Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Something must have happened.

The world shifted on its orbit, perhaps; the polarity of our planet reversed; the sky fallen…

Michael Gove has tinkered with the GCSE syllabus (no change there then!) but has done it with… wait for it… some degree of consultation and for year groups not currently half way through their course! I’m almost grateful for this! And feel guilty!

Is this what Stockholm Syndrome feels like?

So there are various sources of information linked below:
The TES
Ofqual
The BBC and
the DfE

So, my first question is: when do these reforms take place?

They are described for first teaching in 2015 (at least for English Literature and English Language and Maths) which would mean when our current Year 8s hit Year 10, they will be subject to these. Twenty months to go.

Grades will be replaced with numerical .. well… numerical grades I suppose. The current 8 pass grades of A*-G will be replaced with 9 pass grades of 1-9. I see nothing terribly objectionable in that… but also nothing terribly constructive. I don’t see the point. Why? It replaces one arbitrary ladder with another. Are we meant to believe that schools will not simply replace the C/D border trauma with an equally traumatic 5/6 border – or whichever grades become synonymous with that border.

Tiered exams will disappear. Ok. Again, no massive issues in principle if I have confidence that the exam boards have the ability to set questions which genuinely challenge the most able to differentiate between the 9s and 8s and give the 1s and 2s a fair chance. And if I have confidence that a marker will be able to give full credit to the full range of marks. And I should have that confidence – after all, we as teachers are doing it day-in day-out – but, after the last two years’ results, I’m sorry but I just don’t.

Coursework and Controlled Assessments are removed in favour of a 100% terminal exam.

Now, this I do object to!

English is not apt for exams in my humble opinion. The key processes of reading and writing – by their very nature – are slow and ruminative and reflective. I spend time teaching kids to craft each sentence, to carefully make lexical choices, to control their writing, to balance control with a certain responsiveness to the text which they are creating.

For heaven’s sake, I even review, amend and redraft text messages before I send them!

To force either creative or analytical responses in – let’s say – forty-five minutes will not result in either careful or thoughtful or effective writing. What it will result in is content-led teaching in Literature where “the book” is taught rather than the skills of reading. Feature spotting. Writing toolkits. Similes shoehorned in; metaphors wrenched out of shape; alliteration abounding out of control. Skills demonstrated with no real understanding of whether they work or not.

It has been an eye opener doing coursework for the iGCSE alongside CAs for OCR GCSE and C/D students in controlled assessments are producing C/B quality work as coursework. I know there’s the risk that parents give undue help. But – notice the carefully chosen co-ordinating conjunction to open the sentence because it ‘fits’ with my current and somewhat conversational tone even though “However” might be more technically correct – you see, I think like this! – But some kids will just work better at home with nagging parents and away from other kids.

What other changes will we see?

More “whole book” testing. How can that be consistent with exam situations?

More 19th century novels and Romantic poetry. Well, fair enough! There’s great stuff there. Blake remains my favourite poet! But there’s a treasure trove of modern literary gems: Purple Hibiscus, Things Fall Apart, Mister Pip, Tsotsi. Yes, I do have a penchant for post-colonial literature! And I fear from the information released thus far that the curriculum is increasingly like the government: white, male, middle class, bound to the safety of the ‘classics’ and worryingly Anglo-centric!

And why is it that every time the BBC report an education article they use the same picture of the same exam hall every time?

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This will be a teeny tiny post but I found this absolutely gorgeous photograph of Rita Hayworth:

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As a comparison to Curley’s wife, it bears a range of uses:

  • an analysis of her body language exquisitely echoes Curley’s wife’s body language in Chapter 2;
  • the sensuality of her half-closed eyes, half open lips is a parallel to Curley’s wife’s sensuality;
  • an analysis of small details such as the cigarette can encourage students to identify how the image of class and high society – with hints (more than hints) of phallic symbolism – has become in the twenty-first century perhaps almost taboo – a range of interpretations based on different cultures’ perceptions;
  • her dress and heavy make-up bear similarities to Curley’s wife’s red lips, heavily made up face and peacock-feathers all of which suggests a reaching towards sophistication which is artificial and a mask and does not reflect the truly lonely and damaged creature lurking inside Curley’s wife;
  • as a H0llywood actress, Hayworth – or actresses like her – would have been the role-model that might have inspired the pre-marital Curley’s wife to dream of being in the “pitchers”;
  • the image captures the glamour (in its more faery connotations) and appearance of sophistication propagated by Hollywood which would have appealed because of the extreme poverty and harshness of life on the ranch;
  • the girls in my top set went even further comparing the patriarchy of Hollywood and the patriarchy of the farm, suggesting that the sensuality and sexuality of both the image and of Curley’s wife are imposed rather than natural;
  • the direction of her gaze through the camera to the viewer was taken to suggest a desperation for attention that echoes Curley’s wife’s need for attention;
  • her body position, whilst undoubtedly sensual and sexual, is also artificial and unnatural, suggesting that she and Curley’s wife may both be uncomfortable with the role ascribed to them.

One unexpected side effect: exploring the possibility of the cigarette being a phallic symbol has so appalled everyone in the class that they have declared they will never be able to smoke.

No bad thing!

Okay.

This is scaring me, now.

I don’t mean scaring in the sense that children enjoy ‘being scared’ by stories and films. I don’t mean scaring in that delicious hide-behind-the-sofa Doctor-Who style.

I mean fully and totally clenchingly scared!

I want to – no, in my head, I have – turned my entire Programme of Study on its head. This puts the decision to swap from OCR to AQA examination boards on a level with, perhaps choosing between Cadbury’s chocolate and Galaxy. Being now permanently appointed, having a clutch of retirees and new appointments, I am rebuilding our curriculum from the foundations upwards.

And I mean from the foundations!

The curriculum I inherited – and, for my transition ‘Acting’ year haven’t really been happy with but equally, for reasons of laziness primarily, haven’t tackled – is I think a pretty traditional one.

We read books and write in response to them.

We analyse language for purposes and write techniques.

We report a single grade to parents.

We have been – and, in fairness to my school so has every other school I have ever worked in – almost wholly Literature focused, content driven and linear in structure.

So what am I changing to? Language focus. Skills driven. Cyclical and elliptical structure.

Head. Turned. Upon.

At the heart of this will be something called Covey tables, available courtesy of the PiXL club and named after Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Covey tables – at least in my understanding of them – are at their heart a marking tool.

covey ao4(iii)

It is possible to list key skills that my students will be assessed on and I have ranked those skills along the top of the spreadsheet. They are drawn from the OCR markscheme for Controlled Assessments. In this case, they focus on AO4(iii) the sentence structures, punctuation, grammar and paragraphing. I planned on experimenting with this first because (as noted in the previous post) the changes to the KS2 curriculum and KS4 curriculum are massively raising the status of these skills. To be reporting to parents, students and SLT that a certain student may be “Level 4b” actually tells them nothing about whether they can create sentences, use paragraphs, vary vocabulary….

As can be seen from the example, teachers need to simply grade from 0-2 for each skill to represent their being no evidence of it, occasional evidence and consistent evidence. Through basic formulae and vlookups, these scores can then be converted into a GCSE grade or KS3 level.

Should I be using KS3 APP Assessment Foci for Years 7-9?

I don’t see why.I am being tested at KS4, students are being examined at KS4. What possible advantage is there in tweaking the descriptors and language of assessment between Key Stages? I am prepared to report in the 4c, 4b, 4a, 5c ladder of the KS3 curriculum (or 4.2, 4.5, 4.8, 5.2 for the sake of the mathematics required by the spreadsheet) but why tinker with the language of assessment?

How do I see these Covey charts being used?

In a word (or three) daily, openly and engagingly.

A two week introductory Scheme of Learning will start by assessing prior skill and 1s entered as a result. It is the first piece of work and therefore by definition, there can be no evidence of consistency. Doing this in the first lessons back in September will mean that the quantity of marking is going to be limited (I am really pushing for regular feedback of shorter focused tasks: having achieved a level 5 in your first half page, do I really need to read another 5 pages of the same quality of writing?!) Once initial testing is done, two weeks of teaching will lead to a second round of tests. PiXL language might describe this as diagnosing, treating and testing? After the second test, the Covey table will be updated: 0s will become 1s; 1s will become 2s. A level can then be reported on. As our reporting cycle requires a report produced in October, this will fit perfectly!

And what do we have as a teacher? A partially completed Covey chart from which we can analyse who in each class can consistently demonstrate certain skills (and, therefore, train others) and who needs practise before their skill can be relied upon. It can be projected onto the board. The next time a student forgets a capital letter or a full stop or loses a chance to deploy a colon in anger, their score can be reduced in front of them! Along with a challenge to correct their writing by the end of the lesson. Students using correct apostrophes for the first time can see their 1 being inputted.

Use for discussion with SLT? Invaluable!
A role in identifying Intervention candidates? Incalculable!
Its place in selecting focussed 30 minute skills’ revision rather than wide ranging generic revision classes? Immense!
Parents’ Evening tool? Potent!

Further Covey tables could be (will be) created for the specific AOs: I think that creating a table of this nature for every level of every skill in every AO on one sheet would be far too cumbersome. And finally, an overview sheet could use formulae and vloookups to simply pull the final grades together for each AO and then average them into an overall grade. Weightings can then be applied as well if necessary.

covey overview

The onus is on teaching staff to keep each of these Coveys up-to-date: without up-to-date data, this will fall apart as I envisage the Covey chart being used as both a summative tracking database and as a formative interactive teaching tool. And, it will be an onus for at least some of my staff: another chore that would probably fall to the bottom of their to-do lists.

So what can I do to ease other burdens as I impose this one? Well, let’s think:

  • marking: the Covey sheet is marking! Mailmerge should allow us to create stickers or labels easily in which a grade is given to the child along with a list of skills which justify that level and other skill required for the next one and this could be generated weekly – although fortnightly fits with the rhythm of our curriculum more naturally;
  • planning: if I were to write Schemes of Learning focused exclusively on specific sets of skills – why should a Learning Objective make reference to anything other than these skills which are what they’re being assessed on? – then I both keep control introducing this very new framework and take one other burden from my team.

In fact, all I am asking my Department to do is to deliver (with verve and enthusiasm) my lessons and Schemes of Learning and to differentiate them according to the demands of their own classes.

So, what will this create? An integrated Programme of Study over five years with an integrated and unflinching focus on progress, skills and achievement? A single thread of skills informing Assessment for Learning, Planning, Schemes of Learning and Reporting? A rigorous, accountable and open system of assessment – firming up what may be one of our weaker skill set at Key Stage 3? A consistent marking policy?

Cripes!

And is it a massive burden on me to write Schemes of Learning across all year groups? Well, if it’s the right thing to do, for the sake of the children, that shouldn’t be a bar! And the benefits in terms of reducing marking will apply to me as much as to anyone else. And all I would be doing is sharing and directing others to use the Schemes of Learning which I would be creating for my own teaching any way!

Yes, still scared!

But the more I consider this, the more right it seems!

I have to be trying to teach children to read, write, communicate and (despite its removal from the new KS4 qualification) speak and read. To teach them to answer the set question on a set text is simply not good enough!

So, now Mr Gove seeks to recreate the GCSE specification. Again.

Now there are many things I just don’t get about Michael Gove. How he holds down a job; how anyone else manages to work with him; how no-one has discovered that he is, in fact, an alien probe sent to infiltrate us; how on earth he got a job in education when he appears to denigrate and despise both pupils and teachers.

However, more specifically, how his proposals for GCSE reform make any kind of sense at all.

Firstly, the headline that the media focused on that students will undertake

detailed study of a range of high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts, which must include:
 at least one play by Shakespeare
 a selection of representative Romantic poetry
 at least one nineteenth-century novel
 a selection of poetry since 1850
 British fiction or drama since the First World War.

I see nothing inherently objectionable in this, to be fair to Mr Gove. There are some brilliant texts available within those criteria. The nineteenth century novel is, perhaps, a tad daunting and I fear there may be a sales run on A Christmas Carol! But there’s an awful lot of literature of equal weight, interest and value missing from the list! I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what options are made available to us.

What the DfE have also produced, however, includes Assessment Objectives and weightings.

These are worth a read for all Heads of English because there is a significant change here!

Let’s take Language first. This is the list of future AOs.

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and a list if the current AOs, drawn from the OCR specification.

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Firstly, speaking and listening is shunted out entirely. How do students, people, adults, professionals communicate in the majority of the time? By speaking? And by listening? Surely by removing this from the qualification, you devalue and denigrate the most critical communication skill that we have and you run the risk of de-skulking a generation of children in oral communication skills.

Now, before anyone complains, yes I know that Spoken Language will remain as a compulsory element of the GCSE – although note the absence of listening from its new title! – because the proposal states

While it is compulsory for students to demonstrate the skills in AO4 in spoken language it will not count towards the overall grade awarded.

It will not count but is compulsory. I’m sorry, but that is a fudge, a sop.

What might be the logic behind this? I suspect it is because lots of students – and perhaps mainly boys – do well in this unit. Anecdotally, how many parents evenings have I had when I’ve explained that Little Johnny is articulate and engaging verbally but cannot put his thoughts coherently into writing? How many databases show C grade written work complemented by B grade oral work?

So he removes it?

He removes the one area where many children excel and receive the validation that they can achieve in English.

How? What? Why? It is incomprehensible to me.

Especially as the iGCSE which the DfE has confirmed to me will be accredited at least until 2015 and rumour suggests into 2016 as well (thereby overlapping the no-speaking-and-listening, 100% terminal exam GCSE) does include Speaking and Listening at 20% weighting and Writing Coursework at 40%.

Is it any wonder that CIE experienced a 300% increase in entries this year?

If we look at writing, the score for AO4(iii), the sentence structures, punctuation and grammar. Currently it accounts for 33% of the writing grade, which comprises 35% of the overall grade. Therefore AO4(iii) comprise 11.55% of the overall final grade.

The equivalent Assessment Objective in the new GCSE is worth 40% overall of which half derives from sentence structures, punctuation, grammar and spelling. That raises the weight attached to that skill from 11.55% overall to 20%, nearly doubling it.

How will schools respond?

There is a Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test at KS2 now but I don’t know how many Secondaries would rely on that?

I am thinking of introducing a two week grammar unit full of games and fun activities across the board at the start of the September term and repeating it every single September to reinforce and develop students’ skills as well as demonstrate progress. This would also upskill my staff in grammar and provide them with a range of short snappy fun grammar activities that would be ideal as starters throughout the year.

And AO1 includes some very low-order skills on Bloom’s taxonomy: retrieve information; summarise… These lower order skills simply do not appear on the current AO list: “selecting material appropriate to purpose” is qualitatively different and more challenging than “retrieve information”.

There is also the introduction of the skill of synthesise: to be able to “evaluate … and synthesise [information] for specific purposes”. Another explicitly new skill and, here, at the top if Bloom’s taxonomy! It is very close to the iGCSE Directed Writing component (or as I want to rephrase it, Text Transformation) where students read a travelogue (for example) and then imagine they are the writer and write a letter home persuading a relative to visit the are using the attitudes and views and information of the original article.

Now, don’t get me wrong! I like this skill! Actually, I like it a lot! But it is a higher order skill and, if it is combined with a Draconian approach to grammar and sentence structures and divorced from Speaking and Listening, it could price a real challenge to achieve.

Turning to Literature, the proposed Assessment Objectives are

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and the current equivalents are

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The new AO1, to read for comprehension is again a very low order skill! Low enough not to be currently tested at all! To describe features of a text currently would attract some (very few) marks in Language but here could attract up to 20% of the final grade in Literature.

The new AO2 basically comprises all the current AOs together and is only worth 50%, 20% of which must derive from unseen texts. Now I do like that: it means we have to teach students how to read literary texts rather than how to read this book which is great! That content-driven focus has been the worst part of the current Literature course. But, students will need a wide range of reading across genres and contexts to be able to do so. I suspect this unseen element will focus on poetry for exactly that reason of timing.

But AO3 is sneaky: 30% of marks will be made available for writing – presumably essays – in a literary manner. 30%.

Again, how schools react to that will be interesting. I’m thinking that, again, an explicit essay writing unit, repeated throughout the course, explicitly teaching essays as a persuasive text could become embedded in my Department.

Anyway, the links to these documents are below:
Language;
Literature.

One question for you though, both these DfE documents capitalise English but not language or literature. Surely it should be! It is the name of the course, the name of the examination, the name of the qualification. It is a proper noun, isn’t it?

And finally, for all fans of Michael Gove, some delightful pictures:

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This is it.

By now some of my Year 11s will have secured their first English GCSE grade.

It really is all out of my hands now.

And rarely if ever have I seen so many happy faces leave the exam room. Now I wonder whether “happy” is quite the right word. Content? Satisfied? Some were downright smug! The phrase

“I enjoyed that one!”

was heard. So yes, maybe, “happyis the right word.

We’re talking of the iGCSE First Language English course, of course. Half our cohort were taking it alongside OCR GCSE. Our entry into the iGCSE route – or our leap for the iGCSE bandwagon, depending on how healthily high your cynicism levels are – has had a troubled gestation. Senior Leadership were looking to use it to maximise C grades; I was perhaps more interested in maximising A-A* grades and moving progress on from three to four levels; we have a high English to Language and Literature ratio which further complicates matters; our Speaking and Listening needed “juggling” to ensure compatibility with both OCR and CIE.

But we did it.

And I prepared them for it as best I could.

In fact the most gratifying response I heard from several students was that the revision classes I ran were really helpful and they knew exactly how to approach every question. I also took the opportunity of the captive audience to soliloquise about my approach to exams in general: they’re an opportunity to have fun, show off, and enjoy yourselves with language. And as they are dual entered, they could take the risks on the iGCSE that they may not want to take on the OCR course.

One student may have taken my advice at that point to heart. He sought me out yesterday to tell me how he had answered the question asking him to describe a place that was both old and powerful.

Which he took as an invitation to describe his own imagination.

Okay.

The right examiner in the right mood on the right day could really enjoy reading that!

Of course, Paper 3 on Friday did have two potentially problematic circumstances:

• one, we had our Leavers’ Service on that morning which reduced half the cohort to blubbing emotional wrecks, consuming tissues and snivelling onto their ties. And the girls cried a bit too!

• two, it clashed with Spanish so as the end-of-school bell went for everyone else, about 35 of our lovelies faced a second two-hour exam!

We did what we could to make it as little irksome as possible: I and our exams officer – who has my huge thanks – spent Thursday night baking lemon cupcakes, chocolate butterfly cakes and fairy cakes to keep their energy levels up in the break between exams and to make them feel cared for. Considering the circumstances the following phrase may be the most memorable:

Best exam ever!

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Yesterday was the PiXL Main Conference.

PiXL – for those who don’t know which included me until recently – stands for Performance in Excellence and is variable described as a club or a family by those who are fully engaged! Broadly, in its own words

The PiXL Club is a collaboration of school leaders, headed by Sir John Rowling, this is a club that some have said to be “the best thing they have seen in education”.

The PiXL Club is about sharing new ideas with school leaders; it is a partnership of focused, determined and dedicated professional practitioners. It is a not for profit organisation that focuses on supporting and developing the GCSE results of thousands of students in many schools across London, the South East, West and the North.

Their own website is here and no doubt describes them better than me.

Up until yesterday, my only real knowledge of PiXL was that the plan to dual enter Year 11 into UK GCSE and iGCSE had derived from them. A plan that I actually disagreed with vigorously for the majority of my students: the iGCSE is only valid with a Literature grade, and, for historic reasons, we have a large cohort of C/D students not taking Literature.

So I was a bit of a cynic.

For a national club starting a conference in London at 0930 “prompt” also militated against them: I had to get up at 5am to get there! And still couldn’t physically be on time.

The conference location was spectacular: disembarking at Waterloo, I ambled past The London Eye, wove between tourists over Westminster Bridge, jogged past the Houses of Parliament and veered right by Westminster Abbey to reach Westminster Hall. The sun was shining, birds tweeting, Big Ben chiming, traffic grumbling (mainly at me as I’d abandoned the pavements to tourists and was scuttling along in the road itself).
.

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Being a tad late, the conference had begun and I was bereft of the customary small talk with strangers (not a huge loss) and coffee (a keenly felt loss!). And the hall atmosphere was… Odd. The closest analogy was to a Billy Graham rally I went to as an impressionable youngster… a rapt audience applauding loudly, a passionate speaker with a clear zeal, a very definite message about the right way to do things.

Inspirational for many I’m sure; over-zealous, pushing towards evangelical for me.

And being a mite perverse, I balked a little. The temptation was to sit there, arms folded, cynical sneer on the face…

However, there was a good deal of sense being delivered – yes, delivered, not discussed – there was no time for discussion points or questions: it was very preachy.

But some excellent practical advice in there: it’s still not too late to do additional Speaking and Listening; manage the exam day sensitively and carefully; provide spare equipment, water and cereal bars rather than relying on teenagers to bring their own; continue to focus on intervention.

There really was a strong ‘can do‘ attitude.

Although the ‘you can do staying at school until 8 in the evening‘ attitude did not chime well with me!

Lots of acronyms were thrown around DTT and D3 and L5 which I think I got a handle on eventually – good example for the effect of jargon in a future language lesson? – and there really was a sense of a homogenised and perhaps formulaic PiXL way of doing things. And an implicit suggestion that you were missing something if you did it differently. There are only so many times you can listen to “why reinvent the wheel” before you start hearing “thou shalt”.

However, overall, despite some concerns over philosophy and language, there was much said that was sound and despite my natural cynicism and the 5 am start it was somewhat energising.

I’m now also able to access the cloud-based resource sharing on a platform named Huddle too – again somewhat put off by the name that brings to mind repressed memories of rugby games and sweaty male bodies…

I do have one gripe though. And I know it will come across as extraordinarily petty and small minded…. but then I never pretended to be otherwise. Food. Beef cobbler. Hot food. On a plate. With nowhere to sit, perch or lean on. I ended up with a plate in one hand and a glass in the other – because I didn’t trust the flimsy wobbly glass holder clipped to the side of the plate! – and nowhere to eat it! And the beef was really gristly!