudes, bottled oxygen, thick woollen suits and heavy wooden ice-picks all played a part in staging their ascent. Without these essential scaffolds, rudimentary by today’s standards perhaps, it is fair to assume that they would have failed completely.

Their incredible achievement has since paved the way for many successful ascents. In fact, nearly 4,000 climbers have also reached the earth’s highest point since Hilary and Norgay including, amazingly, an 80 year-old man and a blind person. Hillary and Norgay wrote the original model, a model which has both inspired and instructed all those who have followed in their footsteps. The chances of success since the 1950s have been further improved by the development of more sophisticated scaffolds: fixed ropes, lightweight aluminium axes, closed-cell foam insulation boots and high-tech communication equipment to name but a few.

Reaching the peak of Everest, therefore, is a metaphor for the successful completion of a challenging writing task. If even the most talented climbers following in Hilary and Norgay’s footsteps need the influence of models and high-tech scaffolds, is the same not true of young writers? And if the scaffolding is developed to a higher quality, then is it not true that many more will find success than just the odd maverick? Yes, not all will reach the summit, but by attempting and falling just short, do we not learn more than by playing it safe at sea-level?

My belief is that scaffolding is not about making written work easier; instead it is about quite the opposite. Our scaffolds should make the work harder, more challenging, yet also ensure that success remains a tangible possibility. So how do we design effective scaffolds that allow this to happen?

It is important to note before I share some other strategies that models and modelling are the most important scaffold. Success is much easier to imagine and conceptualise when there are concrete examples available. Indeed, Hattie and Yates ascertain that cognitive load theory research has demonstrated that presenting students with ‘worked examples’ (completed model answers) is one of the most effective means of providing guidance. Moreover, if we teach writing without models we run the risk of  having to compensate with too much scaffolding so that extended writing becomes ‘painting by numbers’ or ‘filling in the gaps’. I have two key modelling strategies: 1) the use of multiple completed exemplars, and 2) the use of ‘live’, or shared writing, where students and teacher co-construct a text or part of a text. I have written about these strategies in more detail here and here.

Before considering how – or indeed, if – we will scaffold student writing, I find these questions to be useful:

  1. How will I ensure that scaffolds will extend and not restrict?
  2. How will I ensure that scaffolded resources are simple to use and understand so that they do not inadvertently create an impediment to learning?
  3. How will I know that the fine balance between support and challenge has been struck?
  4. How will I foster grit and determination in my students, yet ensure that the gap between where they are and where they need to be is not too big a challenge that they ‘give up’?
  5. When should the scaffolds be removed? (Because, ultimately, that is what we are aiming for.)

Below is the ‘Everest’ writing scaffold that I have developed for preparing students for extended essay writing. It is a ‘macro’ scaffold comprising of ten interweaving ‘micro’ scaffolds. Many of the strategies below can be planned in advance or improvised there-and-then as necessary.

  • Upstream knowledge. Often my students struggle with writing because I have failed to ensure they have the essential knowledge and understanding they need before they begin. If they are writing, say, about Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth then they must have a detailed understanding of her character before they start. I know this sounds obvious, but too often I have found myself giving students with flimsy knowledge an over-challenging task. I am then left with two untenable options: spoon-feeding or underachievement.
  • Verbal responses. Regular opportunities to verbalise ideas are crucial all the way through the build-up to the final writing piece. However, these need to be structured so that they support writing. I have written – here – about one strategy I use to scaffold writing through structured discussion. I am also now trying to be explicit about how students respond to questions in lessons. If we are commenting on a poem, for instance, I will get them to respond in full, analytical sentences: ‘I think the poet uses the word ‘emerald’ as a metaphor for how precious this place is.’  With clear modelling, explanation and visual scaffolding on the board – sentence stems and the like – this should be possible every lesson.
  • Key words. These are best embedded way before the final written product is attempted. Repetition through teacher explanation and questioning, student verbal response, spelling tests and practice sentences and paragraphs is key.
  • Planning.  Just like the writing itself, planning needs to be modelled and scaffolded. A great way to do this – as John Tomsett explained brilliantly in this post – is to work backwards from an exemplar essay, so that students replicate the plan they imagine the writer originally worked from. From here, they can design their own plans with this model in mind. There are, however, plenty of well-trodden ways, some more scaffolded than others, to help children plan.
  • Practice paragraphs and sentences. Before students write an extended piece, I like to set the challenge by having them write practice paragraphs – Hilary and Norgay would not have attempted Everest without the extensive mountaineering experience they had on smaller climbs. It is through practice writing that knowledge and understanding of subject content and written genre come together. These can be modelled first through exemplars or shared writing. This is a good stage to look at explicit grammar constructs. I am particularly in  love with– and passionately so! – the sentence structures Chris Curtis has shared in his blog (here); they can be easily introduced and trialled in practice paragraphs. Students might write these paragraphs individually or, if the class are motivated, they can work in pairs (this is another great way for students to verbalise the genre they are writing in – see here). These shorter pieces are easy to peer-assess or self-assess in fine detail through simple check-lists.

So, how do we scaffold during extended writing?

  • Writing frames. My aim, usually, is not to use these. I have been guilty in the past of giving students such detailed writing frames that an essay becomes an unwieldy list of prompted sentences. However, I do offer my very weak students an ordered list of sentence stems, but only after they have given it a decent go beforehand or I am unconvinced by the quality they have produced without a scaffold.
  • Procedural check-lists. These help keep students on track as they write. Again, we have to be judicious about how much we use them and with whom:

                Have you used a topic sentence?

Have you used an embedded quotation?

Have you chosen a word/phrase from the quotation to analyse?

Have you linked your analysis to the play’s context?

Have you made a link back to the original question?

  • Time. I have written before – here – about the importance of slowing writing down rather than speeding it up. Students need time to work through their difficulties; learning, as cognitive science makes clear, is necessarily slow and difficult.

And after writing?

  •  Response to marking. Dedicated time for editing and improvement in response to teacher marking is vital. See my DIRT post here.
  •  Redrafting. This provides the perfect opportunity for students to start again. They may have failed to reach the summit in the first attempt, but they will certainly be more prepared for their second attempt. By withholding the opportunity to write a second draft are we sending the subliminal message that this is it, you cannot get any better?

Naturally, it is almost impossible to include all of the above stages in every unit or cycle of work. Likewise, there are many other useful scaffolding strategies I have not had room to include. As with any teaching and learning strategy, we need to take from it what is useful to us and the students we teach.

Realistically of course, many students will struggle to reach the summit and will fall short. Frustratingly, we also know that many will perform well with scaffolds in place, but will seem to have forgotten it all next time they put pen to paper. Some educators will argue that students learn more through more struggling and less scaffolding, but my question is slightly different: can we not have both? I will, however, concede that it is imperative that students also get accustomed to regularly writing without scaffolds as this is how they are ultimately assessed at GCSE.

To me, however, scaffolding challenge is a vital component to the teaching of writing. Most kids can produce two pages of writing without much struggle, but very few can produce two pages of excellent writing.

Scaffolds do not have to ‘dumb down’; in fact, they can provide quite the opposite.

MOUNT EVEREST HEROES

Multiple models and the journey to freedom

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To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion…”

Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

In recent months, I have been considering the importance of modelling writing – I’ve even written a couple of blog posts about it (here and here). Yet despite my fervour for modelling, in the back of my mind a nagging doubt has continued to haunt me. Could my use of models be denying students a chance to become free writers, to find their own voices, to find their own way? In the words of the inimitable Miss Jean Brodie, is my modelling an unnecessary ‘intrusion’ when I should be ‘leading out’ the latent creativity of my students?

Whether true, pure creativity exists is a philosophical question this pragmatic teacher would like to avoid for today. It is certainly true that many English teachers, myself included, have been inspired by the idea that reading and writing can set us on the path to self-expression; for a teacher to constrain this freedom is  tantamount to tyranny, we might argue. Room for thinking has been paramount to my own development as a writer – why deny it to others?

Unfortunately, however, the blunt reality presented by the literacy capabilities of many of my students has dulled some of this idealism. It has been further dented by my reading of Hattie and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of how we learn, with its persuasive emphasis on the importance of modelling and the use of worked-examples.

You see, the purposeful and explicit use of models in the classroom, whether through exemplars or ‘live’ writing, is absolutely vital, especially when our students have had deficient literacy input at home. Models provide the opportunity for our students to see how tone, structure, grammar and ideas can become knitted together in a cohesive whole beyond the sum of the parts. How can you ‘lead out’ something when these seeds have yet to be sewn?

Be that as it may, all is not lost. I believe that creativity is not inspired by sticking our heads in the sand and hoping; it can be taught, and the way to do this is simple. We model more frequently, not less, and, like Ron Berger, we immerse our students in a multiplicity of exemplars. There are three obvious types: the teacher model, the student model and the outside expert model (written by the professional writer from past or present). All should be treated with equal importance.

Before I share some ideas, let me tell you the wonderful tale of how, with a gap of several years, I witnessed one student’s writing inspire another’s. Five years ago, I taught Lucy, an incredibly gifted writer. She wrote a wonderful piece from the perspective of an aged Beatrix Potter whose thoughts and imaginings, now blighted by dementia, had become consumed by the nostalgic memories of her literary creations. Three years later, I read and discussed this piece with another class. One boy, Simon, significantly less talented than Lucy, produced a remarkable echo of her work. It told the tale of a parish vicar looking back over his life and, word by word, renouncing his faith in God. Simon had been brought up in a strictly Christian family. Writing this remarkably restrained piece, inspired in tone, content and structure by a girl he had never met, was of profound importance to a young man who may have been questioning his own faith.

So how can we use written models in the classroom in such a manner that teaches our students the technicalities of writing, yet does not unduly constrain?

Use more than one model. Time and resourcing constraints mean that, more often than not, our students are introduced to only one exemplar. This can be dogmatic. Instead, we need to show them that there are many possible paths to successful writing. Providing three or more very good but very different exemplars (perhaps just as paragraphs), and asking students to select their favourite can lead to a rich discussion that triggers inspiration in different ways.

Use teacher models in conjunction with student models as often as possible. Only two weeks ago I asked my mixed-ability Y9 class to write a letter from Much Ado About Nothings Benedick to an agony aunt. I figured that the task would be tough and so they needed to see an example first a letter I wrote from an agony aunt, this time from Beatrice. This was great for the weaker students, who captured the tone and style better than I could have imagined in their Benedick letters. Unfortunately, a few too many strong writers took the safe option by parroting my model. Luckily, not all of them did, and when I repeat the task I have a number of interesting and better – exemplars to share and critique alongside mine.

Benedick letter Jack Manger

Make sure we are constantly sniffing out new models. Like Ron Berger with his portfolios of excellence, I know I must now adopt a consistent strategy for identifying and storing models. Every time I mark a set of books, my aim is to scan at least two pieces of good quality work using the CamScanner app on my iPhone, which is then send to my Dropbox folders. Too often in the past, I have not done this and great work has been lost. If I leave it until the end of the year to collate, it never happens.  My aim now is to extend this approach across my department; as teachers we can gain fresh insights from regularly reading the great work of our colleagues’ students and, more importantly, so can our classes.

Consider the sequencing of models. The order we present models to our classes can lead to constraint or freedom. Even though we must seek to create a common conception of excellence, it is important to avoid creating a power structure where the teachers ideas are made to seem more valid than others. I find that more freedom is created when my teacher model a precise teaching tool often designed around the key grammatical concepts I am trying to introduce or key weaknesses that need to be addressed is shared before student models. Implicit in this sequence is the idea that my expectation can be achieved in a variety of ways

Use anthologies of student examples creatively. Each year in my English department we create an anthology of the best KS3 writing, which leads to a presentation evening. I keep sets of these anthologies as a teaching resource that can be used in a multitude of ways both in class and as homework before students complete their own writing.

Create degrees of separation between the model and the students’ work.Take a great example (established author/teacher/student) and then ask students to ‘plan backwards’ – write the plan we imagine the original writer designed. After this, students plan their own piece of work. This creates a greater degree of separation from the original exemplar, giving students more room to move.

Build in different entry points in mixed-ability classes. Modelling for freedom can be tricky with a mixed-ability class. In general, the more able the writer, the less we want to constrain. Heres one simple strategy for using a  model that works well.

1.    Share a first paragraph (preferably ‘live’ with the help of the class).

2.    As a whole-class shared exercise, structure a plan for the next few paragraphs (maybe six in length.)

3.    Ask stronger writers to write their own plans – using the shared one as a model – and let weaker writers (if they need to) copy out the shared plan as their own.

4.    If necessary, the very weak (or very uninspired) can copy out the first paragraph and carry on from there. All others will use their own plans – either the class plan or their own.

Model a chain of influence. Demonstrate how good writers are inspired by one another by showing how one student has taken the flavour of anothers writing and made it their own – like Lucy and Simon. Both pieces of work are shown side-by-side so that the class can consider the workings of influence and inspiration.

Plan before models are introduced. This way students can own their ideas and structures, but we can have more say over the technicalities and grammatical constructs they employ.

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As the father of a two year old boy, I am now in a front row seat as his language bursts forth. It has taken time, patience, and plenty of modelling from many people to get to this stage. Over time, over years, over key stages, is it wishful thinking to imagine that a multiplicity of models might encourage written language, in all its freedom, to burst forth in our classrooms?

Related posts:

Tom Sherrington – Defining the Butterfly: Knowing the Standards to set the Standards

David Fawcett – Can I be a little better at knowing what high quality work looks like

A benchmark of brilliance

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When our students arrive with us in Y7 – or Y8 if you teach in my town – they embark upon a series of tests known as ‘baseline assessments’. Invariably in English, this is some kind of writing task with little or no preparation. More often than not, students flunk it – nerves, lack of practice, uncertainty about expectations probably all play a part.

Take this example paragraph from a baseline written by one of my weaker Y8s in September:

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Scorched indelibly between his eyebrows, the sharp sizzle of a level 4′ brand is all but audible. And so serial underachievement begins…

A couple of months ago this rather simple idea came to me. Why don’t we ask students, fresh in the honeymoon glow of a move to secondary school, to do something remarkable when they arrive? Why don’t we get them to look ahead, rather than look back? Why don’t we get them to create a ‘benchmark of brilliance’?

In fact, they can do this at any time, not just at the start of the year. The idea is that in every subject they will undertake a task, complete a procedure, interrogate an idea or create a product that takes them far beyond the shackles of what they think they are capable of. The rationale is, from the outset, to create confidence and to engender pride and belief.

Better late than never and inspired by Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, I decided that my Y8 students would set their benchmarks at the start of 2014. Two questions seemed pertinent before I began:

    How will I plan a scheme that helps me to bleed the absolute best out of my students?

    How will I get them to invest in the task so that they really do care about the final product?

And so I planned the following scheme:

1.    First off, we read the first three chapters of White Fang by Jack London. These provide a self-contained short-story involving two men, six huskies, a pack of emancipated, blood-thirsty wolves and a mysterious ‘she-wolf’. It’s gripping stuff, yet the main reason for reading it was as a ‘mentor text’, an idea I have gleaned from Mark Miller’s blog – here. I wanted my students to be inspired by Londons tone, style, sentence structures, themes and storyline in their own writing.

2.    Once read, we deconstructed a paragraph, looking at how London had used verbs and adjectives to personify nature, but more importantly how he had created wonderful sentences. We looked at Londons, built some together and they had a go themselves, using the principles of the sentence escalator I have written about before. Here’s how I modelled how London might have built up one of his sentences:

Screenshot 2014-02-05 21.57.24

3.    However, great sentences alone are not enough. Fluency comes from how these sentences are linked. I selected a range of sentence starters from across the three chapters. These, along with examples of how London used these stems and five generic sentence types, formed the scaffolding (see below). To create more challenge, I set a simple rule: no sentence must start with the same word.

Screenshot 2014-02-05 21.56.11

4.    Before we started writing I showed them Ron Bergers Austin’s Butterfly video see here. We discussed how it would influence our approach. I insisted that I would give them time to write and gave them a simple three paragraph structure: describe the landscape; describe a sled with huskies; describe a night-time camp fire. I explained that the final draft would provide a benchmark piece to be stuck on their folders a measure of a level of quality to continually aim for and, one day, to surpass.

5.    From time to time as they were writing, I photographed work and we critiqued it together. I would have liked more peer-critique, but I felt time was running out.

6.    When the first draft was complete, I gave formative feedback. See picture:

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7.    They edited this before slowly and carefully writing up the final draft.

Heres the benchmark piece from the ‘level 4’ student I mentioned at the start of the post:

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Modest, yes, but with so much more sentence control than the original baseline (even if the description of snow is a little unconventional!).  Some of the class’ work is exceptional, the best I’ve seen from Y8s. I have included a number of examples at the end of the post. Almost all worked slowly, diligently and, in many cases, with the care and attention of artists.

This task has taught me an awful lot, more than I can write about here. One important point, though, is that at no stage did I mention levels. This was not a deliberate strategy; it just turned out that way. The only success criteria I gave them were, in effect, task instructions:

      1.    Start every sentence with a new word.

2.    Aim to write lovingly and carefully constructed sentences.

3.    Take your time and aim for your very best.

Of course, the next challenge is how I get my students to replicate the quality you will see below with less scaffold. Without White Fang, without the sentence stems and without the time to write slowly and redraft, I am sure the results would have been very different. There is also a question to be raised about creativity to what extent did this task limit freedom of thought and expression? Each students work was individually crafted, but the ultimate if slightly unrealistic aim of this English teacher is to help my students find their own writing voices.

Anyhow, thats a question for another day. The demise of levels has left us with a great opportunity to focus on genuine quality. How we manoeuvre in the wake of levels so as to avoid the hulking shadow of the accountability leviathan will be absolutely crucial. Baselines have their uses, but I can’t help wondering whether genuine success lies in how we, and our students, imagine and design the future.

Here are some other example paragraphs from my Y8s. Please take the time to have a read.

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Check out the editing on this one!

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Is a slow writer a bad writer?

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Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.

– William Shakespeare

At the end of last October I became an education blogger – by accident really. Swiftly, I set up a WordPress site, giving my blog the impressive tagline ‘simple and practical classroom solutions.’ Three months of reading, thinking, talking and writing about education later and my initial delusions of grandeur have become rather an embarrassment to me. I do not have all the answers; the longer time goes on, the less I seem to know. Thus my tagline has become: ‘In search of classroom answers’. I am sure this will be subject to change before long (especially if my blogging buddy, @BelmontTeach, gets his teeth into it!).

Let’s start with a confession. I find these blogs tough to write – I am not a natural. My 1996 hard won GCSE B-grades in English language and literature are a reflection of this, especially in contrast to the A-grades I achieved, effortlessly in comparison, in maths and science. Be that as it may, I loved English and reading, and, like a faithful yet badly mistreated dog, I kept coming back for more. Slowly and painfully I got a bit better. These blogposts take a veritable age to write; I agonise over every word, every sentence, every paragraph – I am never satisfied. The writing process is usually initiated on my evening dog-walks, when I rehearse my ideas in an obsessive internal monologue. Following this comes feverishly scribbled-up notes on whatever paper comes to hand; these are then typed up on Word; finally comes the copying-and-pasting onto the blog itself. Sentences are constantly reconfigured; a missed typo brings with it inordinate self-loathing. Below are my scribbled notes for this one:

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The point is, I have always struggled to write quickly. And many of my students do too. My last blog-post on Michael Marland’s The Craft of the Classroom took hours to write – I wanted so much to get it right. Funnily enough, this post has been much faster – probably because I am writing from the heart this time, not the head.

When I began teaching English in 2006, 40% of our English Language AQA syllabus was assessed by coursework that could be redrafted and revised as often as we liked. Many students took it home to lovingly craft, while at the other extreme some stared blankly at it for a few weeks until I, in a fit of panic, talked them through every single sentence. Was it a fair way to assess writing? Probably not. Those with the luxury of home-help, proficient in the dark arts of internet plagiarism, or particularly hard-working could over-achieve in relation to their real ability. Each year the weight of accountability grew greater,  each year the grades seemed to matter even more than whether the child could really do it.

Yet it is also true that many children found and honed their writing skills through this redrafting process – in much the same way as Ron Berger has argued in his wonderful An Ethic of Excellence. Fears of plagiarism and an unequal playing field led, three years ago, to the more formal ‘controlled assessment’ system, a system much vilified on the blogosphere. Making up 40% of the final grade – with the remaining 20% allotted to the now-binned speaking-and-listening, and 40% to the final exam – this was billed as a fairer alternative to coursework. Unfortunately, once again, in our hyper-accountable world, abuse of the system – or the allegation of it – is understandably rife. Speaking-and-listening received its marching orders earlier this academic year, so that this year’s weighting, unless you have opted for the iGCSE, is 40% controlled assessment, 60% final exam. The new GCSE English, to be assessed in 2017, will scrap all in-class assessment in favour of one high-stakes exam.

An option that provides less opportunity for cheating must be fairer, you might say. The problem is that the old systems took into account that not all good writers are good writers in exam conditions. Yes, academia will always require students to write under pressurised conditions…yet real life rarely does. The current 2 hour, 15 minute AQA exam is brutal to say the least. I wonder if I would be doing what I do today if my English GCSE, A-levels and degree course (I made sure I took an assignment-based one) had hinged completely on exam technique.

Here are some questions that I feel need to be answered by the new GCSE exam:

  • Will future GCSE English grades genuinely be more valid and reliable than they once were?
  • How true is the concept that fast writing is better writing?
  • How desirable is a nation of quick-thinkers over a nation of slow, careful thinkers?
  • Might 100% final exam lead to the valorising of written quantity at the expense of written quality?
  • How will questions and time be organised in the new exam to  give every child an equal chance of attaining highly?

Take my year 11 student, Chloe, for example. Here is a beautiful paragraph of carefully and lovingly written prose taken from a controlled assessment piece she undertook slowly in class. (I can assure you, there was no cheating.)

 Chloe

In her pre-Christmas mock exam, Chloe, thankfully, just scraped a C. Her answers, however, were a shadow of the above, which I believe to be her genuine writing ability. I am now in the Kafkaesque situation where Chloe must be advised to replace her developing expertise with a faster, pragmatic and ultimately inferior writing style if she is to reach her target grade of a B.

Another student in the same class came to me last Thursday to discuss her disappointing mock grade. I had to explain to her that if she had achieved only 50% in the question she had missed out, her C would have miraculously become an A. Lessons are now too often spent reminding students to move on to the next question, even if the previous answer is not perfect. Conversely, since the AQA change from two shorter exams to one longer exam three years ago, I have also found that an increasing number of distinctly average yet fast writers are achieving A amd A*.

I appreciate that we must do more to help our current KS3 students become more proficient under timed conditions. Chris Curtis shared a great strategy in his blog last week (here): ‘blind’ assessments should be interspersed with ‘structured’ and scaffolded assessments. Another idea I am mulling over is a gradual acceleration approach: as the years go by, so the minimum expectation of quantity rises.

I feel for my fellow ‘slowbies’. Many great authors take years to write; let us hope that there is also a place in society for the sluggish-yet-sometimes-brilliant  minds of the future.

Further reading:

Here are some of my earlier thoughts on why we should give students time to write.

Probing the continuum

post-it-notes

From time to time, we happen upon a simple and effortless strategy that makes a fundamental difference to a key element of our teaching. Over the years we hone this down to something close to perfection, yet because it is so easy and straightforward we just assume that everyone else is doing the same thing. Forgive me, then, if you already do this, but here is my awkwardly named ‘post-it discussion’ in all its glory. It is simply the best strategy for initiating quality discussion I have ever put to use in my classroom, and this week it has become even better…

It works like this.

I give students a question – say, ‘Did Steinbeck present a completely pessimistic view of the world in Of Mice and Men?’ – and show them a continuum, from ‘yes’ to ‘no’, on the board.

image

2. I tell them that I will give them a post-it note on which they will write their name. I remind them that they can stick the post-it along the continuum wherever they like. As I am dawdling round handing out the post-its, I let them chat to their neighbours about where they will place themselves. (The dawdling is a deliberate tactic that enables me to feed in a few ideas to those who are unsure or lack confidence as I go round.)

3. Once all the post-its are up on the board, it is time for the discussion to begin. I now know the broad sweep of opinion in the class, and can conduct the discussion however I like. In true Carol Vorderman style – ‘one from the left, one from the right and now one from the middle’ – I pick off the post-its, asking students either to comment on the reasoning behind their position or to feed back on the opposing comment we have just heard. As always, it is important to probe and refuse to accept badly reasoned points. I do also allow hands-up comments too as I think a total ‘hands-down’ policy can sometimes be counter-productive (as I explained in this post here). Giving an option to move the note to a different position along the continuum mid-discussion is also vital.

Above is the simple premise, but it is the recent tweaks I have made which have really excited me.

  • The first is to encourage students to use the ABC – agree with, build-upon or challenge – discussion format that Alex Quigley discusses here.
  • The second, which I put into action yesterday, added an extra dimension to the process comes from Doug Lemov’s comment on Alex’s blog. If students want to comment on another student’s point they raise two fingers rather than the whole hand (in the ‘victory-sign’ way, of course!) My initial feeling is that this makes them listen to each other more carefully and, when I want to liven things up a bit, I turn to a ‘two-finger’ student to turn the discussion on its head.
  • Another variation is to ensure that students have key words and concepts available as cues. If we are discussing a text, I like this to be available too so that they can support their ideas with textual evidence.
  • The most exciting I have left until last. I have been fascinated by the ‘art of the sentence’ idea that Doug Lemov has been blogging about recently – here. By giving students sentence starters, such as ‘at first glance’ or ‘throughout the poem’ not only are we prompting ideas, but we are giving them a syntactical structure that helps to generate new thinking. Getting students to practise using these structures during the discussion will neatly set them up for later extended writing tasks.

Have a look below at my Mark II slide:

image

So why might it work? First, unlike some other ‘no opt-out’ strategies there is lots of opportunity to think ideas through before speaking. Second, the continuum promotes balanced, ‘shades of grey’ thinking when used repeatedly, especially so when in conjunction with sentence prompts. Third, if used judicially in the learning cycle it can feed directly into the scaffolding of writing. Last, despite the fact it seems to have become an unfashionable word in the blogosphere, it promotes engagement. This kind of engagement in language and quality thought seems to me to be very beneficial.

Two words of warning before you give this a try. Be careful when wording the question that you do not give students an option to take up a weak line of argument that could lead to genuine misconception. Note how above I asked the question ‘Did Steinbeck present a completely pessimistic view of the world in Of Mice and Men?’ rather than ‘Did Steinbeck present a pessimistic view of the world in Of Mice and Men?’ Watch out, too, for those shrinking violets who try to hide their post-it under another’s!

Please give it a try and let me know below how it has gone for you. More tweaking ideas would be gratefully received.

A special thanks to Dan Brinton – @BelmontTeach – for pointing out how risible the original title for this blog was and suggesting the slimmer title it now has!

Differentiating the responsive way

Answers_Ahead_11-12-11

In last week’s post – here – I looked at how we might mark students’ written work strategically, considering not just the feedback we will give them, but also the practicalities of how we expect them to respond to our feedback. This week I am going to backtrack a little to consider how we might ‘differentiate’ our feedback during the writing process.

Differentiation was once my teaching bête noire. The very mention of the word would immediately feed my perception that I was a terrible teacher for failing to ‘meet the needs of every child’ in every lesson. To compensate, once in a while I would be seduced by the insidious ‘differentiation by task’ trap. Three different tasks (one for the top, one for the middle, one for the bottom), and a hell of a lot of pacey group-work later, the lesson would end with an unsightly pile of worksheets and a few scrawled lines of writing. It was completely unmanageable and completely pointless. My ‘top’ got no better (the task was often so challenging that they spent most the time deciphering what they were being asked to do); my ‘bottom’ got no better (how can you become a good writer by filling in spaces in sentences?); and my ‘middle’ were left bemused by the fact I had totally ignored them.

Discovering Carol Dweck’s Growth Mentality – John Tomsett’s post was particularly inspiring for me – triggered a much-needed epiphany. All students have the capacity to be successful as long as they are challenged and encouraged to work hard. Yes, I can finally justify getting them all to do the same thing! These days, after setting the bar high, I then consider the support and scaffolding required to nudge them all in this direction. It is unreasonable to expect every student to reach the ‘bar’, but removing the bar for some in the name of ‘differentiation’ defeats the object. Key, too, is how I will respond to the complex range of difficulties and needs that will, inevitably, arise as they are writing.

Differentiation, in my opinion, lies in the skillfulness of our response to the anticipated and unanticipated difficulties our students will encounter along the way.

Anticipated response.

By modelling and deconstructing the writing process slowly and carefully we can second-guess many potential misunderstandings – see my modelling post here. Tick-lists and procedural instructions that focus on the minutiae of the writing process are also invaluable. Below is a paragraph structure I have used to help Y9 students write about Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock in Act 3, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice:

  • State where, when and to whom.
  • Embed a short quotation and mention ‘Shakespeare’.
  • Pick out a word or phrase and analyse it.
  • Pick out another word or phrase and analyse it. (Optional.)
  • Using sentences starting with ‘despite’, ‘although’ and ‘even though’, evaluate your understanding of Shylock.  (Thanks to David Didau – here – for the ‘golden sentences’ idea.)

Anticipated response, therefore, is really just conventional lesson and task planning with our understanding of our students’ capabilities at the forefront of our thinking.

 Improvised response

This is where teaching becomes a craft, not a procedure. In responding to whole-class and individual needs, the knowledge, expertise and experience of the teacher is key – as is the willingness to except that our best laid plans often go awry. This is easy to exemplify with a hypothetical example. Let’s take my Y9s again:

  • Students have been writing for 5 minutes when Callum puts his hand up and asks to spell ‘traumatised’. I tap the dictionary on his desk and smile, but repeat the word for the whole-class to reinforce my expectation that students employ challenging vocabulary.
  • Grace’s hand shoots up. I smile and motion it down. She smiles wryly back, sensing that, once again, I am encouraging her to be more resilient.
  • Katy, ‘less-able’, has not written a thing. I verbalise the first half of a sentence and she finishes it. Then she writes it down and off she goes.
  • My TA and I circulate for a couple of minutes armed with highlighters. We randomly zoom in on misspelled words and either highlight them or put a dot in the margin for the student to work out.
  • On my rounds, I have noticed the clunky overuse of ‘this’ at the start of sentences. I stop the class and explain how we can use ‘which clauses’ to combine sentences and help with fluidity.
  • I come to Matt, who is incredibly able, but prone to prolixity. He must cut out 10 unnecessary words before continuing.
  • I notice Megan has used the word ‘shows’, which is banned from my classroom. I refer her to the sheet below, which is stuck on her folder:

Tentative

  • Graham has written a page and a half of scrawled nonsense and is swinging back in his chair. I hand him a piece of paper and tell him to redraft the first paragraph, this time using the paragraph structure I have given him. I sense potential defiance and remind him that it is break time after the lesson.
  • Next a student puts his hand up and asks, “Was Shylock married?” Quickly explaining Shylock’s elusive mention of the name ‘Leah’ , I consider it wise to avoid a whole-class discussion at this stage.
  • There are 10 minutes to go and the class are working hard. Do I stop for the peer-assessment task I had originally planned? Absolutely not. We can worry about this next lesson. The bell goes and I thank them for their hard work. Off they trundle.

(As a footnote, I am beginning to experiment with an idea I gleaned from Alex Quigley’s excellent questioning blog post – here – which is to give students post-it notes to write down their questions on. If I limit it to one question per student, then it helps to build resilience and challenge learned helplessness.)

What I have described above is nothing strange. It goes on in the classrooms of good teachers worldwide. Response is inter-personal and forms part of the existing dialogue between the student and teacher (which may have been ongoing for years). It is almost impossible during a graded observation for the observer to understand the complexity of the social interactions they are viewing; a subtle raise of the eyebrows at a student can be loaded with meaning. You will notice that some students go ‘ignored’ – that’s fine, I will check up on them next lesson and, of course, this task will be assessed and they will be expected to respond to my marking.

I have become a lot more relaxed about planning for differentiation. We must have confidence in the reflex judgements we have honed over time. Only last week, I had a delightful, yet surprising, email from a speech therapist who is treating a student of mine with a serious speech impediment. I was praised for “offering to record her, giving her more time to speak, reassuring her that she speaks more clearly than some others, and placing an emphasis on the content of what she says.” The thing is, I hardly even realised I was doing these things!

To misquote John Lennon: differentiation is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.