Monday, 21 August 2017

How to teach (the 'disadvantaged'...)

I saw an article on The Times via Twitter the other day/week (I've lost track of time!) titled "Disadvantaged pupils fall behind despite funding". My initial response was 'You mean, there's a problem that can't be solved by just throwing money at it, and your response is that the funding is the issue?!'. My more thoughtful response was 'The issues that disadvantaged pupils suffer are not due to their schooling, but down to society. The (approximate) 14% of their time they spend in schools is not the deciding factor on their disadvantage and throwing money at that time in schools won't change that.'

I decided to blog about this due to the size of our 'disadvantaged' cohort, the discussions that I've been a part of around the 'disadvantaged' and my record with classes over the last 3 years, as well as a few conversations I've had throughout this year.

I work in a school where approximately 50% of our students are 'disadvantaged'. We're compared to schools whose 'disadvantaged' cohort isn't almost 500, but is 5 or 15, and we're expected to churn out the same results as them with a drastically different intake (but that's a different issue altogether, isn't it?!).
For what it's worth, our school results are approximately 50% 5 A*-C incl. English and Maths and whilst I'm aware that this isn't good enough, it's a bloody good effort given our circumstances.

In 2013-14 I taught our set 2 of 8, with 91.7% of the students in my class making 3 levels of progress. (45.8% 4LOP)
In 2014-15 I taught our set 5, with 80% of my students making 3LOP. (10% 4LOP)
In 2015-16 I taught our set 1, with 93.1% of my students making 3LOP. (65.5% 4LOP)

In 2015, "36.5% of pupils classified as disadvantaged received five good passes including English and maths, compared with 64% of all other pupils", so we're looking at a 27.5% gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students.

In 2013-14 I taught our set 2 of 8, with 100% of the 'disadvantaged' students in my class making 3 levels of progress. (80% 4LOP)
In 2014-15 I taught our set 5, with 80% of my 'disadvantaged' students making 3LOP. (20% 4LOP)
In 2015-16 I taught our set 1, with 87.5% of my 'disadvantaged' students making 3LOP. (50% 4LOP)

Whilst out on interview this year, I was told that the figures for the 'disadvantaged' students in my classes are excellent and challenge 'non-disadvantaged' figures in schools up and down the country. I was also asked 'What do you do for your disadvantaged students that makes a difference?'.

I couldn't say - not because these are my methods and secrets, but because I didn't know. I've thought long and hard. I still don't know. I teach them, I guess.

'What do you do for your disadvantaged students that makes a difference?'

It's tough to answer that when your 'disadvantaged' cohort for the school is 50% of your students, and not just 5 kids in a year group who you can identify what you do differently for them. I've sat through training on 'narrowing the gap', where the question is 'what can you do differently for your disadvantaged students?' and I've come to the conclusion that there are no definitive answers. It's a question that has been asked, multiple times, without giving any answers. I've not come across one person, training session, blog or book that can tell me (or anyone else in the same situation) how to narrow the gap when 50% of your cohort/class is 'disadvantaged'.

I came to the conclusion that the only option you have (with 'disadvantaged' and 'non-disadvantaged' students) is to give them everything you've got. Teach them like their lives (and futures) depend on it. If you're doing it for 'disadvantaged' Doris, why aren't you doing it for 'non-disadvantaged' Nicky?

With that in mind, here's what I do with/for my GCSE classes:
  • Get them organised from day one. 'These are your exam dates, write them in your journal'. First mocks, second mocks, exams. 'Who needs a revision guide?' Schools can buy revision guides from CGP for about £3 a pop. Pass these savings on to your students - send a letter to parents offering them revision guides and collect the money before ordering. Have their revision night organised from day one. 'On Wednesdays, we have revision. Be there!'.
  • Challenge them from day one. 'Here's your target: 20 A and A* grades. I don't care who, just make it happen!'. It turned out to be 18, but would've been 23 without an increase in the A/B boundary.
  • Offer them help from day one. 'This is work. This is my job. If you need help, before, during or after school, come to my classroom. Struggling on an evening, weekend or holiday? Send me an e-mail. My job is to help you get the grade you want, so ask for help.'
  • Have routines. No - not, Alan gives out the books and Betty gives out the textbooks. Have routines, which give children the opportunity to consolidate learning and maximise progress. I have work on the board at the beginning of EVERY lesson. I give them about 15 minutes of my 100-minute lesson to recap a few of the things we've done a few weeks ago - they did in lesson, they did it for homework and now they're doing it again.
  • Fill in their gaps. It's tough when you have no data. You just start with the scheme of learning and hope it all goes well. But once you have data, use it. 'You did an assessment last Friday and I can see that as a class we can't do X, Y and Z. We're going off-menu and we're doing that again. I need you to be able to do that. We'll do it 5 times if we need to!'. There is no point trying to work out the surface area of a cone if your class is not comfortable calculating the area of a circle, or using pi.
  • Help them to fill in their gaps. Use a QLA. I don't care if you don't like completing them, your students can get more from them that you know. After every assessment give them a printout of their scores pointing them to a video (Mathswatch, Hegartymaths, Corbettmaths) that they can watch with some work they can do. 'The things in red and yellow - these are the things you couldn't do. It might be an easy fix, it might take longer. This is yor revision list from now.' In 2013-14, a girl got a C in her November mock. Totally disheartened. Her printout showed her she lost 10 marks on solving equations, having missed out by 8 marks. Fixed that, carried on, and got an A.
  • Point out their mistakes. Your students make too many of them. Even your best ones. They think 10-1 is 8 on their calculator paper. Highlight 'silly mistake marks' (marks they should definitely have scored) on their mocks, or have them do it themselves when you run through it. Add them all up and add it to their score. Compare it to the grade boundaries. 'This is the grade you would have - should have got - if you cared a little more, checked your work and didn't waste your time in your exam.' One student was 1 mark off an A* in their March mock, and scored 4/5 on an AQA best value question, working out the prices perfectly but writing the wrong bike as his conclusion for the cheapest - that's an A, not an A*.
  • Point out their improvements. If, between mock 1 and mock 2 hardworking Helen or silly Sean improve by a grade, shout about it. Challenge them to do it again.
  • Give them choices. I usually give them the option of doing one last mock at the beginning of May, in class, or to continue with normal lessons. They choose the last mock (this is how much they value the individual feedback and direction that completing the QLA offers them).
  • Count down. Have a countdown to their GCSE exams. Number of days, number of school days, number of maths lessons. Show them that it's crunch time. Remind them that they need to be doing - now more than ever.
Why would you only do some of these things for some of your students?! To use a phrase I heard a few years ago, your work should be 'a relentless pursuit of excellence'. Not for some of your students, but for all of them - 'disadvantaged' or not.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Mr Taylor's Toolbox Challenge

Last Easter my wife and I headed off on our honeymoon - we flew to New York, spent a few nights there, and cruised around the Caribbean before returning to less sunny shores and continuing with our more mundane existences.

We cruised with Royal Caribbean on their 'Anthem of the Seas' ship which was just lovely, but the reason I mention this is because I started making plans for a puzzle solving competition whilst we were on board.

Before we flew, my better half was on a cruising forum and booked a few excursions whilst we were in port and added us to a group taking on their 'Escape Room'. I took some students to one a few years back, and we had also done one after my brother bought us a gift voucher for Christmas.

Having made some plans, drawn some diagrams and got my hopes up, I came back and promptly did nothing about it.

More recently, I saw a tweet from an American teacher linking to this page, found some of the items on Amazon and eBay, a Stanley toolbox for £4 at Halfords and started to put some puzzles together.

My intention is to invite groups of four to do it at lunch time, with a leader board displayed prominently in my classroom window. I'm hoping to have 3 sets of the challenge for different half terms (maybe 2, 4 and 6) so that groups can have another go at a different challenge.

If you'd like me to share the resources, I am happy to (e-mail me, d.taylor3142[AT], but will not be adding them to my web site in case students happen upon my online space by accident. If you do, you'll need the following:

  • a box (a toolbox) that can be locked using a combination lock, 
  • a hasp, 
  • a directional multilock, 
  • an alphabet combination lock, 
  • three 3-digit combination locks (although I hope to change these a little in future, and get a few different locks), 
  • a key lock, 
  • a UV torch,
  • and a UV ink pen.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

How do you plan yours?

I'm writing this post in response to a conversation I had with a colleague on Thursday evening. It is advice aimed at them, as well as others who are at an early stage of their career, but I hope that others can take something from it too.

We were talking about staffroom politics and gossip and discussed something historical. The details aren't important, but the general topic of the conversation was...

I've been teaching for 8 years. In those 8 years, I've worked in challenging circumstances for 9 of them. I feel as though this is where I'm needed and where I want to be, to have an impact, to change outcomes for our less fortunate. In those 8 years, I've never had a results day where I was personally disappointed. Whether this is through indifference in my earlier teaching days, a lack of remembering those days, or that they haven't happened (as my recollections seem to be...). I've brought our departmental results up in each of those years, and I'm proud to say that.

In my 8 years of teaching, I've worked with some great guys, some wonderful women, some fantastic practitioners and some who were less so. I've worked with teachers who over time don't start a fire and always churn results out, and I've worked with those who, day-to-day, do all the right things and the results just don't happen. I think the latter is an issue in the schools in which I've worked and I think it all comes down to a lack of thought and planning, and that by changing the way you go about your lessons in the short and medium term can have a fantastic effect in the long term.

The advice I'd like to give my colleague, those at an early stage of their career, and others who might think that the results aren't coming despite their hard work is to consider the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.

I'm likely to oversimplify this, as I'm not much of a researcher. I like to skim read and take my own conclusions from things. If I oversimplify this, and this hurts you in any way, please accept my most sincere apologies.

The Forgetting Curve says that the greater the number of times you repeat something, the more likely you are to recall it at a later date. That every time you revisit it, you forget it less. This has been a large part of my planning for a few years now, but not quite so prescriptive as I'm about to lay out.

I sat down over Christmas to plan my lessons until half term. I did a lot of jotting in my electronic planner (I use Microsoft Excel), simply noting a 'Settler' activity for each of my classes. This settler was chosen rather simply - I looked at what I'd taught them at the beginning of the year and assigned the activities in the same order. A week or so later, I added a note to set them a homework on that topic, as well as the topics they'd recently covered.

My classroom is not a place where I sing and I dance. Sometimes I sing, but there are seldom children present. It is a place where my knowledge is laid out and my students are expected to take this in. It is a place where I give students the opportunity to revisit things a number of times before I expect them to have understand.

To paraphrase my ramblings, my advice is: Think more about the diet your students are getting and how they probably need to try things a few times to taste it properly. Teach your students a topic, but make sure they're get a suitable amount of practice on it, and a few weeks later drop it in a homework, and a few weeks later drop it in a settler activity (or 'Do Now', or 'Bell Work', or 'Mr Motivator's Morning Maths Madness' or whatever it's called in your school) and give students 3, 4 or 5 opportunities to revisit a concept. In the long run, this will pay out much greater dividends than your card sort activity or your follow me cards that you spent an hour or two printing on coloured paper, laminating and cutting out.