Sunday 20 November 2011

The End of Starters

All of my lessons start in exactly the same way: the date, title, learning objective and starter are projected onto the IWB, the pupils copy them down and then do the starter. They know this is the routine, by now they don't need to be told.

Sounds brilliant doesn't it? You might even be jealous that I have such a wonderful and consistent system. One of my colleagues and fellow-NQT sometimes admits to me guiltily that she sometimes doesn't do a starter. She beats herself up about it, thinking she must be a failure because we all know that for a lesson to even be satisfactory, there HAS to be a starter on the board the second the bell goes. To skip the starter altogether is surely the number one teaching sin.

I discovered this week that that's a complete load of rubbish.

This fortnight at my academy is one of the most stressful for teachers: observation time! The academy leadership team have given all of us a two-day window in which any one of our lessons could be formally observed and graded. Mine has been and gone, with little stress, but for some the pressure still looms. The atmosphere in the maths faculty office has been somewhat more tense than normal. As an NQT, I'm used to being observed regularly, and I'm also used to being told I'm doing stuff wrong, so I wasn't particularly worried. But for the best teachers,  it can be very stressful.

My observation went fairly well. My pupils were well behaved and on task. We were doing about answering wordy maths questions, which is a key focus for our faculty due to the crazy new-style exams. The feedback I got after the lesson was out-of-this-world amazingly useful. The senior teacher gave me so many ideas which I know are tried and tested and easy to implement and will probably work. None of this rubbish making me come up with ideas, she actually told me what to do. Although in doing so I also came up with my own ideas. Now that's good teaching!

One of the things that I realised in dissecting the lesson (although it wasn't commented on until I brought it up myself) was how ineffective my start of lesson routine is. I had assumed that what I was doing was 100% the perfect thing. I had always been told the pupils should have something to do the second they come in, so they can start as soon as they're ready without waiting for other pupils to come in and unpack. I don't know whose stupid idea this was but I've realised now it doesn't actually work or make sense!

My pupils know that when they come in they have to write down the date, title and LO and do the starter, but they do so at their own leisurely pace. They start it when they're ready, which for some means as soon as they're unpacked, for others means after they've talked to the person behind them about the match last night. There's no clear start to the lesson, it just start of gradually blends into existence. After I think 90% of pupils have finished the starter, I begin the "actual" lesson. This can sometimes take 10-15 minutes, and most of the time the pupils have learnt nothing. How pointless!

Consider this method instead (often used by my aforementioned colleague, who feels guilty about it): the pupls come in, there is the LO on the board which they can start to copy. As soon as every present pupil's bum is on a seat, the teacher instructs the class to turn to their homework. The answers are then discussed, and some probing questions are asked and answered. Any late pupils realise they are late because the teacher is at the front talking and the class is quiet. They must walk to their seats quietly and shame-faced. Pupils always do their homework because if they don't they won't be able to participate in the first 10 minutes of the lesson. The activity you would normally do as a starter is then done afterwards, but the teacher can actually explain how to do it verbally rather than having to explain it in three lines on a PowerPoint slide.

Can you see immediately how much better that would be? The only barrier would be the pupils arriving in dribs and drabs. I say wait until 50% of the class is there and then start. As the pupils get used to this, I bet lateness would decrease. If you have the corridor space, you could have the pupils line up outside and that would solve the problem too.

From now on this is how all of my lessons are going to start. It will encourage me to remember to set homework every lesson (as is my academy's policy, and most schools' policies these days) and should also improve homework completion. It will also save me marking homework. But most of all, it will give my lessons a much more purposeful and swift start, setting the pace for the rest of the lesson.

What are your thoughts on starters? Do you find them useful? Necessary? How do you use them?

And to anyone with observations looming: remember this is a brilliant opportunity to realise things about your teaching and lesson structure that you weren't aware of. It has helped me immensely.

Emma x x x