Sunday 17 January 2016

The Power Of Choice in Learning

"You choose"

The phrase has so much more power than is first anticipated by the two short words.  By default, there is nothing prescribed for you but you take things into your own hands.  You have the power.  And that, alone, is powerful. 

I hadn't considered how important 'choice' is in learning until I started at my current school.  We have a 'Core Offer' which consists of things that we consider to be important elements and strategies to use in each lesson.  It is featured in our Teacher Handbook and is something which is referred to in planning and observing lessons.  I remember first reading through the Core Offer and recognising many of the elements as things I plan into lessons anyway: learning objectives matching activities, personalised learning and questioning, among others.  Every part of the Core Offer was something I did everyday, except for one. 

"Pupils will have an element of choice within their learning."

This really stuck with me and made me rethink a lot of what I do.  I have previously mentioned how early in my teaching career I was obsessed with grouping children by ability.  Thus I was prescribing what they did and how they did it.  Without meaning to, I was putting a glass ceiling on their learning; clearly this was before I'd heard of the idea of a Growth Mindset.

I started by including quite trivial choices for children to make so they felt they had some control over their learning: different colours of paper, a variety of context options or different writing implements.  Ultimately, these didn't have a great impact in their learning but I saw very quickly an increase in engagement.  They were buying into the lesson through a simple decision-making process.  This, along with reading about Growth Mindset, led to me completely changing how I managed differentiation, personalisation and challenge in lessons.

Rather than providing certain groups with prescribed activities at their level, I started explaining some different options of support to my class for the one activity they were completing and letting them choose if they needed support and how much.  Quickly, I realised this worked better if they sat in mixed-ability groups.  That way, they could learn from each other, keep their confidence as there's no "top" or "bottom" table and there was an enhanced team-spirit feel in the classroom.  With some guidance and conversations, children were choosing appropriate activities and challenging themselves.  I had never experienced a class so focused on their learning before and, without any evidence to back this up, I credited the element of choice for their enhanced positive attitudes.

It wasn't until the following year that I started to realise the difference choice can make for some children who struggle to behave in school.  I was teaching a child who had a tendency to cause problems during lessons.  Many teachers use "the choice" when managing behaviour in and out of the classroom.  For this child, the choice had always been whether to do the work in the lesson or not.  Teachers had previously said, "You can choose to do this work now or choose to do this work during your breaktime with *SLT member*".  Early on, I had taken a similar tactic but once the child was settled in my class, I started saying, "You can choose whether you do X, Y or Z" and the expectation was that the work was done in the lesson; the choice was about how the work was completed rather than whether it was completed.  This made a real difference and meant that they completed more work in the classroom and there wasn't the need for break time intervention.

Since then, I've been experimenting with different ways that children can have an element of choice in their learning.  Sometimes, the choice is about presentation format or use of practical resources; other times it is about the subject of a piece of writing or question to research, answer or investigate.  Each time, it amazes me how the children engage in their choice and produce some brilliant work, and reminds me how different the lesson would be if I had prescribed these elements.  

Related Links
Alison has used a writing project called You Choose which you can read about here.
You can read more about challenge is organised in my classroom here

Thursday 14 January 2016

How to Plan for a Supply Teacher

After such a successful first post about his experiences supply teaching, my husband has written another post to give some ideas about how best to leave plans for a cover teacher to follow.  

It is a huge misconception that class teachers need to leave thorough and detailed plans for supply teachers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t provide plans at all, but what it does mean is that class teachers shouldn’t waste their time writing out, printing and generally fretting too much over what their supply teacher is going to do with their class. The reason I write this is because class teachers already have a busy schedule without needing to worry too much about days when they have got supply. They’ve got other things to get on with! 

When cover teachers arrive at a school in the morning, they don’t want to have to look through pages and pages of planning. This is not because we are lazy - we are against a time limit. We need to be able to read through up to five different lesson plans before the children arrive for the day. The plans need to be short, simple and understandable. I tend to arrive at a school before 8am meaning I have approximately 40 minutes to get my head around what is going on. It makes us supply teachers panic if we are not really sure about what to do in each lesson. It is best not to leave hand-written plans as, sometimes, that can be even harder to read and understand. Typed notes, if possible, are much clearer. 

If you know your school’s lesson plans are difficult to comprehend because the format is full of boxes, jargon and anything else that is simply included to impress Ofsted, don’t leave that for supply teachers to read through. Plans for supply teachers need to be brief notes with the important bits only. Either that or simply highlight the important parts of the plan that you want the cover teacher to read so they don’t have to go through it all. It is not ideal to write all over plans as, again, this can make the plans difficult to understand. 

I have often turned up at schools and the plans have been left with a teaching assistant.  This is less than ideal because they tend to come in later than me and could be absent on the day.  Instead, ensure any plans and resources are left out somewhere obvious so that, if the supply teacher comes in earlier than the teacher welcoming them, they can read through everything and get their heads around it straight away rather than having to wait. If the class teacher is in school on the day that they have got cover, it is helpful to visit the supply teacher to check if everything makes sense or to discuss the plans.  It is useful for teaching assistants to know what the class is doing so that, if there are any problems, they can help.  If there are any IT resources to be set-up for the day, it is a good idea to check that they work first and ensure that someone in school is arranged to load them. 

The most thorough supply teachers mark books from all lessons at the end of the day. However, it is really important for teachers to not leave too much marking for their supply. I have been in the position where, come 3:15pm, I’m faced with the prospect of marking 4 sets of books. If I am to mark well, there’s no way I can mark that many books before 6:00pm. If you want work to be marked well by the supply teacher, remember to include it in your notes. Furthermore, try to leave a reasonable volume of marking otherwise the supply will probably only tick and stamp them. If it is possible, try to think of some practical lessons, for example whiteboard or online work, to plan into a supply day to help reduce the marking. Alternatively, plan time for the children to mark their own work. 

Planning aside, the most important thing I need to know is how to keep your class safe.  Are there any allergies, serious family circumstances or other well-being issues?  Which children require extra support and are there any adults who are not DBS checked that cannot be left alone with children? These notes need to be very clear and near the top of any documents.  It is also useful to have timetable information for the school and some idea of how children are grouped in lessons.  

Finally, please make sure you point cover teachers in the direction of the toilet, staff room and coffee machine. After all, we're only human! 

Saturday 9 January 2016

Free Whole-Class Reading Texts

After blogging our move from carousel Guided Reading lessons to whole-class sessions, I get lots of messages asking which texts we use.  I compiled a list of over 350 books which teachers around the UK use in their primary classrooms but there are also many free ways of finding texts to help children practise reading skills.  Most of these free texts require an internet-enabled device or print out for each pupil or pair.

Please be aware of copyright laws and licenses when photocopying these or posting them on a shared server.

Song Lyrics and Poems
If it's on a website, you can always provide children with the link rather than printing copies - just remember to check on a school computer to ensure any adverts are appropriate. We have occasionally used lyric videos on YouTube to help with this - most of these have some errors which are interesting to talk about. 
There are often brilliant examples of imagery, metaphor and style in song lyrics and poems.  When we use song lyrics, we generally introduce it as a poem and don't mention that it is a song.  It is then a pleasant surprise for the children to realise that songs are poems.  We have explored some grammar fails which writers have used in songs to make the words fit the tune and have explored the double meanings.  Some examples which we've used are:
  • Breakaway by Kelly Clarkson
  • The Show by Lenka
  • The Climb by Miley Cyrus
  • Red by Taylor Swift
  • The River Is by Valerie Bloom
  • The Scribbleboy Rap (from Scribbleboy) by Philip Ridley
Free Publications
Again, these can be downloaded and printed out or uploaded to a school server for use on a screen.
Many organisations publish free e-books or leaflets which can be downloaded as PDFs or read online.  Some examples we have used are George The Sun-Safe Superstar, The Third Shakespeare's Globe and DigiDuck's Big Decision.  There are lots of free e-books of varying quality available to read online or download at  We have also used Tom Palmer's live Football and Rugby World Cup stories which are set out like serial dramas running parallel to the real-life events and outcomes of the games.  Rumour has it he may be doing something similar for the Euro 2016 finals too.  You can view and download all of Tom Palmer's free publications here, including some sports-related short stories. 

Historic Newspapers
Go to the Historic Newspapers website (Education section), choose a pack and email Tom with your request.  He will send you the PDF which you can then use for teaching.  He can also send you a hard copy if you send him your address.  
These newspapers can be uploaded to your school's server (we use Google Drive) so the children can access a copy on their device (we use Chromebooks) or you can print copies of the page(s) you want children to look at.  Because these are high-quality versions of original prints, everything is authentic, including some brilliant advertisements and interesting unrelated articles which can be used to get children think about persuasive devices, the style of newspaper writing and retrieve information.  

Information Websites
Remember to check these whole sites over before letting kids loose on them. Beware of updates to the websites which could ruin your lesson - check the links are live and appropriate each year before reusing plans.  
Sites like NHS Change 4 Life, this BBC Interactive WW1 Trench and BBC Mummy Maker are designed in a really simple, attractive way so they are as useful as a non-fiction book but without the cost or need for storage space.  Children also love using these sites and finding extra information hidden among the images.

Fairly Reasonable Paid-For Sites
  • Twinkl do lots of information books, cartoons and stories as a PDF download.
  • First News send their weekly child-friendly newspapers in PDF format along with lots of teacher resources.
  • Fiction Express releases a chapter every Friday at 3pm and readers can vote for what happens next.  Texts are written by children's authors and run in line with school terms. 
  • Curriculum Visions publish non-fiction print books in class sets but also have all their books and more available in digital format online.

Friday 1 January 2016

From Odd to Even #Nurture1516

If I were to describe 2015 for me, 'odd' would be one word I would consider to sum it up.  Both personally and professionally it has been a strange year.  Rather than reflect on 15 things and look forward to 16 (as I did in my 13/14 and 14/15 nurture posts), I am simply going to suggest how some 'odd' things from the past year could be smoothed out to be 'even'.  After all, my main aim for this blog is for it to be solution driven.  

So the government abolished levels.  It sounded like a brilliant idea. We all knew the flaws with the system and how far from what it was designed for it had become.  The powers that be decided to replace it with...well...nothing.  Nowadays schools are doing different things.  From conversations with colleagues in schools around the country this year, it would appear there is very little cohesion.  Even places using the same assessment system are using it in a variety of ways and coming to different judgments.  Most schools in our locality are using Target Tracker and deciding to click objectives for each child.  This process potentially requires up to 8,000 double-clicks for one year four class.
It feels like we have gone from one ridiculous time to another.  My biggest problem with assessment at the moment is that I cannot see a logical, practical solution.  We are being forced into a position where children are spending so much time proving they can do the objectives that we are losing valuable teaching time.  And, of course, our pay is dependent upon these confused assessments.  Assessment has caused much frustration for me this year and, although I can't see a solution for the time being and don't have a huge amount of faith in the system, I live in hope that a Eureka moment will come this year and that things will start falling into place for assessment without levels.  We shall see...

After ending up at the doctor's in the summer, I decided to take some deliberate actions to improve my well-being.  This, along with a new cohort, has made a massive difference and the Autumn term was much easier than previous ones.  You can read more about what I changed here and I will try to update this at the end of the school year.  I will continue to try to put life first so hopefully this coming year will be more normal than the last one. 

I was reminded recently by a teaching friend of the importance of looking after our health.  He explained how he put off a visit to the doctor because he felt his job was more important.  His message prompted me to get those little niggles that we often ignore checked out so that we are healthy.  After all, our classes need us to be fighting fit so that we can give them the best of our time during the school day.  So my aim for this year is to get some things checked out which I have ignored in the past. 

TeachMeet Sussex
The aim, when starting up TeachMeet Sussex, was to have an event each term.  However, due to this year being so odd, we have only managed to have one event in 2015.  Plans are underway for 2016 already, with the first TeachMeet being on Thursday 25th February in Worthing.  There are schools lined up to host in the Summer and Autumn term as well so hopefully this year can bring some continuity for these important and inspiring events.