Sunday, 30 March 2014

In pursuit of the holy grail: the ten commandments of frequent, high quality marking

1. Thou shalt know your audience
What the gloriously word-packed A3 APP epics did for us English lot was remind us that we are pedagogical professionals who can cope with the wordy and wieldy if it helps with the slippery task of assessing a child's reading, writing, speaking, or listening. Children can't.

It is this that has lead many schools to a solution that - in my mind - suits neither audience: an over-simplified list of criteria for teachers; three* intimidating lists of hurdles for students.

What is needed is to separate the two audiences. Be clear when you are recording your diagnoses for yourself and the teachers who will see the child on the next leg of their academic journey. Be clear when you are writing feedback for that child in order to help them make progress.

A pertinent example of this distinction is the annotation of controlled assessment tasks. Students must receive bag-loads of formative feedback but, come the final CA task, the audience for the marking of the final piece is distinctly the examiner. This is necessary both in terms of systematically deciding on a final mark, but also to communicate the thought processes that have reached this decision to successive moderators. 

*reading, writing, speaking and listening

2 Thou shalt give praise
It doesn't matter how you praise students in your marking, so long as you do it  - and tell them why you're chuffed to bits with them. Depending on my state of mind/the time of night/just how frustrating it has been to crack this particular skill with this particular student, my marking will include:
  • Attitude to learning/effort grades
  • Smiley faces
  • Stickers of various persuasions (green 'on target' dots, our in-house PLTS-style stickers...)
  • Superlatives and a hefty dose of hyperbole (my green pen's even been known to utter a 'WOW!')
Never would I want to homogenise that reaction through a repressive whole school policy; a teacher should be free to choose their own vehicle to communicate their joy at seeing a student make progress.

3. Thou shalt diagnose like a doctor...
...and then prioritise like a professional. Check out that alliteration, kids.

Good marking takes so long because it involves thinking. What is this student doing well? What do they need to do better? What is THE most important one or two things that are going to have the greatest impact to their success in English? 

Got them? Good. That's what you need to communicate in your feedback.

4. Thou shalt not rely on students to set their own targets
Which is not to say that both self and peer assessment don't have their place. But there is an outer limit to the ZPD (see I did learn something on my PGCE) which means that students will reach a point where they simply don't know how to get better.  Even if they think they do. And unless their buddy is operating at a level which is usually attained through degree and post-graduate training, it's unlikely they're going to be able to help them either. Fundamentally, it needs a professional - see number 3.

5. Thou shalt word all targets as questions
It's a simple idea that was introduced to me by an outstanding (not the Ofsted version of this word, just simply bloody brilliant) teacher at my first school. The theory goes that asking a question demands a response. Like much good practice in the teaching profession, there's no empirical evidence to support whether this makes even the slightest bit of difference to whether a response occurs, but it's the intention that to me makes this so wonderful.

With zero additional effort, you're establishing that marking is fundamentally a dialogue. If nothing else then it reminds me to respect commandment number 6.

Note: I love the idea of marking work using only a highlighter for this reason. Like an irritating younger sibling it shouts out: "Here! Look over here! What did you forget? You can't leave me here like this!"

6. Thou shalt give students time to respond
It doesn't need to be given a shiny acronym like DIRT, although reading about it on Twitter has given me the kick up the backside I needed to make it a formalised and regular part of my teaching, but time does need to be set aside for students to read, digest and respond to your marking. 

7. Thou shalt use peer and self-assessment
So, if highlighters are the nagging younger brother of marking, peer and self-assessment must be the nit-picking auntie. "Little Jimmy have you forgot that target? Have you? Go back, look at it. Try again." By this I mean that here is the perfect mechanism for ensuring response to marking is not a quick ten minute job at the start of the lesson, but is regular, focussed and ensures students are accountable for their own progress.

In practice, the way this works in my classroom is that we tend to use peer and self assessment with the same criteria for the whole class - with individual targets adding personalisation and a link to the 'bigger picture' of an individual student's progress across time. For example, if we're looking at 'writing to argue' we may have learning outcomes related to the use of persuasive techniques, but a child's individual target might include being able to use capital letters accurately. That, for them, needs to be an eternal learning outcome: until it's met. Therefore...

8. Thou shalt not set additional targets until the last set have been met
In my role, I'm pleased to say, I often have the pleasure of seeing high quality, diagnostic feedback through work scrutiny. Two pages later and the same teacher has again given praise and sharply identified areas for improvement. Another page and again their green light shines like a beacon giving a further target...

Picture the scene: you're a Year 11 student suffering all the anxieties and burdens of a life in our Goveian exam system. Your English exercise books is returned. You read your teachers comments, sucking in the praise like a hoover. You read the target. You turn the page: another target.  And another one. This helps no one.

Two targets for reading at a time. Two for writing. One for speaking and listening. Do this and you stand a chance of them actually being met.

9. Thou shalt keep it simple, stupid.
I'm going to stick my neck out (contravening my own whole school policy) and say I'm not a fan of WWW/EBI. Similarly, you won't find me waving a flag for targets that require any sort of key. And I'm no cheerleader for marking codes. Anything that puts another layer or process between students receiving your feedback, understanding it and acting on it won't get my vote. Particularly as the students who are most likely to need the feedback are the very ones who can't or won't spend the time working out what the hell it is you're trying to communicate to them through your Latinate symbol.

I like to communicate feedback with good, old-fashioned words. And the fewer the better.

10. Thou shalt use shortcuts if they have a greater impact
Like many, I am currently counting down the days until Year 11 leave with all the fear of a mother hen watching her chick emerge from its egg-shelled cocoon for the first time. Two days before their final mock examination I was faced with a set of 32 responses to that pesky question 4 which there was no hope in hell of marking in time to give them feedback. Then a student said, "Miss, can you just check if mine is OK?" and the fog lifted. In this context, that was all this called needed to know. Have I got it? Is it alright? So, within ten minutes, I had two piles: OK  and not OK. Ten more minutes and I had 5 personalised notes written to the 'not OKs' explaining that they'd benefit from lunch/after school revision and giving them a quick one-liner of what they needed to work on. All of them turned up. All received feedback. And, I hope, as a result all did better than they might've in that mock exam. It's a quick trick I'll be using again.

Of course another 'shortcut' that I must name check here is verbal feedback. I won't be goaded into buying a rubber stamp with the moniker 'verbal feedback given' by the Ofsted-police. For me it's simply enough to know it happens. Every lesson. Every day. And if you talk to any of my students they'll fill you in.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

How to develop a thicker skin

The way I became Head of Faculty is a long and winding narrative that I am not going to unburden myself of here. Needless to say, it wasn't  expected, planned for or happy circumstances that saw me become first Acting Head of English and then appointed to the post permanently.

I will, however, mention that, after advertising the position twice, there were just two candidates on the day of my interview and only myself left standing by noon: a fact that often seemed a harbinger of doom on some of the darker days that followed over the next twelve months...

As a result, I was perhaps even less well-equipped than the average new HoF to take the reigns of a Faculty that swelled that year to a hefty 18 teachers. Even with every ounce of bravado mustered, the task ahead was equal parts exciting and daunting.

Unsurprisingly, what followed was an extreme lesson in people management. "But what about leadership?" I hear the more experienced and perceptive of you ask. I'm not sorry to say it took me a lot longer to crack that egg. In the first twelve months it was more of a crash course in survival, of which my loving partner bore the brunt.

But, a lot has changed since the days of heavy doses of Bach's rescue remedy and more Kleenex Balsam that they stock in the local Asda. This job has changed me - for the better. I'm harder, stronger, older (Batman). So, to all new HoDs and HoFs out there I'd like to pass on the following nuggets of my experience:

1. Remember, it really isn't personal.
If someone doesn't like the a-mazing idea you've been refining through various stages at increasingly unsociable hours of the day: don't panic. They don't like the idea! Honestly. Yes, I know, it doesn't always feel like that, but it's true and unless you let people talk - and listen - your ideas will always be half-baked, worm-holed and likely to fail. Kick it around. Let it be criticised. Then put the pieces back together and watch it fly.

2. Switch off. Totally off.
This one's simple. I don't work on Saturdays. Find your own rule. Stick to it. No matter how crap your week was with a little time and space you'll be able to fix that grin, roll up your sleeves and mutter 'Nolites te bastardes carborundorum' before you know it.

3. Meet up with friends who aren't also workmates.
Let me start by saying that I think it's thoroughly important to have friends at work. I am lucky to have many, not least @evilg08, @mrszshah and @missrcapper. But, a bit like the one above, teaching has a way of swallowing you up if you let it. Nurture your friendships when you don't need them and your friends will be there for you when you do.

4. You don't own people/No one is truly irreplaceable.
It was a hard-learned lesson (in a McDonald's drive through of all places) this one. A year in and I'd finally done it: compiled the A team! This was the group of teachers that were going to send our 3LP soaring, Buzz Lightyear style. Then, it happened. One of my brilliant, talented, hard working teachers dropped the bombshell that she was applying for another job. Mid-year no less. My instant reaction was to cry "Betrayal!" and lambast the slightly traumatised McDonald's employee just then handing me my change. But, once the snot had dissipated, I realised that, even if she did leave, my school and Faculty would go on. Different, yes, but not defeated.

I am now pleased to say that my hide has a rather wonderfully elephantine quality to it. Which is not to say the explosive tears and accompanying unattractive red blotchiness don't make the occasional appearance. I'm lucky to say that, at these times, I have a Head teacher prepared to hand me a tissue or two whilst I descend into a blithering wobbly mess. Thankfully, these moments are now limited to just one or two episodes per academic year. And all I now find myself thinking is that I hope the next one won't be on that nail-biting Wednesday in August... 

The School Show

This Friday I saw a school show. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of school shows. Some of them have been, quite frankly, diabolical snooze-fests. Others, mostly thanks to the troublingly brilliant mind of @chrishildrew, have been West-end-worthy panaceas to the monotony of modern life:  three children dressed as sperm and a talking cabbage called Margaret spring to mind. And yet, this school show will be the one that I remember.

After 21 years at his school, first as Deputy Head and then Head teacher, my dad is hanging up the symbolic mortar board and putting to bed a career in education that has spanned 37 years. With the final day before Easter being his last, this school show marked the beginning of the end of my family’s relationship – I use that word advisedly - with his school.

But, to set the night in context, a little background.

On the day my dad arrived at his school for interview, a burnt out car adorned the drive way and they were celebrating exam results that had for the first time exceeded 20% A*-C (a positive revelation given the 15% A*-C of the previous year). I’m immensely pleased to say that, since then, the exam results have somewhat improved, student numbers have almost doubled, they’ve achieved the all-important Ofsted ‘Outstanding’, been used as a model of good practice for Literacy and added a highly successful Sixth Form and sports centre – not to mention welcoming pigs, chickens, a bee hive and orchard.

In this time there have only ever been two Heads - something I suspect is an increasing rarity. However, make no mistake, the achievements of this very special place have been down to the collective loyalty, hard work and dedication of an entire staff body only some of which, I know, I am aware of.

For my own part, this place has been a member of the family. It perhaps helped that my mum also worked there as first a Science and then RE teacher so, when I was sick, I would go and help out in the Science prep room or sit at the back of her classes. Eventually, when I started to wonder what my own career path should be, I found myself there doing work experience and then, a year later when qualified, supply teaching. But, whilst these matters of physical proximity meant the school was somewhere I frequently was, it was the days spent helping out painting classrooms and putting up backing paper that turned it into something more than that. The message loud and clear from my parents was that this was a place to lavish attention on, to take pride in – that was fundamentally worthy of your time and attention.

And it was those feelings of pride and high expectation that I saw so plainly on the night of the school show.

In the opening number, the cast of over 100 young people marched forward towards the audience, utterly fearlessly. The melody of their voices sang of confidence and joy in being part of such a marvellous spectacle. The effect was not only hugely impressive but, quite frankly, a kick in the nether regions to Ofsted who had visited in the weeks previously.  However, amongst the impressive noise it was a whisper in my ear that I was most aware of: “She’s just joined our Sixth Form to do A Level Dance.” Two minutes later: “Hers is the Design coursework I showed you before.”  30 seconds: “He used to be so naughty!” 

On my dad’s face was sheer, unadulterated pride – and, dare I say, love – for each and every young person on that stage. And I know that this is going to be the feeling that is retained when he walks out of his office on April 4th. Not the exhaustion. Not the stress. Not fatalistic flight paths. Not 3LP. Or, 4LP. Not the frustration at steadily disintegrating national systems and politically-motivated external pressures that make it increasingly difficult to remember that all that matters is children. Young lives with exciting futures of endless possibilities.

As I left the show that evening, arm in arm with the man I am immensely proud to call my father, the following maxim danced inside my mind: a life in education is a life well lived.