Friday, 30 May 2014

Things to do in New York City

Background Information: We went for six nights in Easter 2014.  The sun shone for six of the days and we had one day of rain and snow.  We stayed in the Broadway Plaza Hotel which is midtown and so was perfect for walking uptown or downtown.  It was also right near a subway station which we used daily to get elsewhere.  These lists come with the disclaimer that we didn't go everywhere in NYC.  We booked a lot of this in advance and pack tonnes of trips into our seven days.  These may not be the best things in NYC but they were the best things we experienced on a limited budget and from our midtown location.  At the end of the post you can see a preview of the photo book we had made.

5 Free Things To Do in NYC 
1) 9/11 Memorial - get your pass beforehand.  Security is tight. 
2) Walk the HighLine - an abandoned railway line which has been done-up so it's now a romantic half-mile walk through the city rooftops. 
3) Central Park ($2 map is worth it).
4) The Staten Island Ferry - good views of the Statue of Liberty and is free.
5) Find the friends building (Grove Street in Greenwich Village) and the Ghostbusters firehouse (where Varick street and West Broadway cross).

5 Paid-For Activities (prices are approximate for each ticket)
1) WTC Tribute Center Tour (~$20) - people who were in the are on the day tell you their story and take you around the memorial.  This was such a poignant and important addition to our visit to the memorial.  You also get access to Tribute Center which has some exhibitions and donated items. 
2) Go to a sports game. We did Nets vs Knicks (basketball) and Yankees vs Red Sox (baseball). (~$50)
3) Watch a Broadway show. We did Wicked in limited view seats. ($75-200)
4) Go up to an observatory. We did Empire State and Rockefeller. The Rock was better. (~$30)
5) Take the Liberty/Ellis Island Ferry. (~$20)

5 Reasonable Eateries
1) Square Diner (Next to Chambers St and the Ghostbusters firehouse) - the only true diner we found. Food was amazing. 
2) Mustang Sally's (on 7th Ave and 20something st) - Great bar that serves delicious, cheap food.
3) Azalea (Next to Wicked theatre - the cast sometime drink and dine there) - Italian
4) Serafina (in the meatpacking district on Gansevoort Street) - delicious pizza at a good price. 
5) Ellen's Stardust Diner (Broadway and 51st) - the waitstaff sing while you eat amazing food. 

5 Things we saved for next time (or didn't have time to do!)
1) Katz Deli (from when Harry met Sally).
2) Get off at Liberty and Ellis Island.
3) Walk the Brooklyn bridge.
4) WTC Museum (opening May 24th 2014).
5) Get tickets to a TV filming (SNL, Letterman, Jimmy Fallon and GMA all film in NYC but you either get tickets beforehand or queue for ages) - got to the Rockefeller Center for information.

P.S. I know this is NOTHING to do with Education but I had to put it somewhere! Also I will go through and add links at some point! 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Outstanding Vs Lazy Teaching

There are many blog posts, tick lists and books that will tell you how to achieve an 'outstanding' grade in an observation.  Just Google it.  I've taught lessons using that guidance and achieved the Holy Grail grade of lesson observation.  I've also taught lessons totally different to said formula and achieved grades much less than 'outstanding'.  However, whenever I follow the outstanding steps, I feel like a bit of a cheat.  This leads to me going against the formula, taking a risk, trying something new and....falling flat of my face with a lesser grading! (Read my post about observations and grades here).

Last week, when deliberating with how to teach my class of 8-9 year-olds how to tell the time, I ripped the 'outstanding' formula to shreds, threw it on the ground and stomped on it but it was still a successful lesson. It wasn't observed and I'm not going to grade it but I know it was a success because every child in my class is better at telling the time than they were at the beginning of the lesson. (They also enjoyed the lesson a huge amount but I know that doesn't count for much nowadays!)  

Instead of following the 'outstanding' formula, I went more down the 'lazy' route!  Last year, I read and reread The Lazy Teacher's Handbook which encourages "teachers to teach less so that children learn more".  So, with the theories from that book in mind, I set about planning a lesson to help my class learn to tell the time.

In this post, Michael argues that testing children can be good when it's used in a formative way by teachers.  I wholly agree and so did a quick ten-question test to assess where my children were at in their journey of learning to tell the time before using the results to plan the lesson.  The test results told me two things.  Firstly, there were 6 children in my class who fully understood how to tell the time on an analogue clock.  Secondly, I needed to differentiate at least 10 ways to accommodate the next steps of all the other children in my class. 

First thought: Arrrrghhhh! 10 way differentiation.

Second thought: Lazy Teaching.

I used the tests to group the children according to the simplest skill they didn't know: o'clocks, half pasts, quarters to and past etc.  Next, I create Ten Steps To Tell the Time:

  1. I can find o’clock times.
  2. I can find half past times.
  3. I can find quarter past times.
  4. I can find quarter to times.
  5. I can find 5s past.
  6. I can find 5s to.
  7. I can find 5s to and past.
  8. I can find times later and earlier than other times.
  9. I can use a digital clock.
  10. I can convert to the 24 hour clock.

The aim was to get as many children to step seven as possible using those who could tell the time as my Teaching Assistants. Children used the results of their test to highlight the ones they could do and then I handed the buck over to them. I had prepared packs of resources for each step; there were blank clock faces, physical clocks, toy clocks, practice worksheets and tests. Each child had to ensure they worked on the next step, practised it and then tested their knowledge. Using the six children as TAs meant there were eight 'experts' in the room to help with the challenge of differentiation.

The atmosphere in the room was electric. Everyone was busy and everyone engaged. Some expert children were teaching whole tables, others were working with individuals. The adults in the room made ourselves useful too, providing help where necessary. The 'TAs' relished the opportunity to help their friends learn and the other children were much more willing to ask them for help than the adults. In the hour lesson, I did no whole-class teaching. I simply outlined what would happen in the lesson and what children needed to do. They took to the challenge better than I'd expected and loved how different their learning felt. Because of the ten steps, their learning was crystal clear. They felt they were making progress and were proud of what they'd learned.

My only worry during the lesson was the children acting as TAs. What were they getting out of it? I know the age-old saying "you understand 95% of what you teach someone else" and I realised how much better I understand things now that I'm having to teach them. However, early on in the lesson my worries disappeared as one of those children asked, "Mrs P, how do I help her understand why it's quarter past and to?". I was able to explain to her about the secret of teaching - questioning. We discussed fractions and she then questioned her pupil about fractions. In the process, both the TA child and her pupil gained a greater understanding of time.

I have no idea what OfSTEd grade this lesson would have achieved but, the truth is, I don't really care. In that moment and at that time I did what I thought was best for those children and, as it turns out, it was a resounding success. I saw the lesson as a win-win-win lesson. The children could tell the time better, the 'TAs' gained confidence and understanding and, in all of it, I didn't have to do a huge amount (plus the resources are still there for our next 'time' session).

The truth is that teachers are not and cannot be 'lazy'. It's not in the nature of the job or our personalities. However I could have made this lesson a lot harder for myself by trying to follow the 'outstanding teaching/learning' articles. How would the outcomes have changed? I don't know for sure but I imagine I would have been a worn out, stressed teacher trying to ensure 10 groups of children made progress towards their next step. By handing the control over to them, I made my job easier and, as it turned out, they enjoyed it more. At the core of the lesson was still the learning but instead of it being my job to make it happen, it was the pupils'.

UPDATE May 2015 - I have started using the Time Teller of the Day idea. Read about it in this blog post.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Very Late Thoughts on the Observation Game

Ever since OfSTEd, at a meeting with education bloggers, confirmed that in most cases inspectors should not be giving judgements on individual lessons, I have deliberated again and again about my thoughts on the matter.  I read the blogs of those in the meeting, followed by Mike Cladingbowl’s Guardian article and then the blogs of “mere mortal” teachers, those of us in the classroom day in and day out.  As I read each article, the same question went through my head – is this a good idea or a bad idea?

When I had two PGCE students in March, I came to think about observations again.  Their university required me to give four lesson judgements and a judgement per standard in two separate reports.   As I was sat there giving them feedback from their first observation, I saw what I know I have done in many of my own feedback sessions; they waited for the grading and reacted to it. 

I did it throughout my NQT observations.  Good = nod and smile. Outstanding = “YES”.  Satisfactory = “ok” and head down.  Without the written feedback I received from my mentor, I couldn’t remember my strengths or areas for development.  I remembered the judgement.  The judgement defined my teaching…for six weeks before the next observation. Did the judgement change my teaching? NO. Did the judgement change my confidence and pride? Yes – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.  The same was true for the students.

So, as I sat there giving meaningful and constructive feedback to these lovely PGCE students so early in their teaching careers, my mind was made up about observations.  For them, observation process would have been much more effective without an observation grade.  That way, the focus would have been on improving.  Rather than aiming for a “good” grade or an “outstanding” grade, my students would have focused solely on what they needed to do to improve.  Their confidence wouldn’t have been shattered or their pride overflowing.    Their immediate next step would have been what they remembered and worked towards, with my guidance.

My own performance management observations this year show how fluid and unreliable the grades are.  In three lessons I’ve been given three different grades.  They were fair grades and were exactly what I would have given myself.  So what grade would my teaching overall be? Am I an “outstanding” teacher? Maybe good? Or does my teaching require improvement?  In any lesson, I’d say the latter.  Not in the “used-to-be-satisfactory” sense of the word, but because there’s always something I can do to improve.  Removing a grade from the observation process would mean the focus is shifted from attainment to improvement. 

If that were the case, I wonder if teachers would welcome more observations. I know I certainly would. After all, it’s the negative grades we’re all afraid of.  I would love to be observed by more-experienced teachers in a formative way, where the aim for both of us is to make improvements.  That would encourage me to do what I always do rather than perform for the grade.  It would be an extra pair of eyes in my classroom giving me an insight into my teaching as opposed to someone making a judgement and checking off a tick list. Surely then, the more often someone comes into your classroom, the more rounded their view is of the teaching and learning that occurs.  Therefore, when it comes to a time for making necessary judgements, as I understand there is still a need for, they will have the clearest view of your impact on learning.  

I realise that removing judgements could be difficult when it comes to performance management however there are schools which have done this successfully and whose professional development programmes sound incredibly formative and collaborative.  They sound like a pleasure rather than a chore and are solely aimed at improving teaching and learning.  I hope that OfSTEd’s original announcement was to create that atmosphere in more schools, rather than just shock and shake-up the education world. 

Original post from the meeting with OfSTEd -
A few other posts about observations -