Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Coursework - it's over at last

The final OMR sheet is with the exams officer. It's really over.

It's been a completely awful year for coursework. The combined effect of The Visitors (like The Kindly Ones, best not name them) the date of Easter this year and a new specification meant that this year's coursework ordeal was extra, extra special. I know I should blog - either something witty, or something insightful about the inherent weaknesses of coursework, but actually I am too tired and angry with the students.

I was reading Blog Standard, and a comment posted which said 'A bitter teacher leads to bitter students' and I was really pulled up short. So much stress, anger, bitterness - it's not good. How can we keep our compassion intact when we are being used? How can we remember how hard it is for some of our students to even make it to college at all... when so many well-looked after and well-resourced students seem determined to abuse us as if we were resources to be spent not people with whom they have a relationship?

Answers on a postcard please.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A new blog of note!

I've found a new blog via the TES. Mr Ken's Blog Standard is absolutely brilliant. As a sample, see his Manifesto #1.

I warmly commend him to my 5 readers.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Welcome, Alan Johnson!

Such was the reshuffle kerfuffle over Charles Clarke and John Prescott, I only realised this morning that we have yet another Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Welcome. Did you know, Alan, that a young person in the current Year 13 (or upper sixth) has had no less than eight Secretary of States looking after his or her education since they started school?

Anyway, according to your website, Alan, you went to Sloane Grammar School in Chelsea, and according to the New Statesman you left school with no O-levels. According to the amazing TheyWorkForYou.com website, you are 'very strongly for' top-up fees, the Iraq war and 'quite strongly for' equal gay rights.

Also, interestingly, you have used a three-word alliterative phrase (e.g. "she sells seashells") 356 times in debates — 31st out of 645 MPs.

From my perspective right now, these are the issues that I think you need to be thinking about as you arrange your mascots on your desk and work out where the coffee machine is:

1) The future of league tables.
League tables are the most corrosive force in UK education today, and they effectively corrupt all attempts at positive change in the curriculum by making any institution's top priority the manipulation and maintenance of one or two, highly deceptive, statistics.

2) The future of assessment.
SATs reducing little children's lives to misery. GCSE and A-level coursework producing a generation of young people who don't believe in deadlines. Endless resits. All driven by the aforementioned league tables so that any poor result is perceived as a problem for the teacher to solve, rather than a reflection back to the student of their efforts and abilities.

3) Bringing back bog standard comprehensive education.
Trust Schools and Academies; Specialist Schools; Technology, Language and Sports Colleges; Arts Marks. Do families really want all this 'choice' and specialism? Or do they want good local schools offering an all-round education so that their children can find out in good time what they are best at and what they enjoy, whilst also experiencing a balanced exposure to the skills and knowledge they need to live in the world today?

4) Sharing the blame around a bit.
When a child fails to flourish, it's not all down to his or her teachers. Parents, the media, local government, and tellingly the child him or herself are all partly responsible. How do we get everyone to step up to the mark and accept their share of the responsibility for the successes and failures of young people today?

5) Wake up and smell the plumbing.
We got rid of metalwork, woodwork and domestic science. We introduced vocational education which revolved around acres of coursework which was mostly copied and pasted off the Internet. We got rid of all our polytechnics and turned them into universities with long names. And now we have a chronic shortage of plumbers, electricians, builders, silversmiths and other craftspeople. Not to mention no new industry. Can someone please do some joined up thinking here?

Finally, Alan, please don't do what David Blunkett did. I can actually remember the joy I felt in 1997 when your party won the election. And I read with delight the letter that David Blunkett sent to every school to say how keen he was to work with us and to thank us for our hard work as teachers. But he never said that to the press. All we ever heard from him in public was criticism and the perpetuation of the idea that bad teachers are responsible for all that is wrong with the world. If you are our friend, please make sure you don't turn your back on us in the playground.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

How to teach a perfect sample lesson

As interview season comes round again, I was thinking about how many 'sample lessons' I have seen over the last few years in my capacity as a middle-manager. And how many perfectly decent applicants have shipwrecked themselves in 20 short minutes by completely missing the mark in this brutal but necessary ordeal.

These sample lessons are a relatively recent phenomenom in teaching recruitment (I went looking for my first job in the early 90's and was never once asked to do one.) However, I can't believe how ill-equipped most newly qualified teachers are to deliver them. True, I have seen some very good examples and am in fact working with brilliant colleagues who taught those very lessons. But surely a half-decent teacher training institution should cover this?

As I have now been blogging for over four months, I have delusions of significance... so here is my handy guide to preparing a sample lesson, especially for all you newbies out there going through the interview mill for the first time.

As recruiting teachers, we sometimes feel a wave of whinging and wimpering coming off a candidate at the whole prospect of the lesson... 'But I don't know the students... [yes, we know that] and I don't know their prior learning [yep, we know that too]... and I only have 20 minutes' [uh, we know that too, we made this up after all] We know that what you are doing is highly unrealistic. We are not looking for a text-book OFTSED lesson plan with all the boxes ticked. Don't treat it as such. Want to know how to ace a sample lesson? Think about what we are looking for.

Broadly speaking, when I watch a sample lesson I am looking for the following things, in this order of priority:

1) Presence, charisma and empathy with the students. OK, you've never taught these kids in this room before, but you should look comfortable standing up and taking centre stage with a group of young people. You should be able to capture attention and keep it, and you should show warmth towards, and interest in the kids you're faced with.
(I don't actually need twenty minutes to see this - it's almost immediately recognisable.)

2) Planning. I expect you to have worked up a pretty impressive 20 minutes worth of stuff. I expect you to have good enough Internet skills to have tracked down the specification, past papers and so on. I expect you to have swotted up on what you're teaching. Come on, most interview panels will let you pick a topic or subject from a wide range of choices; if they haven't told you up front what exam board they use, get on the phone and ask. And then produce, at the very least, a good Powerpoint presention, handout/worksheet or activity. Ideally, all three. Make absolutely sure you have a good extension activity even if you are pretty sure you won't have time to use it.

Come on. It's not rocket science. This is a twenty minute, pull out all the stops, show-'em-what- you've-got opportunity. If you can't be bothered to make an effort for this, what does it say about your contribution to the life of the school/college?

3) Teaching craftsmanship. This is the tricky bit. You have a short amount of time to showcase your skills and also to model your priorities. For goodness sake, don't do the first 20 minutes of a 2 hour lesson. Or the first 20 minutes you would routinely do with any new class. Don't throw away time on your classroom 'rules' or an ice-breaker. [Ask for and use their names as you go along, or get them to write their names on pieces of card.] I would say, as a general rule, we are looking for some up-front teaching to prove you can be interesting, hold a class's attention and explain your subject. But also we need to see one or two good student activities to prove there's more to you than just chalk and talk. Activities also show us the quality of your interactions with students. (For goodness sakes go and talk to the students while they do the task you have set. Don't wander around tossing your chalk in the air and definitely don't go and chat with the observers!)
- state a clear aim at the beginning and recap/test understanding at the end
- make sure you interact with as many students as you can [if it's a small group, every single student]
- make sure you flag up at some point how the topic fits in with the specification or with other topics they might have studied or go on to study
- if it's a lesson for year 10 or above, a quick reference to an exam question or typical vocational assignment question never does any harm.

If that sounds like way too much to cope with in the time you have, you are probably being much too ambitious in the material you hope to cover. Do less better.

Finally 4) Content
We do notice if you don't know what your talking about - if you are unlucky enough to get given a lesson topic with no choice, for goodness sake mug up on it. And we do notice if you are pitching the lesson at the wrong age group. If you are a secondary trained teacher applying for an advanced level job, you are in a difficult position but it's not impossible to get it right. If you have time, grab an A-level text book or just spend an hour or so on some A-level revision sites.

One issue that can floor candidates - and it really shouldn't - is finding out that the group have already studied the topic, or (even worse) just taken part in another sample lesson on the same subject! Prepare a lesson which will serve either as a revision of a familiar topic or as an introduction for the first time. It's not hard. Make sure that any questions you are planning to ask have follow on questions that probe more deeply if the students can glibly rattle off the answers. Make sure all your activities are that little bit special, so that even if they have bashed through the subject before, you are giving them an interesting new take on the topic. A case study instead of a simple discussion. A matching exercise with challenging distractors instead of a simple fill-in-the-blanks.

Five worst sins I've seen in sample lessons:

Me 'Can you talk me through this handout, because I don't see how it fits in with what you taught?'
Applicant 'Oh, that's just something I found in the Internet last night.'

Applicant 'Please write your names on the cards and put them in front of you.'
After spending 3 minutes doing this, he taught for 20 minutes and never once referred to any of the students by name.

One applicant took up half her allotted time going through her 'classroom rules.' These included 'don't surf the Internet when you should be working'. The lesson was in a classroom without computers.

Another applicant had an error in the maths on her handout which had to be pointed out to her by one of the students.

And finally, the most astounding sample lesson I have ever seen went like this.

'My lesson today is on alpha testing and beta testing.'
'Does anyone know what alpha testing is?'
They did; they told him.
He wrote it on the board
'Does anyone know what beta testing is?'
They did; they told him
He wrote it on the board

That was the end of the lesson.
He did not get the job.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Sweet sanity from the midst of the coursework mosh pit

I haven't posted much lately - though I have a few drafts lurking. It's coursework hand-in time, that terrible season of teacher exhaustion and prostitution as we chase them round and ring them at home at the weekend in a desperate attempt to drag the work out of them. If you want to see the corrosive effect of league tables on modern education, just visit a teacher over the May Day weekend.

I will post more on this topic. But for now...

...last night I saw the last ten minutes of 'That'll teach 'em' - a series I avoided like the plague. (Obviously I am completely qualified to judge the entire series on this basis.) But the last ten minutes seemed to be all you needed to see: a bunch of 16-year old kids who had, apparantly, failed O-levels after 30 days of 'old-fashioned' teaching. Then they received their genuine GCSE results and - all had A's, B's and C's.!

I am too tired to rant about this so fill in the rest around these key words and phrases (A cloze blog, if you will...)

-------------------- different syllabus------------different subjects----------content------------one month-----------------editors-------------manipulation---------naturally --------------proves bugger all-------------re-inforce prejudice

Anyway, I went to the web site and found a rather nice piece in defence of modern schools by Joan Clancy. It raises some excellent and refreshingly different points and at no time whinges. She's my new mate.

Back to coursework.

PS The teacher wot I live with has made me a poster for my office which says this:

"You come to me all teary eyed and say 'why, oh why miss did I only get a grade E for this work' and I say 'You should have

Apparantly I was talking in my feverish sleep...