Friday, 17 January 2014

'Take-a-risk Thursday'.

Yesterday at school was ‘Take A Risk Thursday’ – a day chosen as one in which in every lesson we, as teachers, would try something we wouldn’t ordinarily do. I like to think that in my own lesson, and certainly in my department, this is something we do try and do with each ‘re-working’ of a scheme of work. Certainly some of my colleagues’ ideas have revolutionised my teaching, and we make a point of peer-observing for ideas every half term. We’re lucky, I think, in that we are actively given time to be covered, and in department meetings, to do this.

Whilst there was endless fun in the staffroom on what constituted a ‘risk’  - lessons from home over Skype, food tech practicals with no oven gloves and re-enacting the charge of the Light Brigade were all mooted – it did get me thinking about what I actually do in planning day-to-day lessons. As an individual, as part of a department, and as a school our results are more than good. But I am also increasingly aware that with 4 GCSE groups and a full-to-capacity timetable, my lessons are tending to follow a similar route; a ‘think-start’ task, success criteria, modelling and then self or peer-assessment. Without a doubt, I am making use of recently-discovered ideas like silent debates and ‘Investigate’ lessons. But I know what my go-to lesson plan is. Loath though I am to mention the ‘O’ word, the recent announcement that inspectors won’t be looking for a certain ‘type’ of lesson has inspired thought that we should be mixing things up and ought to be taking risks.

I want to make it clear that for me, this isn’t about what OFSTED want, or what is going to work best in forcing kids to regurgitate chunks of learning in an exam format (indeed, that’s a whole different post itching to be written!). In fact, the purpose of this post is to consider what might ‘spark’ kids’ learning. The question in my mind was ‘Why not?’ If it doesn’t work, I’ve tried something different. If it does, then that’s a seam to be mined which can only benefit the kids – because whilst school is ostensibly about exams and qualifications, in reality it’s so much more than that. It’s about developing skills as people: working collaboratively; problem solving; I could even go so far as to quote Gove (!) and say that it’s about developing the ‘thirst for knowledge’ (though I’d substitute ‘knowledge’ for ‘learning’).

Here is my outline for 'Take a risk Thursday':

P1&2 - Year 10= Controlled Assessment. Short of mixing up the papers and getting them to complete each others’ (JOKE!) there’s not much I can do about taking a risk in these kinds of lessons.
On Friday we'll be starting Speaking and Listening. I will be asking students to choose their favourite songs on YouTube. We will play the songs and then students will use 'talk phrases' to explain to each other why they are their favourite songs. This is something I would probably not do for a whole lesson ordinarily but I am providing 'question cards' to maintain focus for those who are 'listeners' at different stages of the lesson. Planning to make a fool of myself by rhapsodising about something by the Spice Girls as my favourite song.... Don’t worry though, I’ll pass it off as ‘retro’. Maybe.
Talk phrases
P3: Year 8 – *NB This lesson will now take place next Thursday as students were in a Learning Assembly – I’ll keep you posted.*
This was intended to be the first time I will meet this class. I will be teaching them once a week so I will be starting a novel with them (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), and spending time each week reading or using extracts as a starting point for creative writing.
 I will introduce a version of the Cornell note-taking method for them to record the events/unusual vocabulary/their thoughts about the chapter that we read. I have not used this method before and am sure that students haven't either. The idea is that they will be ‘active listeners’ and it will serve better than simply ‘make notes’. Because, thinking about it, what is that? How will they know what’s effective if I don’t actually show them what good notes are? I found this idea on @HuntingEnglish’s blog.

P4: Year 11 - My lovely set 4s (who I worked with last year on their Language GCSE) have found the demands of Literature a bit of a step up. The wonderful @EnglishLulu sent me some work on getting them to move away from the ‘clunkiness’ of their Point, Evidence, Explanation approach to questions and more towards embedding their quotes within a ‘thesis statement’. This has worked really well and so I was ambitious with my subject, posing the question ‘How far is An Inspector Calls a didactic play?’ The ‘risk’ here was pushing my students beyond what I would ordinarily prepare for aspiring C/B grades. I was hoping that this would translate to an exam-style answer, using their newly-gained skills in structuring their writing.
Having established understanding of the word ‘didactic’, I then provided A B C cards (add/build/challenge) to structure a debate – hoping to foster some ‘talk into writing’ - and was over the moon when one student actually broke off her argument to look something up in the text! (Bit of a  breakthough moment, that..!). To some extent, this was a hugely successful lesson – the kids were engaged in arguing how far they agreed with the question.  So, was their quantifiable progress in the form of an exam-style answer, with embedded phrasing, in their exercise books? NO! But to hear kids stumbling over the word ‘omniscience’ (we’re working on using sophisticated vocabulary) and how it helped them to prove their point was a step forward to me. I could have cut the debate off, and told them to channel their ideas into writing. Nevertheless, with twenty students who have been gradually coming down off of their ‘high’ (passing their GCSE Language) and finding Literature increasingly tough, this lesson was an important breakthrough. I’m more than happy to ‘revisit’ this lesson on Monday to consolidate and build on these gains.

P5: Accelerated Reader – silent reading in the library with Year 7

P6: Year 8P4 = Again, this idea was magpie’d from @HuntingEnglish. (I really can't recommend this blog highly enough - always worth a read.)
Students will be starting a new scheme based around the film 'Despicable Me'. They need to know the events of the film so we will be watching the first section of it, and I will be introducing students to the idea of 'triplicate note-taking'; rather than making a timeline of events students will split their page into 3 columns -
Column 1: Core information. The events, characters and  any quotes that jumped out at them. 
Column 2: Key questions sparked by the information in Column 1. It's unlikely that there will be any vocabulary they don't know but at a later date we will be looking at how a name can create an impression of a character, so I will ask them to note down any connotations they might have with names like 'Doctor Nefario' and 'Gru'.
Column 3: Memorable images and mnemonics to help students consciously embed the events/imagery of the film in their memory.

I am really pleased with the amount of information each student garnered, and this will help them at a later date when we discuss character, pathetic fallacy, camera angles and mise-en-scene.

So, what did I learn? Have I ‘taken risks’? For me, yes. I am sure that there are many teachers who will scoff at the feebleness of my risks. Indeed, as I was teaching my final lesson one of my colleagues was conducting some kind of amazing ‘Imagery Quest’ with capes, and an invisible dragon. But I know that in terms of pushing my own boundaries as a teacher, and having a positive impact on my classes, there were gains. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
What constitutes a ‘risk’ for you? How willing are you to take them?

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