Thursday 22 March 2012

A Counting Game

Every so often I'll post about an activity I did or a technique I used that was good. I find I often forget these good things when I should be reusing them. Hopefully by recording them on the blog I'll remember them.

So, what I'm sharing with you this week is an activity I did with my year 7 class. I told them they were going to have a little competition (which was met with a few "YES!"s), and that it would be a competition against me. This excited them because they know I'm both extremely competitive and extremely clever. They would love the opportunity to take me down a peg or two (as would most people, probably).

The competition was this: I will play against one person at a time. We will start from zero, and we will take it inturns to add either 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10. The winner is the person who reaches 100. It's very similar to 21 dares, or those games where you have to avoid being the one who takes the last matchstick.

Now obviously, there is a trick that means you always win. Work this out for yourself, I don't want to spoil your fun! (Hint: whoever gets up to 89 has won, because whatever the other person says, you will be able to reach 100 on your next go. By extension, whoever gets to 78 has won, as they can get to 89, and so on). I took on about 7 students in total and beat all of them. As I did it, pupils started to notice things. This is what the pupils discovered, in order:

1) If Miss says 89, then she's won
2) Whoever goes first always wins (false!)
3) You need to stop her getting to 89
4) Get to 78, because then she can't go to 89!

I then extended them to realise that there were certain numbers that you should always try to aim for to make sure you win, and they spotted the pattern of these numbers. On the next go, a student beat me. And as much as it pains me to admit it, he beat me fair and square (I got my numbers mixed up). You can imagine how happy that made the class: "We beat Miss, and she got bare A*s!"

The class was then desperate to show off this newfound skill by challenging the head of maths to a competition. This hasn't been arranged yet but I think it's a really nice idea. I hope they beat him!

You can obviously extend the activity by considering a different target instead of 100, and different numbers that you're allowed to add.

I'm going to do the same activity with my other classes to see how it turns out. If you try out this activity, please let me know how it goes!

Emma x x x

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Practise, Practise, Practise!

You have no idea how long I just spent deciding whether to spell practise the verb way (with an s) or the noun way (with a c) in the title. I think the expression is giving a command, so I decided to go for verb. And that's your literacy lesson for today.

Back to maths...

Imagine this situation: you're teaching, say, pie charts to, say, year 7s. You take them through an example and leave them to finish the question off individually. You then go through the answer. Then you get the pupils to hold up their traffic light cards to show whether they understand and got the right answer. Almost the whole class hold up their green card. You then say, "Good, in that case, do this one", indicating an identical question which has different numbers.

What is wrong with this scene?

In my opinion, nothing. However, some people, not mentioning any organisations (*cough* OfSTED *cough*) would say (did say, in fact) that there is a fatal flaw in the above.

All of the pupils hold up green, indicating they can do it. So why give them another question to do? Surely that's just a waste of time?

This might just sound like I'm being bitter about getting a worse observation grade than I would have liked (and let's face it, I am), but I just can't seem to come around to this way of thinking. In maths, you can't do something correctly once and assume you have secured that skill enough to remember it for the rest of the year, or even the rest of the day. My year 7s told me they could do that question. But transferring that to answering another question with different numbers, even if the method is exactly the same, is not trivial for most children. By rehearsing the skill again and again, it embeds it in their memories.

In addition, we all know what year 7s are like: they're either super-confident and claim that everything is easy and they can do it all, or they're the opposite and declare everything impossibly difficult. My class seems to be entirely made up of the former, perhaps because that's usually my own attitude towards learning anything new (which is why I injure myself so often in Pilates). I knew that my class holding up green traffic lights had to be taken with a pinch of salt. Green doesn't really indicate that they get something, it more indicates that they are willing to have a go and are in a positive learning mood. I knew this, I guess my "theoretical" observer didn't.

So I made my year 7s practise the skill for the rest of the lesson, apparently redundantly. I then set them the same type of question as homework. Do you want to guess how that piece of homework went? That's right, half of the class couldn't remember how to do it.

Now I can already sense a lot of you out there wanting to play devil's avocado on this one: repetition isn't necessarily the best way to embed something in memory. Doing just one question, but focusing heavily on developing understanding and making the experience memorable by including exaggeration, rhythm and movement, colour, order and patterns, laughter etc is more effective. Well yeah, you're right. I have absolutely no comeback for that one. Except: IF YOU'RE SO ****ING GOOD YOU COME AND TEACH THEM.

This week I've been thinking about pointless versus appropriate repetition. It's quite difficult to identify which it is. I'm going to make a special effort to avoid repetition and focus on deriving maximum understanding and memorability from one question.

What do you think? Should kids be going through a page of 10Ticks every lesson or is once enough for understanding to embed?

I'll leave you with the words of one of my professors from uni: "Practise, practise, practise: maths is not a spectator sport!"

Emma x x x

Thursday 8 March 2012

Ofsted: a Survival Guide for NQTs

Recently my Principal received "The Phonecall". We were told OFSTED would arrive in 48 hours. This is a scary thing for any teacher to hear, let alone an NQT.

I was anxious but also quite excited. It might not surprise some of you to know that I always enjoyed exams at school. I like getting the opportunity to prove how amazing I am. Of course, in school I was amazing at pretty much everything (except not being hated for being so arrogant), whereas now the only things I'm amazing at are accessorising to match my lesson plan, cube-rooting numbers in my head, and memorising my students' birthdays to freak them out*.

My academy was aiming for "Outstanding" so I felt like I was under a lot of pressure. I am *not* an Oustanding teacher. It pains me to admit that I'm not the best at something. I don't like it. But I have to accept that being a good teacher comes with experience, and very few teachers are Outstanding in their NQT. I don't like accepting this.

I am a very calm and laid back person , so I didn't worry about the inspection until the day before. Then I realised just how much preparation is needed for OFSTED. I had to produce:
-A lesson plan for all of my lessons that day.
-A compilation of data on each class.
-A seating plan for each class.
-A set of expertly marked exercise books for each class.
 I also had to tidy up my classroom and add to my displays.

This took bare a long time (do you find that students' language starts to invade your own?). I left school at 6:30pm and I can say with some certainty I was the earliest non-parent to leave. Some of my colleagues were there until 10pm. I got home and had dinner and then started working again. I worked until 9pm and then, being the procrastinator that I am, I thought, I'll do the rest tomorrow. I rarely stay awake past 9pm (even on weekends) so my eyes were starting to droop. I set my alarm for 3am and went to sleep. In the morning I worked for 3 hours, ran in and out of the shower like an instant carwash, and left for school at 6:30am. I was at school by 7am, and did another 1.5hours' work. It was then, 15 minutes before the first bell, that I was told I would be observed during period 1. Instatly relief washed over me: it felt so good to know. At that point, by the way, I still hadn't written my lesson plans for period 3 and 4 (I was free period 2). I didn't bother writing them in the end, because lightning doesn't strike twice, right?

So yeah, the observation. Well it was fine. My students behaved impeccably, even before the inspector arrived (they observed the second half). They were desperate to impress, more so than me I think!

I went and got feedback at the end of the day. The inspector told me lots of positive things:
-My strength is that I never tell kids how to do something or what the answer is, I question them until they can tell me.
-I have good relationships with students: they like me and there is an upbeat atmosphere in my classroom.
-I assessed regularly.

They also told me some things that could have been better, which were quite specific to the lesson but I'll try and tell you them without being too specific:
-After getting my pupils to traffic light and seeing lots of greens, I still got them to do another question similar to the one they'd just done. This was pointless because they already said they could do it. (I privately disagree with this to be honest. In maths you can't do something once and expect to be able to remember it forever. Plus my pupils are always over-confident in their self-assessments).
-When one student still didn't get it near the end, I should have gone back to the original long explanation from the start with the whole class, rather than explaining the method quickly again for him.

So there you go. The negatives weren't anything like, "there's no evidence of differentiation in your lesson plan" or "your learning objective should have included PLTS", it was very focused on moments in the lesson where I made a decision that was possibly not the right one. I think this is an extremely fair way of observing. It was very focused on the progress of the students, not on stupid gimmicks. I didn't do any group work, but who cares? There wasn't a moment in the lesson that would have benefitted from it. I think they focused on "hinge points" in the lesson, the bit where the lesson changes direction based on assessment. It's how you handle these hinges that's important.

Here are my top tips for surviving OFSTED:
- Make a seating plan (annotated with SEN, G&T, EAL, etc) and print off your class data now so that if OFSTED call you have a few less things to worry about.
-Plan normal lessons that you will feel comfortable delivering. Don't be flashy, that's not what they're looking for.
-Think about the hinge points in your lesson and how you're going to handle them. Think: what if they all get it/none of them gets it/half get it etc.
-Put a set of well-marked books near the place they're going to sit. I had some (about 5) full-up books from a good class that I deliberately put near an empty desk. I removed the books that were messy or marked badly. I noticed afterwards that the pile was in a different order so they must have been looked at. If your class is using their books the inspector can't really examine them much.
-I don't know if this is a good tip but when I got my class to traffic light I told them to turn around and show "our visitor" their colour too. I thought this would be helpful for their observation and I think they appreciated it but who knows.
-Brief your class beforehand. Mine were amazing, they really tried to look engaged and clever. One pupil called me over and whispered "Miss, he's standing behind me, ask me a really good question". Isn't that great?

Obviously the main thing is not to panic, but I think that's a useless bit of advice because you're either born a panicker or a non-panicker (like me). Remember there is no failure, only feedback. Even if you get rated "inadequate" (hate that word), you will get lots of useful feedback from it.

By the way, I was rated Satisfactory with Good features. That's an improvement on my last observation, so I'm happy. Also, it looks good because the inspectors will see that the school has rated me Satisfactory, so by beating that score, I validate the school's observation records. It's like moderating coursework: if the examiner thinks you've marked a piece of coursework too low, they raise all of your class's marks. So don't worry about getting Outstanding, just try to beat the score you have on record.

Good luck to anyone facing OFSTED this term. I found it a very positive experience overall, and I'm not just saying that.

Emma x x x

*I used to do this when I was at school. I still remember most of my form group's birthdays, or at least their star signs.