Monthly Archives: May 2012

Fishy Revision

Revision. Argh! Love it or hate it this seems to be mostly what we end up doing at this time of year (in between filling in reams of exam paperwork). The challenge is to try to make it effective and interesting – a challenge if ever there was one. The internet has been invaluable for trawling for great ideas, but I have also been digging through my old resources to see if there are any gems.

Today was revision for Of Mice and Men for OCR A663 next week. The group know the text well but planning is a bit of an issue, especially in the tight time frame (45 minutes). The exam requires the students to analyse language and techniques as well as making links to context. I wanted to create a task that developed planning but also encouraged the group to hit the assessment objectives in the exam.

I started off by borrowing the excellent Nominative Determination task from Miss Ryan’s GCSE English Blog . This was a really effective opening task as it got the group thinking the characters and analysing the language, and they really enjoyed it. As they thought through the significance of the names and their connotations I could hear mental lightbulbs going on around the room – love it!

In our mock exam, quite a few students failed to write about the context of the text or link it to the question. To combat this I came up with the mnemonic CRAFTI (using the helpful anagram solver on the Internet Anagram Server).

A Crafti Mnemonic

I tried to make this something memorable but that also covered each key point.

The next step was to think about planning, how could I make sure that the planning was quick and easy, but also encouraged relational thinking?

My collection of random USB pens came to the rescue. Every so often, since I started teaching, I have saved all the useful resources on my school user space onto a USB. Some of them stay there forever, but I have a peek every now and then to see if there is something worthwhile. Last night I found it.

As I have been experimenting with SOLO HOT maps, I wanted something visual and simple that could encourage deeper thinking. My solution was a fish-bone analysis, or at least my variation on one. I decided that the horizontal line should contain the Idea – i.e. the key point in the passage and key words from the question. This would encourage the group to focus on the question throughout their planning. Each pair of ‘bones’ would include brief points on Context, References, Audience, Feelings and Techniques. I used a series of powerpoint slides to show the process, using the example from the mock (Lennie and the ketchup in chapter 1).

Fish-Bone Planning

The final task, and one I have advised them to do for revision, was to choose a section of the text at randon, or to invent a non-extract based question, and to produce their own Fish-bone plan:

Fish-Bone Planning Task

The class really seemed to get to grips with this as a planning method, and I liked the fact that it could be loosely linked back to the text (‘flopping like a fish’). Overall, I was really pleased with this, having tried it with my Y10s during their lesson. It was also used by another teacher in an afterschool revision session, and it reportedly worked well. So the next step is to try it with one of my more challenging groups.

The Exam Season – A Plea

This is a bizarre time of the year. The majority of the controlled assessments are done, there is the usual scramble for those who arrived part way through Y11 or refused to complete work to have a finished folder. Students are demanding revision sessions where they expect their teacher to impart pearls of wisdom, while they sit passively, or don’t show up at all. Rivalries between departments reach breaking point as the key marginal groups are pulled in multiple directions at once. The whole thing seems to create a sense of sliding down a massive helter-skelter with nothing to stop you.

This is also the time of year that teachers become wild around the eyes with the pressure of too many tasks in a finite amount of time. The only thing keeping us going is the thought of a little gained time to tweak and improve for the next year.

However, this is also the time of year that two very different groups seem to go out of the way to make things as difficult as possible.

Exam Boards and Estimated Grades

At this busiest of times, and I know that those with a negative view of teachers will no doubt scoff, we have marking and annotation of coursework samples, preparation of in class and after school revision sessions. I just don’t understand why the requirements of the exam boards are quite so onerous.

I deal with KS4 English, currently made up of 3 different qualifications being taken by 240 students. I have to enter coursework marks, estimated grades for those marks, estimated exam grades for each module and for the qualification as a whole – this amounts to almost 3000 separate entries, either numbers entered onto a website or little boxes on an OMR sheet being coloured in.

Why? How much of this is actually necessary? If the students are taking the exams that is the grade that will count, not a ‘best guess’ from a teacher, why ask for estimated grade for coursework when I have already given you the actual mark I have given it? Surely my time as a teacher is best spent in the class or preparing excellent lessons?

The Press

However, the group I feel is most distructive at this time are the press; each year as the exam season looms, we see multiple stories about how easy the exams are, how they are dumbed down, how it is all teaching to the test (occasionally spiced up with an ‘aren’t teachers awful’ piece).

Now, I am not going to focus on the bracketed point – there are enough blog posts that have dealt with that issue, and I am sure there will be many more – my real concern here is the message we are presenting to those taking the exams. Those who rarely have a voice in the face of all of this criticism.

For the brighter, keen students, there is the pre-exam slap in the face: all your work is pointless, anyone can pass these exams as they are so easy, talk bandied about of ‘easy’ or ‘soft’ subjects…it is pretty demoralising to hear. Every year we loose one or two to ‘why bother then if they are so undervalued’, or those who fall into the trap of believing the hype and doing little work.

Yet the most destructive impact is on those at the other end of the scale; the students who don’t find school easy – whether it is because of home or social issues, low literacy levels, SEN. How much more distructive is it if you have worked your way to an E or a D grade, if you have tried your hardest, revised and then hear sneering news reports that say anyone can get a C grade or above? Or that vocational subjects are pointless? How hard is it to get those students motivated in the first place? To get them into school on a regular basis (any trawl through school data will show that lower ability groups have worse attendance, on average than those above)? To build their confidence that taking the exam is worth while, that there is a chance that they will achieve that magical C grade? How much more damaging are these stories and comments  to our most vulnerable students?

A Plea

So my message to the press, and politicians looking for a quick story or a memorable sound bite – please think of the impact your words have, exaggerating the negative and twisting the positive does not help the students you claim to be most concerned about. When we look at how other successful countries (and we are a successful country) organise their schools  and exam systems, we should also look at the press and Government messages in those countries, do they run down their own exam system, fill their papers with stories of how bad the teachers are and how easy the exams have become?

Teacher bashing has always been a popular media topic, and I am sure it will continue to be so, however, we chose this career, many of us choose to stay despite working in challenging schools and coming across soul destroying situations and choices – but ultimately we chose this career because we want to make a difference.

However, the students you denigrate with these stories have no choice. They have only one chance at being a Y11, they can’t control whether they attend a privileged private school, an outstanding school, an inner city school. This is their opportunity to do well, and having large parts of the population criticise and downplay the massive effort that most of our young people put in does not help. Unfortunately, many of our most vulnerable listen to that message and think what is the point.

Using Piktochart in Class

Being a keen follower of twitter I was very pleased to spot a couple of tweets by  @ictevangelist about using infographics and in class.

I had toyed with using Adobe publisher for creating infographics and written about it in an earlier post, and if you want a vast variety of tools and colours and complete control over the layout, then that is the program for you. It is, however, a very technical program and it does take time to produce results. Unless you have a class with very strong design skills using a program of this nature is probably a step too far.

I enjoy pottering around with tech and trying new programs but I did find Illustrator tricky to get going and it took a long time, great if you have the time, but probably not ideal for a lesson.

I have a Y9 group who I see twice a fortnight, as a result, I do additional tasks with them that support the main teacher. The unit we are doing at the moment is Blood Brothers, building up to an exam later in the year. As it is the start of a new term, I am in the position that the main teacher hasn’t seen the group yet, and I am not covering the text with them, so I needed to think of something linked to the text for the two lessons I have with them this week. The obvious choice was some background research into some of the key elements of the play.

However, the prospect of watching a group copy and paste chunks from wikipedia or some other site, was not what I was looking for. To create a really effective piece of research, I wanted the group to select material carefully and think of ways to present the information in a more interesting way. That is where infographics seemed to fit the bill.

Having read about it on @ictevangelist’s blog, I decided to give Piktochart a go. I was a little concerned as there is sometimes a difference between what I can access as a teacher and what the students can. To cover this eventuality, I gave the group a choice of programs. The topics the students were to look at were: the 1960s – 1980s, Liverpool and Skelmersdale and the theme of fate. I showed the group several examples of infographics from the site 40coolinfographics to give the class a chance to see what they could look like. I then showed them the Piktochart site via the whiteboard and showed them an example I had made that morning. I showed them where the tools were and how to access them, and also how to move items and change colours, then they were off on the task.I hadn’t been aware that there was a limit of 1 image that could be uploaded, but that is really a bonus as it means they have to select their image carefully.

The vast majority of the group decided to try Piktochart, the remainder chose to make a Prezi instead. There was much more focus on the program than on copying chunks of text and some of the pieces in progress are looking pretty good. The group complete their work and printed it out to stick into their English books with their main teacher.

Definitely a real win, they class enjoyed using the program and it was very simple for them to use with minimal support.

Creating Revision Resources Using Toondoo

As we are at the time of year that the focus shifts onto Y11 exam preparation, I have been looking for new ways to present the key information they need. I wanted to avoid dull presentation like printing out exam dates for display, as most of the time, students pay little attention. I decided that we needed something that is more visually appealing and that brought me  to one of @teamtaits tweets. The tweet mentioned using Toondoo as a free tool to produce cartoons of key ideas.

The site itself is easy to navigate and, although creating your own cartoon character does take a little time, it does save for future use, which wasn’t a possibility with some of the free sites I have used. I decided to create two cartoon characters, one very loosely representing me (Cartoon me has had a bit of a nip and tuck) and one for the Head of English. I created two posters, one as a teaser about key exam nuggets of information and one outlining the exam dates.

They were relatively quick to produce and easy to save onto my laptop, I also converted them to PDF so I could email them. We have printed them on A3 in colour for display. The future ‘nuggets’ will also include a QR code for the students to scan to upload further information.. So overall a very good set of resources.

Socrative – A Really Useful Addition To Your Teaching Tools

As seems to be the norm at the moment, I have been finding all sorts of useful tools on the internet. I found Socrative on a list of Web 2.0 tools. Although we have SMART response in school, I have only had a brief training session on them and need to learn how to use them. Socrative seemed to be similar, but without the fuss. One of the things I liked about Socrative was that I could set things up at home and use them in school.

I have completed three trials with Socrative, with a range of different classes to explore how it works and also how the classes respond to it.

Trial 1

My first trial was a quiz on ‘Of Mice and Men’ for my top set Year 10 class. As Socrative can be used on iPhones, Android as well as via 3G and on PC I thought I would try allowing the pupils to use their own mobile devices. As this was the first time I had used this, I tried to keep the task as simple as possible.

The students were very keen to use their phones, but not all could access this – even students with the same types of phone. In the end, they got into groups with someone with a device that worked and completed the quiz that way. They enjoyed the task and being able to show them who had responded was useful. Even more useful was the option on Socrative to download an Excel spreadsheet of the results, allowing the teacher to review the responses.

Due to the technical issues, I decided not to carry on using the program during the lesson.

Trial 2

For the second lesson, I tried the program using a class set of laptops. I planned two tasks – a quiz and an Exit Ticket. It was much quicker loading up the program on the laptops and generally the program worked well, but for the reasons outlined below we only did the quiz.

I encountered two main difficulties, firstly the randomise answers option seemed to move the answers but not which one was correct, so students were marked wrong for correct answers. The second problem was really down to my choice of class. This was a group of Year 10 students who I see once a fortnight. I thought that they would enjoy the change of task, but in retrospect my relationship with the group was not good enough to trial something new. However, several students did say that they had enjoyed using the program.

Trial 3

My most recent trial was with my Y12 Film Studies class. I decided to use the quiz tool as a starter and to assess whether the group had been covering the revision topics they had been given. Using the downloadable Excel template, I created a 20 question multiple choice quiz. The template was very simple to use, allowing me to write the quiz and check it belore uploading it to Socrative.The feedback form would show me student responses, allowing me to make revision tasks more targeted.

I also decided to use the Exit Ticket tool. This asks students:

  • How well did you understand today’s material?
  • What did you learn today? – very useful to check that what we think a class are learning and what they think they are learning are the same!
  • Please solve the problem on the board – a final plenary question
  • There is also an option to pass the Exit Ticket to another student, great if they need to share a device.

With an iPad it is very straightforward, as the App sits on the desktop and one click allows the student to login, unfortunately for me, we don’t have them so my trial was done on laptops.

The Y12s reacted very well to the quiz, they enjoyed it and the whole class found it easy to login.

The Exit Ticket was the best part, each student worked through the prompts and identified the areas they felt they needed more work on. This was very simple to view through the Excel feedback form – I could see at a glance who was confident and which specific areas needed more work.

Final Thoughts

Socrative is an excellent program, currently free as it is in the beta testing phase. It has some very useful features and is simple to use. Definitely worth a try.

HOT Maps – A Real Eureka Moment

Having had several successful lessons using the SOLO structure and hexagons, I decided that it was time to branch out a bit and to try a wider range of SOLO techniques. Again, I decided to try these with a range of classes.

Compare/Contrast Map

The first HOT map I looked at was the Compare /Contrast  map. I used this initially with my Y12 Film Studies class to explore the similarities and differences between their comparative study films. They had been, generally, fairly good at identifying key features about the films separately, however, were struggling to make direct links between the films. I used Word It Out to create a word cloud based on a synopsis of each film from IMDB, I then showed the group some examples and got them to work in pairs. I linked this to group planning of an essay where I used Triptico to sort the class into groups – they produced bullet points for each paragraph. I sorted them again and they had to add or delete bullet points. I sorted them one last time to write the paragraph. This worked well for those students who had studied the films carefully, less well for those who had not revised carefully (this was perhaps a bit of a warning for them). It did help to highlight the links between the films but at a fairly simple level – the next step will be a part whole analysis to extend their understanding of the roles and development of the points they identified.

I used the same HOT map with my Y13 Film students to develop their ability to make and analyse specific textual references (AO2) to back up the more generalised comments made in their essays (AO1). For the students to achieve the highest grades both areas must be covered in detail.

This time, I adapted the Compare /Contrast map by including a series of screen shots for one of their films; we also focused on a specific exam question to fully explore the level of detail needed in each paragraph within their essay.

Compare Contrast Map

The focal point was Mise-en-scene and I had chosen four screen shots from ‘The Story of the Apartment’ in ‘City of God’. We discussed the significance of the shots and the students annotated the images. I then asked them which specific shots we could use to compare from ‘La Haine’ – the class identified the scene in Hubert’s boxing gym, the housing in the banlieue, the apartment or the art gallery in Paris and the view of the Eiffel Tower from the top of the tower block. I then asked the group to explore the similarities and the differences in the mise-en-scene and to start making links to why this was the case. This worked well, and as it was focused on developing a very specific skill, I felt it was successful in making the group fully aware of the interaction between the two assessment objectives as well as the two films.

Whole/Part Analysis Map

My next experiment was to try the whole/part analysis HOT map. I decided that I would do this with two very different classes to assess the impact – a top set Year 10 and a bottom set Year 11. Both groups are in the process of final revision for English Literature GCSE exams.

The Year 11 group were working on ‘An Inspector Calls’ for OCR A662 and the focus was to develop their understanding of the text so they could answer in more detail and move towards the C grade. I used a whole/part analysis map with 3 parts.

Whole/Part Analysis

They filled in the ‘whole’ segment with their overview of the play with little prompting and often suggested relevant bits of detail to each other. As a class we explored the role that Setting/Context played and then the group used the second box to explore character – and used copies of the text to look up relevant details and quotations. This brought us to the end of the first lesson. I was pleased with the progress made by the group and the fact that they had recalled some very useful points, however, I was not quite sure about how ‘considering the impact of a part being missing’ would work, nor of its impact.

The Year 10 first lesson was similar to the Y11, this time the focus was ‘Of Mice and Men‘ for  A663 and, as they are a top set I extended the parts to 5 which we discussed and labeled as a group. They then completed the key elements for each part.

Multistructural Stage

The second lesson provided the ‘Eureka’ moment. I introduced the question – ‘What would be the impact if this part were missing?. We went through an example as a group, using the character of Slim as an example. They came up with lots of ideas about what would happen if Slim were not in the novel, from fairly straightforward points about there being no one to stop Lennie and George being fired in section 3, to more complex ones about George having no one to confide in or to present the arguments for killing Lennie.

Relational and Extended Abstract

They were already starting to  move onto the next question – ‘Therefore, can you evaluate the role of this part?’ – and continued to do so when they were working in pairs. This will be something that I will scaffold a little more with the lower group. The level of discussion amongst the group was amazing, they moved from these points onto detailed consideration of why Steinbeck had used the character or the setting and linking to his purpose. There were some real cognitive leaps, like the group who discussed the theme of religion saying that: the natural setting at the beginning and end could represent God in nature; that Slim’s empathy and understanding, combined with the religious connotations of his description, made him almost like a religious leader and that the men are not presented as religious as church goers are part of a community and the men are outsiders. Totally A* personal analysis and interpretation. I was blown away. This is when I ‘got’ the missing part question. Try it!