Assessment, CPD

The Power of Twitter #2

This evening, I read a tweet from Louise Dance exclaiming the power of Twitter. I have to wholeheartedly agree with her. Several months ago, after sharing a previous blog asking for support with developing a new assessment system, Michael Tidd put me in touch with the White Horse Federation. That simple tweet started a conversation between myself and Simon Cowley, and led to a meeting where he, Louise and Alison Capstick shared their newly developed (and particularly simple but brilliant) Band Progression Sheets. Here began a relationship between their schools and ours which I hope will be further developed in the future.

Simon talked us through how they had sat down as a Federation and developed the Band Progressions Sheets and how they are being used. We talked about how they could be used in our school, as a stand-alone assessment system but also alongside Target Tracker to monitor the progress of our children. Even though the Band Progression Sheets were still being developed and tweaked, I took some of them back to school to trial with my children. After having gone through one assessment point and approaching our second, it is very clear that these sheets work. We have come across a few problems along the way, as we have had to completely change the way that we assess our children, and we are still perfecting our approach, but the sheets work. Two weeks ago, I introduced them to the staff. I was expecting some opposition from them, but there was none. They can see that the system clearly works and will benefit our children greatly, as we will be so much more confident in recognising the strengths and weaknesses. They can see that these detailed assessments will inform our planning, especially as we are intending to tailor these plans far more to the needs of groups and individuals.  There is so much uncertainty around assessments in schools at the moment, that I think the staff appreciate the fact that we have a definite system in place for my year group, and that we have ironed out teething problems ready for the rest of the school to join us in September.

I am incredibly excited to now be able to share the Band Progression Sheets with the rest of the school: already, several members of staff have asked for copies of theirs so they can get to grips with them. I never thought I would see it, but there does seem to be a bit of a buzz around assessments at school! Today, I went to visit Mountford Manor to see how Louise and her team use the Band Progression Sheets in the classroom. I came away further enthused about assessment and with more ideas to take back to the staff at my school. On top of that, I have come home with lots of other ideas that I’m going to poach: activities for the classroom, display ideas, challenges for the children, and a serious case of classroom envy! The school was an amazing place. Bright, vibrant, and full of incredibly motivated and focussed children. And of course, I met some fantastic teachers. Louise and her team were some of the most enthusiastic people I have come across for a long time. They are an absolute credit to the school, to the White Horse Federation and to our profession.

None of this, the ideas, the assessments, the visits, the new friendships, would have been possible without Twitter. The power it has and the opportunities it can lead to are amazing. If you aren’t a Tweacher yet, here’s my advice. Do it! Find some teachers you know, go through their follower/following lists and get stuck in! Who knows where it will lead.

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Curriculum

Writing support needed

This past week has been number crunching time again: looking at the progress of the children across the school. All in all, our children are doing well, but we still need to work on closing the gap for our “disadvantaged” children.  Over a period of a couple of years, the progress of these children can best be described as, well, unpredictable.  There are definite peaks and troughs in their performance which don’t seem to follow any trends.  I suppose this can, in part, be attributed to the ever changing cohort: the list of children receiving Free School Meals does seem to change incredibly regularly, which of course means that the list of Ever 6 children is rapidly increasing.  But we can’t attribute everything to this, and regardless of the reasons for the non-gap-closure, we need to do something about it.

I do find it difficult that we have to focus our attention specifically on a cohort of children: I believe that we need to have a much broader focus and ensure that every child is performing to the best of their capabilities.  However, we have to ensure that our Pupil Premium money is being spent wisely, and that, sadly, comes down to the numbers on a page.

As part of my analysis this week, I had to look at progress measures for these children in reading, writing and maths.  As far as reading and maths go, the story is quite favourable.  But writing, which we consider to be our greatest strength as a school, is less positive.

So why could this be?

Historically, in the days of good old-fashioned levels, we invested a lot of time in moderating writing across the whole school, and became very au fait with what levels looked like.  We never became quite as familiar with reading and maths, relying far more heavily on tests to inform judgements.  Could this be the reason? Have the results of reading and maths been inflated somewhat by tests? Or have the children all been assessed less favourably as they had underperformed in their test? I’m not sure this is the reason: while we did often use tests to give us an idea of a level, there was still an element of teacher assessment involved.  Not as much as perhaps there should have been, but that will all be changing in September…

I think the reason we aren’t closing the gap in writing is because we are lacking a good, structured intervention programme to help our struggling writers (whether they receive the Pupil Premium or not).  We have invested a lot of time and money to provide quality interventions for maths and reading, through the IGCC programme (In Gloucestershire Children Count) for maths and Better Reading Partners.  Both of these have proven to be very successful.  We also run Dancing Bears sessions to help children and phonics support for those who need it. But we are still lacking something to help with writing: using punctuation correctly, grammatical structures and sentence types.  The quality of our teaching in literacy is very good: we use Alan Peat’s exciting sentences to make our work interesting and the introduction of short, snappy SPaG lessons is developing the children’s grammatical awareness.  As a school, the quality of our writing has improved dramatically, but just not enough for a few children.

I read on Twitter a few months back about Slow Writing, and have tried this in class myself.  We produced some amazing results and the children loved it.  I have since introduced a few colleagues to the idea, and they too have found it to be really successful. This week, it occurred to me that Slow Writing could provide exactly what we need in an intervention: it can be tailored exactly to the needs of an individual or small group, it practises perfect punctuation and uses the sentence types or grammatical structures that the children need to develop.  The length of the session could depend entirely on the size of the text the children are writing.  It doesn’t take long to explain the concept behind a Slow Write to anyone who isn’t familiar, so staff could be trained to deliver it relatively easily.  I have identified three very small groups to work with a TA: it will take me a few minutes at the weekend to prepare the activity, but hopefully the results will be long lasting.  I have spend many a long hour looking for other interventions, but it seems that this could possible be the answer.

If anyone else has trialled Slow Writing as a small group intervention, or has any other recommendations for writing support, I would really love to hear from you.

Assessment

Talk to me??

I have written several times in my blog about the assessment system that I have been working to introduce at school. If I’m honest, I realised this week that I have become a little obsessive about it! At the staff meeting on Wednesday, I was to introduce it to the rest of the school. Just before I opened my mouth to speak, I realised that I was unexpectedly nervous: I felt really protective over our work and the fact that I might have to defend it to others unsettled me. I’m really not sure why this should have bothered me, because when we introduced it to the parents, I was hoping the opportunity for defence would arise.

We have been using this system since Christmas, but we informed the parents of how the Termly Reports would change at the end of term 4. We had considered holding a meeting for parents, but instead opted to enclose a detailed letter of explanation with the reports. This letter invited the parents to come and discuss any concerns that they had with us. We sent the reports out a day early to allow the parents to come in to discuss them with us before the Easter holidays. So, the morning after the reports came, which was fortunately when we are on PPA: we were ready and waiting for the onslaught of concerned parents. They didn’t come. The end of the day came, the parents came, but still the visits didn’t come. The Easter holidays came and went, and still no parents. To date, I have spoken to 4 parents to offer explanations about how the reports work, what they mean and why, with the introduction of the new curriculum, there is some perceived drop in attainment for their child. I spent a few minutes with each of them, listening to their questions and reassuring them, hopefully alleviating their concerns. I think they all left happy, at least, happier than when they came. But all four of them have said that they know lots of other parents are concerned. I like to think that I am approachable and easy to talk to, I hope I’m not so scary that they would rather sit and stew at home than come and talk to me, so I wonder why many of them are sharing their concerns with other parents rather than talking to someone who can make them feel happier.  One of the concerns raised about the report was a valid one, and so we are going to have a consultation with the parents to gain their opinions over possible changes. But I wonder how much of a response we will get.

It clearly takes time to build trusting relationships with parents. We are trying hard to provide positive opportunities for them to come in to the classrooms and see what we do. It’s having an impact: today, we invited the parents to come in a few minutes before the end of the day to share the children’s recent work and the classroom was buzzing. The children were clearly loving showing off what they have done and the parents seemed to be enjoying it. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, and we had a very good turnout. We are building relationships, but it seems we still have a way to go before the parents really do feel comfortable to come to us with some of their concerns. We want to be transparent: we really aren’t hiding anything from the parents with the assessments we are doing, but it isn’t possible to address everyone’s concerns without them sharing them with us. I know we are all busy people, and I know there are never enough hours in the day, but if a few minutes spent talking to a parent can help them to understand and prevent them from worrying, then surely it is time well spent.

Curriculum, Learnpad, Technology

Hunting for QR treasure

Today, I tried something new in my maths lesson. I’ve read lots online about QR code treasure hunts, but hadn’t quite got my head around how I could use them in class. Today, we were ordering and comparing numbers greater than 1000: potentially a dry objective! So, rather than getting the children to generate their own numbers and compare them, I set up a series of questions around the classroom on QR codes, set on qr-code-generator.com to display text when they were scanned. Each of these gave the children 4 digits and then a statement about them, for example “4562 – a number > 6524” The children would then use their whiteboards to look at the possible combinations of numbers and then find the correct answer. Rather than just writing the answer in their books, the children then had to insert their answers into a spreadsheet on the Learnpad lesson, which then gave a right/wrong statement depending on the answer they had inputted. Some of the questions were more challenging, such as “4632. Smallest to biggest, the 3rd number”. This then required the children to think more logically about the numbers they were creating, ensuring they were listing them in a sensible order to make sure they found the correct answer.

For the more able children, they had to find a pin number to unlock a phone. They had a series of clues as to what their 4-digit number was: as well as there being some like I have already mentioned, some indicated which digits were bigger or smaller than others, odd or even etc. This required a lot of logical thought, although there were a couple of clues to help them out if needed. These children then went on to create their own (paper-based) clues for friends to solve.

Of course, all of this could have been done as a paper based activity, and the learning would have been the same. I’m very fortunate to have a class who (mostly!) remain engaged and focussed on a task: they are keen to learn and challenge themselves. However, this was a really fun way for them to take part in the lesson, and I’m sure lots of them would have gone home and talked about their treasure hunt. Other children coming into the classroom were intrigued by the QR codes posted around the room, and were also keen to have a go.

There were, of course, teething problems: I had to explain the format of the clues and how to use the spreadsheet. Two children discovered that if they clicked on the RIGHT/WRONG cells, the formula was revealed which gave the correct answer (fortunately, they discovered this with only a couple of minutes to go – my next challenge is to work out how to hide this!). I’ve also learned that ten times is clearly not enough times to check that the questions and answers tally – the same child also found a mistake in my spreadsheet which I had to amend and quickly send out to the Learnpads. Despite this, the children are desperate for more, and I shall certainly be obliging. I had worried that one or two of the children in my teaching group would find the task too easy – the same child again had expressed concern that he would not be challenged. This was easily resolved, as I just printed the codes for my harder task out and scattered them around the room (obviously on a different colour paper!). I invited him to switch tasks whenever he felt he was ready to move on. Needless to say, he didn’t. The list questions kept him – and the rest of the class- busy as they decided which digits they needed to swap each time.

The first activity I created did admittedly take a while to make, mainly while I worked out a question format which would fit the small text bar that the Learnpad allowed, but the second was certainly far quicker. If the lesson lends itself to it, I have no doubt that we will be doing much more treasure hunting from now on!

Family

I’m a teacher and I LOVE the holidays

There is much to be read at the moment about teacher workloads. I too added to the debate, writing about how it is possible to manage workload and raise a family. As expected, many of the comments on the article were negative, either saying that I was being idealistic and unrealistic, that my situation wasn’t typical, or what did I know about workload? To be honest, I stopped reading the comments fairly early on when it became apparent that the vast majority of commenters had nothing positive to say, either criticising me, their own schools, the profession, teachers in general or other people who had expressed their opinions. The biggest criticism of my situation was that I give up my evenings to work. My choice, and I don’t moan about it. I don’t spend ages marking and planning at school at the end of the day, because I want to go home and see my children. I’d rather lose a couple of hours of my time after they have gone to bed and get to hear my son read, play in the garden, cook dinner for them and do their bath. I don’t want to rush home late every evening and just catch them in time for a bedtime story. I’m happy to sacrifice my evenings for them. And here’s another little controversy too… the biggest perk of my job is the school holidays. Yes, I love my job. Yes, it’s rewarding and every day brings a new challenge. Yes, I love spending 39 weeks of the year with 30 children who belong to other people. But I love the 13 weeks that I spend with my own children more. It’s the very best thing about my job. I’m not sure I could rush around all year and give up my evenings knowing that I only had the usual few weeks off that other professions get. Spending a quarter of the year with my family makes it all worthwhile. What’s even better is that, for the past few years, MVNTH has enjoyed 13 weeks off a year too. All of us having time off together is brilliant.

Any teacher will tell you that they work in the holidays. Absolutely true. I have spent years defending myself to anyone who argues that teachers are only in it for the holidays (although I’m past that now: I just smile and nod politely in agreement!). I’m not. No way. There’s no way I do this job just for the time off. As I’ve said already, I love teaching. Of course I work in the holidays, but on a few evenings once the children are in bed. But the days are for the family. Take the last two weeks. We haven’t had any extravagant days out: no holidays, no theme parks, nothing particularly exciting, but this has been one of the very best school holidays ever. We’ve visited great grandparents, had a family gathering, wandered down to Gloucester Quays twice to enjoy the Spring Fair and live music, had friends round, pottered in the garden, done numerous chores, had a picnic and just enjoyed being together. We have spent 4 days just being in the garden: G was too young last year to really appreciate it, so watching her playing on the slide, digging around in the stones, planting seeds and insisting on giving them all a drink and playing in the playhouse with her big brother has been an absolute joy. Nothing at school can even come close to competing with that. Of course, I’m looking forward to all the fun and excitement that the next 6 weeks at school will bring. But a big part of me will be counting down to the next holiday when we all get to have our own fun and excitement at home.

Observations

It’s not you, it’s me…

It was probably about 12 months ago that I first started my love affair with Twitter. I had set up an account some time ago, followed one or two celebs but didn’t really get it, if I’m honest. It wasn’t until I returned from maternity leave that I heard some colleagues talking about Twitter and its uses in school. So I had another go. Gradually, I’ve unfollowed the celebs and followed more and more like-minded professionals. To begin with, it was a bit like my first day of university: keep your options open and make lots of friends, then find out what you have in common over a time. At uni, I made friends with everyone one my floor on the first day, but very quickly discovered that, as I was a BEd and they were all aspiring artists, we didn’t have a great deal in common, so we had less and less to do with each other. The same with Twitter: I have learned to look at people’s profiles and read through their tweets before deciding whether to follow them or not. There are so many people out there with much to give; I don’t want to clutter my feed with tweets that aren’t really relevant or interesting to me.

It’s odd, but there are people who I follow who I have really come to respect and value their opinions. I have never met these people, and probably won’t ever meet the vast majority of them, and for many, I know nothing about them apart from a sentence or two on their profile. But I seek and listen to their advice, and I care about how they view me as a professional. They probably don’t have an opinion either way about a teacher from Gloucester who shares random musings, but I value their professional views, and that includes about me. That sounds incredibly vain, I know, but how often do we actually tell other teachers we know what a good job they are doing? Twitter is an amazing way to share and recognise good practice.

For a while, I got a little bit obsessed about followers. I don’t have that many, but I would check regularly to see how many I had. When I lost a follower or two, I would begin to wonder why: what had I written that would cause offense? Had I shared a blog once too often and annoyed them with my constant links? Had I said something contentious or stupid? What could I have done to make them stay? And then, I gave myself a metaphorical slap around the face. Get over it! So what if someone unfollowed me – I’ve done it to others, and do you know what? I’ll do it again! It’s not a personal reflection on anyone’s personality if I stop following them: it’s not them, it’s me. We’ve just drifted apart. We just don’t have anything in common any more. I’m sure Phillip Schofield and Jason Donovan didn’t lose any sleep when I stopped following them and their follower count went down by one. So nor shall I.

Twitter is an amazing resource. I don’t know that it can be beaten for finding other professionals to have constructive and informative discussions with, for sharing ideas and for keeping informed. It is without doubt the best source of CPD I have ever come across, and I would recommend it to anyone. But it comes with a health warning: it is extremely addictive. There’s no way I’m giving up Twitter, no way in the world. But I am going to take it for what it is, and not a popularity contest!

Curriculum

The role of the TA

For several years now, there has been much speculation about the role and value of teaching assistants. Before I write any more, let me make it clear from the outset that I think the TAs we have in our school are, without doubt, the most valuable resource we have to help ensure the progress we want and need for our children.

On my Twitter newsfeed this morning, I had, within the space of a few minutes, two very contrasting reports. The Guardian Teacher Network reported on ways in which TAs can be deployed effectively, whereas the Telegraph went with the more damning headline stating that TAs are “harming pupils’ education” by being asked to cover absent teachers. The role of the TA is something that we have recently been discussing at school, as we have some amazing staff who are not being used to their full potential. While the Telegraph’s headline was very dramatic, it is very easy to see how a child’s education can be damaged if staff members are not utilised in a way that suits the needs of everyone involved. Take, for example, a child who receives 1:1 support. In many cases in mainstream education, the role of the TA here is of course to help the child to access the curriculum, but also to provide them with strategies to help them to gain and then develop independence. This is never going to happen if the child is ensconced in a corridor somewhere, working on their own without access to group work or the ideas and influences of other children. It can be amazing to see how, in some children, those who have been permanently isolated with a TA can suddenly flourish when given the opportunity to work with others. I would argue that the education, and certainly the personal and social aspects of learning, are being seriously hindered for a child who is being asked to work in this way. Undoubtedly, TAs in this situation are removing the child in order to help them to focus so they can work with them, perhaps at the request of the teacher, but often it can take an outsider to see the negative impact of working in this way.

The Guardian report states that “students with TA support made less progress than children of similar ability, who received little or no help. More worryingly, this was most noticeable among special educational needs (SEN) students, who traditionally attract the most TA time.” This is in no way a derogatory remark aimed at TAs, but more a reflection of the pressure that they are being put under by being expected to support many of our most needy children. Ultimately, these are the children who can require the most skill and support to help them to progress, which should be provided by a qualified teacher. We have some incredibly skilled and talented TAs in our school who have been trained to undertake a variety of intervention programmes. For me, this is a separate issue to class teaching of maths and English. I am always happy for children who are not making progress to be withdrawn from a class for a short amount of time for targeted interventions (although when to do this is another contentious issue), but ultimately I am accountable for their progress, so I should be the one during lessons to help them to achieve and to monitor their progress. That is not to say that children with SEN or those who are not making progress should never be allowed to work with a TA during lessons, but they should have the same opportunities as the rest of the class. I recently wrote about a new approach to working with TAs, where we take it in turns to work with the different ability groups within a class. While we have yet to fully trial this, I can see that there are going to be definite advantages. While all children have the opportunity to work with both me as the class teacher and the TA, there will also be opportunities for independent work, which is vital for them to make progress. The biggest issue here will be one raised by the Guardian: time to communicate. In reality, when do we really have time to sit down and talk things through? Passing on a plan is a possible solution, but not the same as talking face to face. Perhaps we need to consider bringing TAs in on our PPA time so we can share the plans for the week. However, with even the most well informed planning, a maths plan created at the end of one week never quite goes exactly as intended the following week. Methods of communication will really need to be effective.

In my opinion, it’s also important for TAs to be given some of the same training opportunities as teaching staff. If we are going to ask TAs to be teaching groups, then we need to be using the same strategies, language and even mind set. We have been introducing aspects of Di Pardoe’s “Successful Learning” recently, which talks very much about challenging ourselves and being “movers” rather than “blockers”. This has definitely influenced the kind of language I use with my children, so we need to ensure that we have consistency within the classroom. Of course, deploying TAs effectively can only work if we know and utilise the strengths of those we work with. For example, one of the TAs I work with has a real passion for maths and loves problems solving activities, so she is always more than happy to work with my more able year4 mathematicians, and has been happy to do this in the upper juniors too. Others may not have the same confidence to do this, so we need to make sure that we are asking TAs to provide support that they are confident with. Training may not be available, so communication, time to prepare and sufficient resources are key to ensuring success.

While I don’t have a full time TA in my class, our TA does work full time within our 2 form entry year group. Sharing out her time is always a contentious issue: do we give all of the TA support to our less able maths group? Is this fair on the more able children who still have difficulties and need support from both myself and a TA? For me, I love having a TA in the room with me. I would happily have someone in class with me all of the time – someone to help to support, to challenge, to engage, to monitor, to help assess, and perhaps most importantly for me, someone to bounce off of. The sign of a good teacher:TA relationship is when you are happy to interject, make observations or ask questions together.   The children get to see that it is ok to ask questions and to challenge ideas, or to do things a different way. For other teachers, it seems they can feel uncomfortable having another adult in the room with them. Perhaps it’s insecurity, perhaps a feeling of a lack of control by letting children out of their sight. I don’t know, but whatever the reason, as soon as they recognise the true value of a good TA, they are bound to reap the benefits of successful teamwork.