Zero Written Feedback: a trial

FACT: Many schools still have blanket marking and feedback policies which dictate frequency and form of marking, e.g. one mark every four lessons, with a comment on progress and two DIRT tasks (just an example)

OPINION: One-size-fits-all policies prevent us from doing what matters most for students in each subject. Academic subjects are distinct disciplines which need different treatment; excellent feedback in music is very different to great feedback in maths.

FACT: It can take anything from 2-4 hours to mark a full set of exercise books in English, depending on class size, level and marking policy requirements. If we take an average of 3 hours per set (6 minutes per book in a set of 30), and six classes for a full time main-scale English teacher, that’s 18 hours of marking per week. That’s before we even begin to complete data, pastoral and admin tasks, planning or subject knowledge development.

OPINION: Most written feedback has impact, but that impact is NOT commensurate with the sheer amount of time teachers invest in the act of marking. Students can make the same or better progress if teachers STOP giving written feedback and, instead, invest their time in better planning and subject knowledge development.

Continue reading “Zero Written Feedback: a trial”

Storming the Citadel: a quest for cultural capital

This blog is based on a talk I gave at ‘Teaching and Learning Leeds 2019’ hosted by the Grammar School at Leeds on Saturday 22nd June.

Why is language vital?

What is Cultural Capital?

Who decides what ‘culture’ is?

What does it mean to be ‘culturally poor’

How can we redress the balance?

Culture, cultural capital and cultural poverty are all loaded terms. They are trigger issues – the type which evoke the big, contentious issues in our society. If we are to have a hope of tackling cultural poverty in the classroom, to focus on the ‘teacher stuff’ and find solutions, we must first wade through the wider social injustices and sensitivities which are inextricably linked to ‘culture’: race, power, identity, nationalism, poverty and the lives of real people.

Continue reading “Storming the Citadel: a quest for cultural capital”

Poetry 2: Knowledge and Revision

The poetry anthology is a difficult challenge for revision because there are so many moving parts and it’s difficult to know what to prioritise. I’ve had lots of people asking for advice in the past week or so, wanting things which are going to be ‘engaging’ and ‘new’ for students. The problem with this is that planning for the sake of fun and engagement rarely produces high impact learning for students – it often means that teachers focus on novel activities, rather than on long term learning.

When I talk about revision, I don’t mean that last panicked bit at the end of the course, when the students have finally realised that an actual exam is imminent. If you get to that part of the year and find yourself encouraging massed practice (otherwise known as ‘cramming’), I fear that it might be too late! Continue reading “Poetry 2: Knowledge and Revision”

Poetry 1: Key Principles

Poetry is the music of language. It is the most condensed, perfect form because the writer has compressed all meaning, emotion and expression into the most concise finished product possible. Every line, every word, every sound has some potential gold to be mined by our students. However, poetry is difficult to teach because:

  • Poems are open to a wide range of interpretations. Which interpretations are ‘right’? Which ones should we teach?
  • Poems are often ruled by very specific genre conventions. How much of this do we need to know? How much should we teach? Do students need to know about all of Romantic Poetry in order to study and understand ‘Ozymandias’?
  • Poems are often like little puzzles; writers often purposefully create them to be confusing, complex and challenging.
  • Students want to find the ‘right’ answer. There often isn’t one, and that’s hard to swallow!
  • Rhyme schemes and technical terminology are rife in poetry. How do we filter these out so that we focus on what’s important?
  • Single poems are often published as parts of wider anthologies or collections. Can we really remove them from their intended context and teach them by themselves? We wouldn’t extract a single piece of recitative from an opera and expect people to appreciate it when divorced from its natural setting, so why do we carve up anthologies like this?
  • Poems for GCSE study are thrown together into an anthology; this editorial decision in some ways dictates how we read the texts. Does this false relationship, often between poems written hundreds of years apart, without any original authorial intent, rob them of their integrity?
  • At GCSE, Teaching fifteen separate poems from fifteen different writers, with context and comparison skills, is very difficult. In some exam boards, this is only worth 12.5% of the grade. In a course of two years, 12.5% of lessons is roughly 30 hours of teaching (not including missed time for assessments, mock exams, trips, poor attendance etc.). That’s a maximum of two lessons per poem. That’s not enough.

Complaining about it is fine, but this is the job before us, and I am all about practical solutions.

Top Tips for Teaching Poetry: Continue reading “Poetry 1: Key Principles”

Quotation Revision and Confidence!

I am a big proponent of learning quotations by rote. If students can memorise albums full of song lyrics, they can learn quotations! My students have been explicitly learning quotations throughout their GCSE course, but they still suffer from a lack of confidence when it comes to feeling like they really know their texts.

I do regular retrieval activities, such as:

  • Brain Dump – write down everything you know about the text!
  • Specific Retrieval – e.g. write down everything you remember about Lady Macbeth; events, personality traits, quotations, EVERYTHING!
  • Spelling tests – spell character and author names, and key literary terms and words related to context… Continue reading “Quotation Revision and Confidence!”

Unseen Poetry Without the Stress…

Unseen poetry is stressful. We feel that it is never given enough time (because there are fifteen anthology poems to teach) and students struggle with confidence because the texts will be unfamilar to them. Coupled with this, the independent reading of poetry requires students to posess a certain degree of cultural capital; literature is filled with establised imagery and hidden meaning which the frequent readers in our classes will pick up easily, but those without that literary grounding in language and symbolism will miss, without even realising there was something there to spot in the first place.

I have started to teach unseen poetry by stripping away much of the worry and myth surrounding it. The main concern my students tend to have is: I need to be able to understand what the poem means.

Wrong. The exam question doesn’t say ‘explain what the poem means’. The questions on unseen poetry are going to ask how writers present things, and the examiner wants students to demonstrate their ability to pick out features of texts, comment on them and write some developed analysis. This is not the same as having to give a straightforward overview of a text. Continue reading “Unseen Poetry Without the Stress…”

Call me a ‘ball-breaker’ one more time…

This is a re-post of a blog I wrote for WomenEd in February 2019.

A couple of years ago, a male colleague introduced me to someone as a ‘ball-breaker’. He looked at me and smiled, clearly intending this as a compliment, and went on to make a joke about how even he was a little scared of me sometimes. ‘Ball-breaker’. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s a phrase which implies that the subject is aggressive, and has the power (and tendency) to emasculate men. It implies that the subject is brutal, perhaps destructive. I don’t recognise myself in any of those depictions of leadership. This phrase is also heavily gendered; you seldom hear men described in such terms.

My colleague clearly felt that he was saying something positive about me; saying I am strong and effective in the workplace. In reality, phrases like this reduce women to being defined purely by the impact they have on men. She’s not being called decisive, honest or driven; she’s being called a ‘ball-breaker’, implying that all she does is dominate men and, no matter what she achieves professionally, it is only notable through the lens of how men feel about her leadership. If she makes a decision which a male colleague would not have made, she metaphorically ‘breaks’ his ‘balls’ – he is not the one in control and he is therefore rendered useless. She has done that; the ‘ball-breaker.’
If a man had done it, everyone else’s ‘balls’ would have remained in tact but, because she is a woman in leadership, she leaves a trail of emasculated colleagues in her wake.

How ridiculous. Continue reading “Call me a ‘ball-breaker’ one more time…”