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Emma English – a Teacher's Life

Education

First blog post

After 13 years of teaching, first in secondary schools and now in the sixth form sector, I’ve decided to start sharing my teaching and management experiences with a wider audience.  I will try to post each week, mainly on the topic of teaching English Language A Level, but with some GCSE thrown in for good measure. 

It’s been a busy week this week, but not in terms of teaching.  We’ve been having meetings with our students to discuss progress and set targets, and although this is sometimes difficult to juggle, it is also very rewarding.  These are the times you get little gems of information, or a student really opens up and you begin to understand the challenges they are facing as well as the work you are asking them to do.  There are also the funny moments where you have to pinch yourself and give a swift reminder that you are teaching sixth-formers.  Such as the moment I went back into the classroom to fetch a student to be greeted by “Quick!  Quick!  Emma’s coming!!” If anything was going to give away that a student is not doing something they should be, it’s the rapid announcement of your impending arrival.  But I wouldn’t have them any other way.

As well as over fifty individual student meetings, I’ve been involved in the creative writing group I re-established after half-term.  It’s a small and select group and it gives me an excuse to get writing again.  And is there anything more magical than mentioning the recent Billy Bragg and Joe Henry gig in Brighton to be met with ‘Oh Billy Bragg, he’s great!’ which led into a conversation about Tom Waits.  Despite feeling the great divide of musical tastes, this reassured me that I’m not past it yet.  Well, not quite.

Featured post

You know it’s time for the summer holiday…

It’s Friday afternoon, I’ve just finished my initial analysis of attendance and retention to cut down on autumn term workload and I’m taking stock of the last couple of weeks before I hit the weekend.  After that I have one more day to get through and I can collapse.

When I mentioned I was working on analysis I was met with dismay from some of my fellow managers who looked at me aghast.  What had they missed?  “Oh my God, I’m never going to get that done.” But we were ‘invited’ to make a start, and I just love an invitation, although I have been to more exciting functions in my time I have to say.

When I first ventured into sixth form teaching, and trust me, I have no intention of leaving it any time soon, I was slightly puzzled.  “What do we do in the summer term?” I naively asked.  At that point it boiled down to weeks of planning for the next academic year and a reduced timetable with the year 12s as they made the transition into year 13.  That summer also involved a lot, and I mean A LOT, of tidying and sorting out for our move to new premises.  I make it sound like a walk in the park, but we were constantly busy and the time was easily filled.

But in recent years, we’ve increased our links with the local schools and this year was the best experience so far.  Students signed up in advance for the activities they wanted to take part in, we worked with teachers from Health and Social Care and spent a few happy hours working with some very enthusiastic, thoughtful and fun year 10s; in our session discussing the merits of nurturing our young and how to avoid a dystopian society, with a bit of Child Language Theory thrown in for good measure.  It was energising and tiring in equal measure and there is a very good reason for the “energising”.

I’m a teacher.  I don’t spend hours sitting at desks analysing data, setting up Moodle pages, rewriting schemes of work and adapting the resources I have already spent hours producing. Well actually I do.  We all do, don’t we? Not to mention the reams of marking.  But what I’m getting at is, there are usually breaks in that work to engage with young people, to give mini-lectures, to walk around a classroom monitoring progress and engaging in lively discussions focused on the work.  Always. Always focused on the work.  I never get distracted…

At this time of year, there is far too much of the desk-sitting-at and not enough of the student interaction. And I miss it.  I miss the students who have finished their A Level exams and are scattered around various holiday destinations or working their butts off before they head off to uni in the autumn to continue working their butts off. I miss the students who have just completed the first year of their A level studies and are wondering where the first year went.  And I miss the GCSE students who worked so hard to get it right this time, and I really hope they do, because they’ve earned it.

Therefore, the opportunity to get back in the classroom is one to be jumped at.  It gives you the energy to get away from the desk, to engage in a bit of banter and to see the sparks of thought flying.  I have to say, the students we worked with this year have been stunning in their approach. They rose to every challenge and seemed to thoroughly enjoy their taste of college life.  One precious moment was provided by the younger sister of one of my former students who is so excited to be joining us in 2018 and who had visited college with her sister the previous year. We had a selfie so that she could prove that she’d met me and I think it really did make her day. It made mine too!

We’ve also said hello to our new cohort and that’s been brilliant.  Although I always think they leave the classroom thinking I’m slightly mad.  And I am, it’s not a bad conclusion to have reached in the space of 40 minutes of investigating the etymology of our language and finding out that English is a real hybrid of different thoughts and cultures.  But they always look a little unsure of what to expect come September.  More of the same really, lots of humour, a smattering of sarcasm but oodles of passion too; passion for my subject and for their progress.

So over the past two weeks I have:  taught some year 10s, met and taught some of the new cohort, analysed data, decided on the key points for next year’s team plan, been to lots of meetings, set up Moodle for English Language first and second years (or ‘Muddle’ as it will now be known – courtesy of one of my team), rewritten the resources for my GCSE Journeys unit, created some quizzes (on Muddle), tidied my office Marie Kondo style, ripped down displays, shredded paper, tweeted more times than I care to mention, but almost all of them focused on the brilliant year 10 days, and eaten more calories than is healthy or sensible in anyone’s book; the biggest downside of being chained to a desk.

And why do I know it’s time for a summer holiday?  Because, apart from the fact that on numerous occasions over the past two weeks I’ve been incapable of stringing a sentence together,  yesterday, when I suggested meeting up with the team to discuss the team plan I was met with ‘sorry we have a prior engagement, how about Saturday?’  There followed an email exchange of end of term teacher memes and a suggestion from me that some of them might come to fruition if they didn’t have a say in some of the targets.  I then met one of them in the toilets to be told ‘we’re all feeling a bit immature today!’. This news didn’t come as any surprise to me as I was told they’d locked someone out when she went to buy crisps.  Armed with my keys at the suggested meeting time, I duly found the door locked with a sign declaring that they’d ‘Gone to Greece’ and would be ‘Back in September’. That’s how I know we’re all ready for the summer and it can’t come quickly enough.

 

Positives and Negatives

Apologies for the lack of blogs lately, it’s been the height of the exam season, first GCSE English Language 9-1, which went pretty well and the students were very positive, to the first run through of the new spectre of English Language A Level.  This is sadly, the only real negative in this post, so I’ll get it out of the way now.

In any new spectre, there is always a huge element of the unkown, I’ve been waxing lyrical about it in previous posts and I know many of you share my concerns and feelings of angst.  The first two papers were very positive, students came out buzzing with the things they’d been able to write about, I had GIFs posted on Facebook of Kermit doing a happy dance; the response to the Child Language paper being a transcript, not examples of written data, and I was feeling more comfortable that my predictions of the summer outcomes might actually be too cautious. And then Friday arrived.  Usually the herald of joy with the impending weekend, but this time Section A was determined to throw a bag of spanners into the works.

For those of you not familiar with the English Language A Level, Paper 3 (for our chosen exam board) consists of an investigation into topics, which are then refined into specific ‘sub-topics’ and the exam provides a (we thought) primary source that asks students to determine how typical a representation this is of their sub-topic.  For four of the topics, this was the case, the texts are unseen and we have had no real idea of what they would be, but they were primary sources.  For one of the topics however, oh no!  No primary source here.  They were given a secondary source that essentially did their job for them as it was analysing the language they were supposed to be analysing.  Many of them had also used it as part of their own research.  I’d never seen so many confused faces coming out of an exam before. To their credit though, they knuckled down and didn’t let it put them off.

A quick check in to our Facebook network of teachers told me that we were all in the same boat, which was reassuring.  Determine to enjoy my birthday weekend, I put this out of my head after giving my students a positive pep-talk and sending them on their way to relax, knowing they’d done the best they could under difficult circumstances and that the exams for English were now over.

Monday morning brought the determination to voice my concerns and I’ve just penned a very controlled but extensive email to the exam board in question. They have done our students a disservice and I will not stand for that.  I am sure the outcome of the email will be the subject of at least one future blog 😉

That’s the negative out of the way. And there have been too many positives to mention in the last week especially, so here’s a snapshot of some of them.

On Tuesday of last week, a colleague and I went to an AOSEC Teaching and Learning Fair in Farnborough. We presented about our approaches to planning, delivery and assessment of the new GCSE specification. Many colleges have not taken on the new spectre this year, so are always keen to take away any tips and resources we can provide them with.  Despite being close to the graveyard slot on a sweltering day in a room with no opening windows and a small fan, our ideas were well received, especially the pre-populated feedback sheet that allows more time for annotation of student work in a climate (in our college) of reducing workload initiatives.

We were also privileged to be given a range of inspirational talks about using social media to engage students and a focus on well-being of staff and students from Stuart Rimmer, the CEO and Principal of East Coast College.  This talk linked strongly to Joseph Holloway’s session on mindfulness – which restored my faith in this approach.  As you know I’ve been working with some anxious students this year and am always keen to find ways to help them.  Fortunately for us, our Principal is very interested in this too and we are moving towards a defined policy of approaches to improve staff and student well-being.

On Wednesday I aced my data review meeting and found I could relax a little for the rest of the week, Paper 3 aside.  Although the weather last week reduced me to a puddle in my office for much of the time; more of a meltdown than a slowdown.

Thursday, the highlight of the week. No, not the Moode training session or the exceptionally inappropriate birthday card from my team (although that was another classic moment in the history of working with my team).  This was a TeachMeet at Durrington High School.  Lured with the promise of  free paella (and boy that was good!) I cycled, and the head of maths and one of her team drove, at the end of the day to one of our local schools to engage in an evening devoted to our profession.  Yes that’s how dedicated we are, we spend evenings listening to others talking about teaching.

It’s impossible to cover everything in one blog, but everyone who spoke was brimming with enthusiasm and ideas and I have spent the days that followed buzzing with ideas and how to incorporate them. The trick now is to focus on a few things that I can try, rather than rushing headlong into trying everything.

I will be using the ideas put forward by Mark Enser about Expecting Excellence, I can’t wait to set up our own Excellence Gallery of student work,  and will try to incorporate this with Ben Crockett’s research into metacognition, something I’m already striving to improve in terms of my approaches.  If I can do more work showing students how they can get to excellence, we can include these steps in our Excellence Gallery.  And not wanting to wish the summer away, because we all know how much we need this R&R time, but I really can’t wait to get started on these new ideas.  They will also keep me stocked up with blog fodder as I try out new things and share the positives and negatives with you.

All in all this blog has been a mixed bag and hopefully more positives than negatives.  From curve ball exams to inspirational talks to new ideas to try and my increased immersion into the Twittersphere. The head of maths jokingly posed that we should ‘have a competition to see who can get to 100 followers first’.  Everyone thinks she’s the competitive one, but you should never underestimate the quiet ones.  I currently stand at 115 and am awaiting the promised bottle of fizz purchased by the ‘loser’ 😉  I’m going to pay for this I’m sure, but I’ll just take the time to bask in the glory of my Twitter victory.

 

Like a roast without gravy…

I think I must be slightly obsessed with food at the moment, this is the second reference to the topic in two days as far as my students are concerned, but it’s a universal reference point that they understand.

Picture the scene, it’s the first Sunday of half-term, I’m awake at college o’clock because it takes at least the first week (there goes half-term) of any holiday for my body clock to adjust.  Thoughts inevitably turn to the forthcoming exams and the nerves that only the first examination of a new spectre can bring, and I combine this with the previous night’s reading on the topic of language varying over time.

I have a brainwave.

I’ll post a little ‘nugget’ (see, food again!) of information to pique their interest on our Facebook page.  The little gem (that’s lettuce, right? – what is wrong with me?) concerns Samuel Johnson’s recognition that it was impossible to ‘fix the English language’ in the same way that it was impossible to ‘lash the wind’.  There followed a journey into the changing meaning of ‘lash’ and its pejorative properties.  Before I could stop myself, I was also posting that I would ‘share a little nugget every day in the run up to the exams’.  What a fantastic idea!  That’ll be no problem, it’s only seventeen days to the first exam, that’s only 17 nuggets … no problem at all!

Day 7 of nugget central and I may be flagging slightly.  So far the topics have been different aspects of language variation, including how to spot words of French and Latin origin, the links between children’s gestures in pre-speech stages and their resulting vocabulary range, how to approach the investigating language exam by crafting an outline of research that can be learned and slotted into exam essays, a general essay structuring nugget and today’s offering about the different contextual factors you need to consider for speech or writing – that one turned into a meal deal with a large side order of fries – hopefully showing the validity of my mantra that ‘context really is everything’.

My only hope is that these nuggets are not overwhelming my students.  I know they’ve ‘seen’ them thanks to good old Facebook and there has been a smattering of ‘likes’ so I have to assume that they are picking up the information that they find useful, safe in the knowledge that everything else is there if they need it.

Throughout my teaching career, I have learned to say no, whereas in the first year or two I’d enthusiastically say yes to everything and then set myself up with loads of extra work, it’s all about striking the right balance and not overwhelming yourself.  This brainwave has the potential to be overwhelming, but given that the teaching load in the coming weeks is drastically reduced (apologies to all high-school teachers!) providing 10 more language nuggets really isn’t that much of a hardship.

Although I’ve learned to say no over the years, one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the belief that I should never ask my students to do something I wouldn’t do myself.  One of the first occasions was in an Ofsted observed lessons with a vibrant year 11 group.  We were studying poetry for the literature exam and I was getting them to come up with their own essay titles and I think my words were pretty close to ‘And I’m happy to write an essay too, so feel free to come up with a real stinker of a title for me…’ this elicited a smile from the inspector – I know, it’s a rare sight, but it did happen 🙂 and I’m viewing the whole nugget situation in the same light.  I’m expecting (hoping … praying) my students to be up to their eyes in revision over the coming weeks, so it’s only fair that I put something in as well and it has the bonus of reassuring me that they are getting a constant shove in the right direction, thereby retaining some sense of the control that we teachers can’t quite let go of.

To be completely honest, this whole nugget thing is doing me good.  It’s forcing me to find a range of interesting, informative and hopefully memorable snacks to feed the revising mind that will hopefully pop into a few heads and add that ‘edge’ to an answer.  And I’m enjoying it almost as much as I enjoy my food.

Which brings me neatly back to this week’s title.  This stems from the essay structuring nugget.  I needed to have that universal reference point, so I likened an essay that doesn’t have all of the vital components to a roast without gravy; it just doesn’t work.  I want my students to produce essays that are succulent and juicy and smothered in gravy, to the extent that the examiner wants to lick the plate clean.

 

Too Many Goodbyes

I can’t help feeling there’s something missing from the new teacher’s manual (if only that really existed!).  Along with the class management tips; the advice about marking; how to create vibrant displays; how to cope with parents at parents’ evening; how to juggle time (someone in my department always used to think I had a time-turner); how to remember a two-week timetable and what you’re teaching when.  That’s all well and good, but no-one really prepares you for how it will feel to say goodbye to your year 11s.  Then your year 13s.  And it does make your throat hurt.

I’ve been trying to do some calculating this evening.  I’ve been teaching since 2003, that’s nearly 14 years. Let’s start at my first school, where I taught for 9 years. In that time I taught roughly 13 year 11 classes.  Let’s say that’s approximately 29 per class, give or take… so, that’s 377 students.  Then there’s the sixth formers in the same school.  I’ve taken one sixth form class per year, apart from my first year of teaching, let’s say 12 per class, which adds up to 96 students.  Oh, and I had a year 11 tutor group in my first year, that’s another 26 students (some of them I taught too).  There was another year 11 tutor group a few years later, say another 30.  How many is that so far? 499.  Well, I’ve been at Worthing College for 5 years now, so if we say 2 year 13 classes for the first two years and at least 1 for each of the remaining years, that’s another 113, and the countless GCSE resit classes.  I’ve really lost count now, but we’re looking at well over 600 goodbyes in 14 years.

It doesn’t get any easier.

This topic is uppermost in my mind at the moment as I have a mere 8 hours left with my current year 13 class.  It seems only yesterday (such a cliché I know) that I was welcoming them into my classroom, getting to know their names, friendship groups, personalities and where their skills and strengths lay.  I know some of them will read this, so … don’t panic, ignore the number I’ve just mentioned, it’s all good!

Not all who walked in on that first day will be leaving my class, there have been timetable changes and changes of heart that have led them to pastures new.  It’s a small number now, and I like to think of them as a ‘select few’, although I know one who will ‘highly doubt that’. But it’s true.

I still can’t get used to the rapidity of ‘leaving’ that comes with the life of a sixth form teacher.  Some you only teach for a year, and most you have the pleasure of teaching for two years.  It’s a short space of time to build all the skills they need for the qualifications that will set them up for their next journey; whether that’s work, university or something even more challenging.  In school you may not teach students from the first year to the last, although that has been the case for one student over the years. But you do get to watch them grow up and develop into the adults they’ll become.  There are many tears along the way and a greater number of laughs.  That doesn’t always happen in the same way in sixth form, so the ones you do form a strong teacher/student bond with leave the biggest hole when they move on.

I’ll be the first to admit that I do get a tad emotional in ‘last lessons’.  I always make cake and it is always, well usually, chocolate.  This year I have a vegan to take account of, but I’m determined she won’t miss out. They still meander in and out in the run-up to the exams and then they’re gone.  Their place taken by the year 12s, who step up to the plate shortly after May half-term and then the introductory days for the new batch, many new names and personalities to learn, and so the cycle continues.

Perhaps that’s how we survive, for each student leaving there’s at least another one arriving to take their place.  The nest is never truly empty and many of them keep in touch, I see graduation photos, read tales of exotic travels, even news of impending births and marriages as the years go by.

Yes, those ‘throat hurting’ moments are hard to deal with.  But hearing from a student years later that they ‘still remember that lesson when…’ and ‘We’ve just been learning about this or that at uni and we first learned about that with you’ makes that all bearable.

Does it seem at bit candyflossy to say that as teachers we give our students wings and set them free to fly? Probably. But sometimes we all need a bit of warm and fuzzy in our lives. And at the end of the day, I’m just one big, fluffy mother-hen.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Spectre?

I hope this topic isn’t becoming boring to my regular readers, but trust me, you can never underestimate the impact of working with new specifications, GCSE or A-Level. The abbreviation ‘spec’ very soon seems like a ‘spectre’. But it’s not all negative.

As you know, I’ve been teaching for nearly 14 years now.  In some ways it feels like only yesterday that I was stepping nervously into my first classroom, with my own classes and my own tutor group, and everything was new. No matter how much time you spend teaching classes in your PGCE year, you never cover all aspects of any specification; there’s always something new to discover. Therefore, no matter how great the fear factor, you need to try out new things, create new resources, develop teaching strategies, and embrace all that is unfamiliar.

I can’t help but feel this can only be a good thing; despite the uncertainty about grade boundaries, the lack of assessment materials, the lack of ability to dig out tried and tested methods, and a real starting from scratch that comes as a shock to the system after building folder after folder of resources. For me, it has been a refreshing change and has reminded me of that, not-so fresh-faced, new teacher that I used to be. I can’t physically retrace the steps to my old classroom, a playing field now lays in the spot that held the foundations for my second-floor teaching space with a sea view (when year 9 was being particularly challenging) and lovingly painted walls courtesy of one of my tutor groups. But I can retrace my teaching steps into the realms of invention and creation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some super-teacher who has ditched everything she has ever created in the name of the new spec (trust me, almost everything I have ever produced sits safely on a rather large memory stick which gives my IT department the heebie-jeebies!). There was quite a lot of recycling in the early days, so much so that I can happily fly a green flag in the name of the environment, but that has given way to more and more new resources and approaches.

The increasing security you feel in the second year of ‘the spectre’ allows you to adjust your long-term planning and know exactly what your first year students need; you learn as you go as much as the students. (And what you thought they needed as you planned in the summer, isn’t quite the same as the reality of moving into the second year and finally getting your head around the requirements of the three exams they’ll be sitting.) I always feel sorry for the first year through, they bear the brunt of the frustrations of not having that wealth of resources that you’ve always relied on, but as the months tick by, they get a glimpse of the teacher you used to be in the early days, the one who thinks ‘that’s a great idea’ and zooms off to mould the idea into the reality that becomes the new ‘tried and trusted’.

I’ve been very fortunate this year to have a lovely second year class, the sort of class you can be completely honest with and ask them what they need; How about this? Do you think that would work? What do you feel is missing?  And, between us, we have built some very solid foundations that will support progress over the next few years, until the next ‘spectre’ looms from whatever horrors we have inflicted on us in the future.  Hopefully we have a few years before that happens.

Essentially the topics don’t vary too much, it’s the mode of assessment that changes and that’s the biggest challenge.  I’ve found though that where we’ve tried to adapt what we had before, it never quite fits the bill and it’s usually easier to start again with a fresh eye; ever fixed on the new ‘prize’.  I suppose it’s a bit like moving house, you take your old furniture with you (and the books, always the books) but it never quite fits in the new rooms in the same way, and you usually need new curtains because some of the windows aren’t the same size.  And, hopefully, there are additional rooms that need to be filled because it is space you just didn’t have before.  You don’t ditch everything, but some things just have to be replaced, and the new house is all the better for it.

I was having a conversation with an ex-student this week, who is moving towards the end of her first year as a teacher.  She was asking some advice about another topic and we inevitably touched on the subject of unknown grade boundaries as she is thrust into her first year 11 exams and the impending summer results. She was comforted to know that ‘even I’ (her words) was feeling the pressure of not having a secure picture of outcomes for my students. My own ‘unknowns’ served to alleviate her fears, how was she expected to know if someone who had taught for 14 years and had seen her through her own A Level English Language wasn’t quite sure how this year would pan out?

How are any of us supposed to know? We’re not. Not with any certainty anyway.  But we can reignite that enthusiasm for the new and that can only be a good thing for the students we see every week. If I can’t change the politics, I can change my perspective on ‘the spectre’, tell it I’m not afraid and that I’m damned if it’s going to beat me.

And another thing…

Just as I’m riding the tide of mock marking (one more week should do it), it’s that time of the year that all heads of department dread.  No, not data analysis.  No, not grade predictions. And no, not even the ever-looming exams.  Yes, I’m talking about the much maligned … timetabling.

Armed with a spreadsheet full of staffing allocations, group numbers and proposed class sizes, I then have to put it all together into something that resembles an effective work-life balance for the whole team as well as making sure the A2 classes are in the same block they were in for A1 and that I haven’t inadvertently put two classes in the same block for the same teacher.

Last year, I cleverly (I thought) created a spreadsheet as my starting point, which calculates how many hours each teacher is teaching and which subjects they’ll be teaching.  However, despite thinking I’d altered all the formulae to calculate each component, things just weren’t adding up at all.  Could I see the problem?  No, no matter how many times I stared at it.  Until the following morning, when I realised that one row wasn’t automatically adding up at all, and I’d over allocated some GCSE classes.  And so the nightmare begins.

Thankfully there’s been a higher level of collaboration this year and we’ve already started working out which groups should go where, in all subjects, so hopefully there should be fewer headaches this time around.

From experience, the first two drafts usually go quite smoothly and then you put individual timetables together and realise that a teacher has the timetable from hell and if you hand that version over, mutiny is sure to follow.  Then follow at least another seven drafts, it’s like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together when you don’t know what the picture is and some of the pieces are undoubtedly from another box, or three.  I don’t even like jigsaws. It would be easy if it was merely allocating the classes to teachers, but there’s the whole issue of rooming as well.  Just when you think you have a perfect solution to one problem, you realise you only have three rooms available and the five classes can’t possibly take place.

However, no matter how much I moan about the process (and it’s clear that I do as my husband has just asked the topic of this week’s blog and his response was ‘Oh that’s your favourite isn’t it?’ without even a hint of sarcasm 😉 ), I do find myself getting obsessively determined to make everything fit and to give everyone in the team the best deal. I’m sure they don’t always think that when I give them the closest draft I can get towards the final version, but it’s true.  I shuffle and I juggle until everything works. Although I could only face an hour of shuffling and juggling this morning, sometimes a little space is called for.  And it is a bank-holiday weekend after all.

I think every manager has that element to them,  that desire to solve problems.  To look at things logically and find the best solution for everyone concerned.  That’s why the timetable mission is as satisfying as it is frustrating.

I may need to remind myself of these positives as my head hits the desk and yet another version of the timetable is screwed into a ball and lobbed into the bin.  Let’s see if I can get it done in under nine drafts this time, shall we?

Full Speed Ahead

The title doesn’t refer to my recent misdemeanours in the speeding department, resulting in a lovely letter from Dorset’s finest constabulary – an excellent example of the power of language!  No, it’s that feeling you get after returning from the Easter break when faced with another bank holiday next week and only a 5 week half-term.  So many exams to prepare for; so little time!

When I say ‘Easter Break’ that was of course punctuated by the obligatory revision session in which I crammed exam techniques and annotation practice for all three A2 English Language papers into the space of 4 hours.  This was a combination of matching terminology to frameworks, a run through of the best approaches and some timed annotation practice on a range of data.  It takes hours of preparation, a plethora of photocopies and then it all seems to be over in the blink of an eye.

The feedback is always worth it though – “Everything I was worried about was covered.  Feel less stressed! 🙂 was my favourite along with numerous ‘very helpful’s.  I will of course be using these comments to publicise the great revision sessions we run at Worthing College, but it’s personally great to know that what you have put together actually works.

I hasten to add, I did have some time away from planning, delivering and marking, which included a Prosecco fuelled friends’ wedding, a catch up with family and the production of some new living room curtains. Who said a teacher’s life is all work and no play?

That Easter revision session (and the Prosecco!) seems a dim and distant memory now that the first day of term has arrived along with a mountain of mocks, not just for A2 English Language but for GCSE too.  I’ve already seen two groups today and have managed to mark one set of Section As whilst another class cracked on with the whole paper.  It’s called damage limitation – i.e. not allowing myself to get so bogged down with marking that I disappear under a pile of papers in my office resulting in someone sending out a search party.

One of the joys, and I use the term loosely, of preparing the A2 mocks has been the distinct lack of sample assessment papers.  We’ve managed to hold onto the only remaining sample of Paper 1, but long ago exhausted Paper 2, which has meant a creative trawl through past data, not necessarily from the same exam board you understand, to put my own paper together.  On top of this, there are no samples at all for Paper 3.  Having the joy of my class choosing three different topics and an additional one in another class, I’ve had to create almost a whole exam paper despite having already exhausted my own imagination when it comes to statements for discussion for Section B. I realise that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to all of you, but this paper involves topics surrounding gender, power, journalism, and Global English (thankfully not regional variations – the only topic not chosen by our students).  In the exam they are given a statement to argue based on their individual investigations into the topic.  It’s a whole new ball-game, but at least this time next year I’ll know how big the ball is and roughly where the goal is – hopefully!

The delights of new specifications should not be underestimated.  And neither should the heights of my sarcasm.

Today has been made up entirely of mock exams, tomorrow coursework moderation beckons.  Thankfully we only have one year’s worth to moderate this time, so the process should be less painful and more productive than in previous years, I can well remember that by 2pm all I was capable of was banging my head on the desk and screaming ‘I can’t dooooo this anymoooore!’  But I’m actually looking forward to tomorrow’s session of judging GCSE speaking and listening videos and then a few hours on A2 English Language’s ‘Crafting Language’ unit, although we don’t get the lists of howlers we used to get from borderline C grade GCSE folders, especially in the Shakespeare essays and pre-1914 work, and how  many Mercutios were stabbed with a shard of mirror?  Thanks Baz Lurmann!

All that’s left now is to get all the marking done, give meaningful feedback, plan some revision activities that will make all of my students super-prepared, analyse the data from the mocks and explain why Student A should exceed their target, whereas Student Z is highly unlikely to meet theirs and hope that we’re on the right track with our grade predictions with a totally unknown quantity that is the new A level and GCSE specifications!  Piece of cake!   Talking of which, my name’s on the cake rota for tomorrow – the oven beckons – or the cake counter at Tesco…!

 

 

 

Acting on Feedback

Feedback is something you can’t escape, whether it’s following a progress review; the instant variety in class that lets you know you’ve moved on too fast or need to speed up; the kind you give on a piece of coursework to help students improve; or the feedback you’ve asked for in order to develop your planning of the remaining weeks of the course.

Let’s dwell momentarily on the coursework, it was the final deadline this week, a central hand in with a set time on a piece of work that started in the dim and distant past of last summer’s interim lessons for students moving from year 12 to year 13.  There have been marked drafts with oodles of feedback provided, subject support sessions, questions and yet more questions over a period of months.  And did that stop the questions this week?  Well. No.  What’s the overall word count?  Do I need to had in my style models?  What is a style model?  Do I need a bibliography?  Thanks to my college Facebook account, this was my week last week.  I tried to liven things up with a series of ‘coursework deadline’ memes, only to find one of them sent them into a spiral of panic thinking the deadline had passed a minute ago, when it was in fact the following day at midday.  And did they all meet the deadline?  Yes they did.  Undoubtedly the question on everyone’s lips this week will be ‘Have you marked our coursework yet?’ to which the response will be a resounding ‘NO!’

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we are in the second year of a new course (I won’t mention the lack of grade boundaries again, it gives me the heebie jeebies!).  We have two weeks until the Easter break, which will be interspersed with a revision session, and then three and a half week’s of lessons – discounting the one and a half that will be taken up with mocks.  I decided to pass the baton to my class to ask them what they feel they need.  I’ve given them all the content, now they need to decide what they still need to do with it in order to feel confident enough to tackle the three exams they’ll be facing in June.

I’d already posed a question about what the lessons should look like, more of the same rotation of topics and opportunities to practise, or a pick ‘n’mix (Ah! Woolies!) approach to revision so they can work on tasks that will suit their own needs.  The latter is proving popular, I have to say.

But that wasn’t enough.  Therefore, on Friday I handed out my prettiest post-it notes and asked for ideas about their perceived deficits so I could put some resources together for them.  You know the drill teachers?  You ask what they think they need help with and you always get one student who pipes up with ‘Everything’ and lo and behold, there was the very same post-it note, complete with mitigating smiley emoji – not that helpful really, but mildly amusing on a Friday afternoon.

Armed with some more helpful post-it notes about specific topic areas I set about putting some of the ideas into resources and Saturday morning saw the production of a helpful (I hope) booklet summarising Child Language Speech. I came up with the pun of ‘Speech Crib Sheet’ following on from the earlier ‘Writing Crib Sheet’ which, I have to say, I was both proud of and slightly ashamed at the poor quality of the pun.  Of course this completely missed the mark as some students hadn’t heard of the term ‘crib sheet’ before so the link to child language was totally wasted on them.  Anyway, this little baby (oh here I go again with the puns, there’s just no stopping me!) is 11 pages of terminology, theories, timelines, clusters of frameworks, and approaches to the exam.  I shared it on Facebook to get some more feedback before printing, to be met with ‘It’s great to have everything in one place,  but couldn’t help noticing that one reference to ‘Wug’ had been auto-corrected to ‘Wig”  Thank heavens for eagle-eyed students and no thanks to Word for changing only one instance of a word that had occurred 4 times in one paragraph.  I have to say, ‘wigs’ does put a slightly different slant on Jean Berko Gleason’s Wug experiment.

And there ended a week of feedback and a Saturday morning of work.  All I need to do now is plan for three mini-lectures complete with revision activities for the Easter ‘break’ and the resources that will plug the rest of the gaps, which equates to two more booklets including summaries of all the theories and how they can overlap different topics, some modelled examples of approaches and data that can be annotated at speed.  Oh, and mark that coursework ready for moderation after Easter.  Easy!

 

Every Journey is a Challenge

Last week, this was the title of a writing task I gave to my GCSE classes.  They were encouraged to think about emotional as well as physical journeys, as these can produce the best pieces of writing in an exam situation. Whilst one group were working, I set about my own piece of writing, the plan of which I used as a model in subsequent lessons. Fortuitously it turned out to be a ready-made blog …

Every Journey is a Challenge

What may seem like a flippant statement is particularly true when engaging on the journey to becoming a teacher. Especially for a newly divorced parent of a lively and intelligent three-year old. Although, little did I know at the time the destination of the stratospheric flight I had embarked upon; to me it was an evening class studying A Level Literature to ‘see if I could do it’. I had images of intellectual observations tripping off my tongue to impress my fellow scholars, but let’s face it, it was a slower-burning progress towards the A grade to match the O Level I had achieved at school seven years previously.

And that was it.  I brushed the suggestion of university to one side because, in my family, ‘people don’t go to university’, and settled back to motherhood centred around sribbling, den-buillding and … tantrums. I had enough on one plate without trying to spin another one, but there was no avoiding the inevitable; the academic bug had bitten me squarely on the proverbial, and I found myself enrolling for A Level Medieval History, because it sounded ‘more interesting than modern history’.

That may well have been the case, but the option of Sociology seemed far more appealing and appropriate as I turned the exam paper to an unknown topic and felt that sinking feeling.  I knew my mind could go blank, but we really had not covered it in class. I proceeded to write for an hour about I don’t know what; all the while cursing  the teacher for her omission and the rest of the class of history buffs who would be riding the waves of their prior knowledge whilst I floundered, spluttering in a rough sea of uncertainty. destination was D on that journey, which is pretty impressive given that 25% of the qualification was a complete mystery to me.

At this stage on the clichéd roller-coaster, I was in no doubt that teaching beckoned.  Had I always known this was the case?  I hear you ask.  Never.  Anyone suggesting this option to me at the tender age of 16 would have been laughed into next year. But motherhood changes you.  More than changes.  Motherhood transforms you, from the chrysalis of uncertainty into a butterfly of ambition. And I wanted to be the one transforming others.

Nothing could stand in my way now. Maths. Maths stood in my way like a guard at the entry to my dream, blocking the way with a giant protractor in one hand and a scientific calculator in the other.  I couldn’t teach English without it. So, having gained unconditional entry to universtiy to study English, I found myself deferring to take maths GCSE. The lectures, seminars and deadlines were on pause for another year.

One year later, armed with a B, yes a B in maths; the temporary master of quadratic equations was walking into more uncharted territory.  No map would help me to navigate this part of my life and after the initial fear and dread, I loved each and every minute of it.  I drank in the knowledge and let it nourish my soul in a way that nothing had until that point. I was a learning junkie, eager for every fix I could get. If anyone gave me the chance to return to that blissful bubble of an existence; they wouldn’t have to ask twice.

The teaching goal was in sight.  All I had to do was navigate the interview.  What if I failed? What if all this had been for nothing? Luckily those questions remained rhetorical and I’m sitting here 14 years later, in a GCSE resit class, joining in their task

Have I reached my destination?  Not a bit of it teaching is an ongoing learning process and the day that stops being the case is the day I launch my board pen into the bin and close my classroom door for the last time. Believe me, that won’t be happening any day soon. Every journey may be a challenge, but without the challenge, the destination is worthless.

 

 

 

 

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