INSPIRING READING

Few educators would argue that reading is critical to a successful education. Reading builds background knowledge: of ideas, of vocabulary, of sentence construction, of spelling and of punctuation. It helps reduce the Matthew effect, and is possibly the only way to mitigate cultural bias implicit in GCSE and other standardised assessment. The more you read, the more you can read, and the more you will learn. David Didau presents an intuitive argument that having access to more culturally rich knowledge can spiral into advantage:

  • more knowledge potentially gets you into a better class at school, which pushes cognitive development compared to a weaker class
  • more cognitive development plays a part in determining the type of people you hang out with
  • those associations with people of equal or higher levels of cognitive development push and strengthen further cognitive development
  • higher cognitive capability opens access to cognitively demanding jobs, which are normally higher paid
  • intellectual levels are maintained via environmental contexts and demands

The graph below represents the potential widening of the gap between students when they are presented with varying cognitive demands over time.

Designing curriculum that demands intellectual rigour then becomes more than simply a consideration: it becomes imperative, with reading at its core. But crucially, we must design the sequence of teaching with precision, in order to avoid gaps in learning. The incomparable Tom Needham advocates such an approach here. This means that we have to be pragmatic at times, and if necessary, provide struggling readers with extra sessions to accelerate their levels to match those in their class.

Despite the enormous benefits of reading, unfortunately for many young people, and perhaps more pertinently for students who are in the higher grades at school, the love of reading, and thus reading independently, seems to have become as fictitious as the books we espouse, except for a select few. The causes of this are for another post, but it leaves educators with a dilemma. How can we get students to read outside of class?

SHORT STORIES

Building capacity to sustain attention is critical to engage students with reading for pleasure. Whilst incredible literature will always rise to the top, it is important to note that lots of it takes some time to achieve its greatness (length), and most of it requires expert teaching to help unlock the potency. The average student can be put off by a multitude of reasons, but difficulty with the cognitive demands of a text as well as a lack of perseverance are two large factors that quickly become indomitable forces against reading, invariably resulting in students not reading at all. I am certainly not suggesting that we pander to these inadequacies, but shorter stories could become the gateway to longer texts, and if it comes down to reading a shorter text or not reading at all, the choice is clear.

This can be achieved by exposing them to short, 400 – 600 word stories. It just so happens that this is the length they are required to write for their exams, so focusing on this length has an extra benefit. In fact, exposing students to these types of stories has 4 large benefits:

  • it is an extremely accessible length – 3 – 4 minutes of reading
  • it models good exam creative writing – this can be in terms of structure, as well as offering multiple opportunities to engage with vocabulary, varying sentence construction and its effects, and spelling and punctuation.
  • it provides students with ideas to generate their own stories
  • it inspires reading for pleasure

EXAM LENGTH STORIES

I need your help to build a bank of strong stories, so that students from around the world can develop their reading.

For this reason, I have decided to create a platform for students to read and share such stories. It is along the same lines as Cloud 9 Writing, but the criteria is a little less strict. Having said that, the quality still has to be maintained, and submissions need to be error free, of the designated length, and be entertaining. The platform is called EXAM LENGTH STORIES. At first, the name seems rather unimaginative, and therefore ironic, but I wanted it to say what it does on the tin, and explicitly direct students to engage in reading to assist their exam preparation. I don’t think I could make it any more explicit.

I need your help to build a bank of strong stories, so that students from around the world can develop their reading.

Student stories are submitted by teachers (an immediate quality check) via completing the upload form,* and student names of course are withheld from view. You may point out that there are quite a few sites online that publish short stories, but I can see that the quality control in terms of suiting exam style criteria is lacking, and so EXAM LENGTH STORIES may well better suit students sitting GCSE and other standardised assessments. The other advantage of this platform is regarding posterity.

Posterity

One of my great laments is that I never kept really good stories written by past students. I must have read hundreds of them over the years, and certainly have read a few out to my respective classes, but invariably, most were written in exercise books that were thrown out, never to be read again. The waste of resource is staggering. EXAM LENGTH STORIES seeks to eliminate this, calling on teachers to submit stories that are just plain and simply good reading. They don’t have to be mind blowingly author level good, they just have to be good. With access to free, moderated, purposeful stories that can be read on the bus, train or any time where 3 minutes is available, we eliminate potential barriers for the reluctant reader. Shortly, I will be creating comprehension activities to go along with each story, so they can be used as a teaching resource also.

Ultimately, EVERY story read is a movement in the right direction. Let’s all help build this so we engage our students with enough stories to hook them as readers for life.

*If you submit the form and don’t receive a reply, it will not be from want of trying from my end. Sometimes, school emails block the message generated from the platform’s email address. If this happens, please recontact and send stories to mosstribeeducation@gmail.com Thank you.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources and discussions.

CURRICULUM: an experiment that worked

As I greeted students after their first GCSE exam, I couldn’t help but be a little proud as the majority eagerly exchanged tales of success, literally bouncing in their shoes. The exam had thrown a slight curve ball with one of the main questions, but students had been able to, as advised, take a moment to make connections with what they knew, and then proceed with confidence. But as I stood there, so happy for the students, I also became mightily relieved that a curriculum experiment I had placed a considerable amount of faith in had clearly worked.

Focusing on students knowing their stuff!

Having absorbed lots of research into memory, ironically begun by stumbling across some wonderful posts by Joe Kirby (ironic because I was unsure about The Michaela School’s approach to education), I, albeit slowly because of the lack of evidenced transferability of cognitive science into school settings, set the wheels in motion for fine tuning my practice to account for how students’ brains best receive information and how they best retain it.

When I designed our GCSE curriculum, I began with a core channel of knowledge that formed the baseline content that every student would need to know. The expectations were relatively high (based on previous years), with the baseline including high level vocabulary and some precise details from each text. This core channel of knowledge had to be communicated with clarity to the students, and so, was designed in the form of an amalgamation of two powerful teaching tools: a knowledge organiser that served as a retrieval resource.

Embedding continuous retrieval practice into lesson sequence, making multiple links between learning sequences, developing depth of understanding through contextual exploration and incrementally designing assessment and learning became stock standard strategies I employed. I spent far more time being pragmatic about the realities of the course, and specifically prepared students for exams (here, and here), which incorporated redefining effective revision approaches. I concluded that I wasn’t going to take risks on handing the process over solely to the students, knowing that no matter how many times I talked about effective strategies, without modelling it explicitly the whole thing became akin to simply talking about a new concept in class and not modelling it for students to see things in action.

The focus on modelling became a priority, and this has had a large impact on eliminating gaps in student knowledge. Consequently, I set up a one-stop revision website for my students providing lots of students’ examples of successful writing, amongst other things, including a focus on writing and punctuation, particularly grammar knowledge development.

One of the most enjoyable things I’ve done this year was to spend time writing lots of essays on texts I was teaching. It reconnected me with a love of writing. Whilst in a style not enjoyed by some, and weirdly made known, it served a valuable purpose: I wanted to put my money where my mouth was, to see just how best to go about writing about the texts, to see how much time was a factor, and to offer and invite several high flying students in my class access to higher level thinking and discussions about themes and characters.

This led to them writing lots of high quality essays, and led to the development of Cloud 9 Writing, initially a platform for my students to read other class essays without the awkward moment of having to seek them out. The success of this got me thinking it could benefit lots of students by opening it up to the country, and then, the world. The idea, initially enthusiastically ascribed too, was tainted by a discussion about the inability of anyone to accurately say an essay was of grade 9 standard, a point that ironically missed the premise of the platform: to inspire students to think more about texts and to therefore write better essays. The distraction unquestionably and unfortunately deterred prominent teachers who have students of such calibre from contributing to the site, but nonetheless, some wonderful essays have been uploaded, and I sincerely thank teachers who have contributed their students’ work, and some of their own. The fact that the site has had thousands of views proves it to be a valuable resource, and I am determined that it will grow.

The real indicator of success?

For my lower set students, the consistent focus on retrieval through quizzing and class discussion and modelling how to transcribe their knowledge has certainly paid off. I know it’s early days in the exam season, but if only you could have seen their faces (I am sure you did see many like this too). Students who were usually destined to fail these types of exams because of the heavy reliance on content were experiencing the joys of success in being able to participate in the occasion. The final result, a lottery due to nebulous grade boundaries, will almost not matter – they have most certainly achieved something else. They could write about the texts, even when initially thrown, because they knew enough about them to participate. This is crucial: they could participate because the curriculum had been designed to incrementally breed success.

SUCCESS BREEDS SUCCESS!

By eliminating as many gaps as possible, students who would normally run from challenge because of a lack of resilience or being able to sustain focus, were motivated to continue the next sequence of learning because they experienced success in the last. They could participate because they were practised (still not even nearly enough for what I wanted, but baseline level at least) in writing responses. They knew the layout of the exams (except the 4 who wrote about the wrong text – arrrgggghhhh – attendance issues), and they knew how to react whilst sitting in the exam hall.

Taking a chance of investing in explicit teaching based on understandings of cognitive science and common sense may just have been the best decision I’ve ever made in teaching. The approach’s obvious success this year will feed into subsequent years, and fortunately for those who will come into my future classrooms, is only going to become even more fine tuned and more precise.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources and education discussions.

A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS

I’ve written a number of essays on texts:

POETRY 

MACBETH

LORD OF THE FLIES

  • There are other HIGH QUALITY essays on Cloud 9 Writing, a platform for high quality writing. 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.

IS THERE SUCH A THING AS MOTIVATION BIAS?

The curse of knowledge, the notion that when you know something it’s hard to imagine others not knowing it, is certainly a factor that MUST be considered when designing a learning sequence. But I am wondering if there also exists another bias that we could add to the list below: the curse of motivation, the notion that it’s hard to imagine someone else not having the same motivation to achieve?

source is here

An enormous source of frustration for me as a teacher is the lack of drive of some of my students. I am mystified as to how some of them can’t organise their revision, or can’t complete a task with the same level of gusto that I would dedicate to it, or seem to care about the learning and opportunities they are afforded by the education they receive. But I think there are 2 factors at play here that possibly prevent students from exhibiting similar levels of motivation. 

The first is that what I insist upon as normal levels of application from students may in fact be based on expectations I have of myself. Such expectations may not yet be achievable for some students because they haven’t had the context or experience to build self-drive and motivation like I have. 

Over quite a few years now, I have become accustomed to working hard. In fact, the last 25 years seems to have been a constant succession of goals to achieve. Indubitably to my cost, at times I fail to acknowledge things I have succeeded in before the next mission becomes the central focus, but crucially, my levels of ambition seem to have increased as time has gone on. In terms of explaining such motivation, sometimes my insatiable drive may be because I want to master what is presented to me; I’m interested in it, and approach the task with a sense of pride. Sometimes I’m seriously not interested in what I’m doing, but know that I have to get the job done; there’s a family to feed after all. Either way, I am now in a position where it is inconceivable for me not to sustain effort if a task is presented to me, regardless of the energy it demands. Could I say the same of myself at 15? No way. I have a motivation bias. 

The second factor is whether I’ve facilitated a culture of improving motivation in my classes. Didau convincingly dismantles the theory of Growth Mindset as the solution to altering poor motivation in students, his précis that we can’t expect students to improve their motivation without assiduously designing incremental learning sequences that proffer opportunities for success before we introduce challenge. A mantra I often cite to my team is ‘success breeds success’, and this is particularly important for students with plenty of knowledge gaps. I’ve talked about incremental learning here, and for more comprehensive insight into such practice, Tom Needham’s blogs are outstanding, but the essence of such an approach is to build success, and by default, motivation, by eliminating gaps in knowledge.

Motivating students is a tricky business. Understanding what gaps students have is a priority in beginning the journey of increasing motivation, but maybe just as importantly, taking the foot off the pedal sometimes, in recognition that my expectations may be skewed by a form of motivation bias, may also improve the likelihood of student motivation increasing. 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more discussions about teaching and leanring, and English teaching resources.

DEATH OF A NATURALIST – an interpretation

The title of Death of a Naturalist is not accidental, the ostensible drama and hyperbole apt metonymy for the unnatural quickening and capricious nature of a modern childhood transition to adulthood. The young boy, implied to be Heaney himself with the use of first person pronouns, is initially oblivious to the oppressive semantic field. The punishing sun and the festering dam anaemic to the will of the adventurer, the synaesthesia in ‘wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’ powerless to distract from the superlative in ‘But best of all’. The warm thick slobber, the ‘heart’ of his life experience, dominates his every spring. The parochial fixation is manifested in the shrine-like attention to the ‘jampotfuls of the jellied specks’, the word ‘ranging’ on the windowsill exemplifying the boy’s specious comprehension of competent care for the natural phenomena, but equally demonstrating his impressive patience, the alliterative ‘wait and watch’ emphasised by the preceding caesura. The continuous enjambment, metaphoric of the boy’s inexorable enthusiasm, is juxtaposed with his guileless immaturity in describing the knowledge he’s learnt from Miss Walls regarding the workings of the cycle, and its fatuous associations to the weather. Poignantly however, the caesura abruptly ending the first stanza forebodes change.

The single moment in time emphasised in stanza two, the ‘one day’, the sounds he ‘had not heard before’, signals an awakening, a realisation, a life changing juncture. The negative semantic field now turns militant, the angry frogs ascribed as grenades, invading his thoughts and threatening obscenely. Sound imagery is used to evoke the nascent torment, the plosive ‘thick’ highlighting the depth of this new but blurred intelligence, and ‘chorus’, positioning the sound as overwhelming, unrelenting. The adult spawn is seeking vengeance. The boy is ripped out of his world in an instant, with the short sentence, ‘I sickened, turned, and ran’, but Heaney, with the child’s hypothesis of the ‘great slime kings’ as antagonists, is keen to impress that his immaturity still abounds, and is thus indubitably not ready for the transition. Here Heaney laments his own impressions of the world he has known, with his younger brother’s untimely death, and the increasing violence in Ireland prematurely wrenching young souls from their natural life progression and stages. In such context, the naturalist doesn’t stand a chance. In this vein, Death of a Naturalist is as much a political poem as anything else, surreptitiously designed and seemingly innocuous in its tale of a naïve rural boy, yet damning of a society that expedites the growth of the child for selfish insensitive adult purposes. It is the loss of innocence in Death of a Naturalist that Heaney draws our attention to, but it is not just the loss of the singular childhood of the poem: it is a collective loss, a loss that attenuates us all. 

  

This analysis is a part of a series of expositions into texts I’ve been teaching GCSE students. Other poetry essays include: As Imperceptibly as GriefOzymandiasExcerpt fromThe Prelude vs To Autumn, Mametz Wood vs Excerpt from The Prelude, Excerpt from The Prelude vs To Autumn. There are other poetry essays on Cloud 9 Writing, a platform for high quality writing. 

Other essays include expositions into Macbeth: here, and here, and Lord of the Flies

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.

EXAM PERFORMANCE – TIPS IF THE WHEELS COME OFF

One aspect of preparing for exams that I’ve decided to focus more attention on is exam performance. I’ve talked before about preparing for exams here, and Elisabeth Lucy wonderfully discusses taking students through the exam in mock fashion here, but in this post I discuss how I play devil’s advocate in order to assist students in how to handle particular scenarios in the exam. I want students to be able to react better to certain situations, and I think a good way to do this is to take them through possible issues. That way, if they do experience such a barrier, they don’t fall into a heap, and maintain a professional approach to their performance.

ISSUEHOW NOT TO REACTHOW TO REACTExplanation 
Anxiety as you sit downPanic more, and think the feeling will continue the entire examFocus on controlling your breathing. Ignore everyone else, close your eyes, inhale for 6 seconds, and exhale for 6 seconds – do this 5 times. Know that you likely won’t feel like this once you start writing. Anxiety is normal. Everyone will be feeling it. It will also get in the way of your brain working how you need it to, but if you control your breathing and regulate your heartbeat, your brain will be your friend again. 
Not the question you hoped forPanic – give up – don’t write anythingTake a moment to think – how does the question link in some way to what you have been revising?If you know the texts well, the question will be able to be linked in some way to what you know. Examiners ask questions that sometimes are directly related to what you’ve done, but sometimes want to test you harder. But it’s always related to the text in some way.   
Question is too hardPanic – give up – don’t write anythingTake a moment to think – how does the question link in some way to what you have been revising?If you’ve found it hard, it’s likely that everyone in the country feels the same. This will mean the grade boundary will adjust, so it’s really important that you keep writing. Even if you are not confident in what you’ve written, it’s much better to write something than nothing.  
Don’t understand the questionPanic – give up – don’t write anythingLook for any key words in the question. There must be some reference to the text you recognise. Write about the story of the text. Remember the story doesn’t change. Writing about the text’s storyline and themes will still get marks, and when all the marks are added over both literature exams, picking up 5 or 6 marks for this question may be important overall.  
Others seem to be writing lotsPanic – give up, you’re obviously not as good as everyone else. – don’t write anythingStop looking at everyone else. Focus only on yourself. Keep writing.You don’t know what others around you are writing, or thinking. They may be doing a different question, or they may be writing rubbish. You can’t judge yourself on others. Also, remember you’re not going to be judged by those in your class
Time is passing but you haven’t finished your answerKeep writing. Stop writing on that question. Move on to the next question.The first few marks are easier to get than the last few marks in EVERY question. You will spend 10 minutes to get the last 2-3 marks in a question, but 10 minutes will get you 4-6 marks in the beginning of the next question. 
Spent too long on a questionPanic – give up – don’t write anything. Do a quick calculation of what time is left, and how many questions you need to answer. Apportion time related to how many marks questions are worth. Miscalculation of time in one question probably won’t ruin your whole exam. It’s so important to keep writing. You may be able to salvage things; just reduce time spent on remaining questions.  

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.

Tes Education Resources: An Open Expression of Concern

This post has been agreed by several teachers and is shared across several blog sites. 


In the last couple of years, we have openly expressed concern at the approaches taken by Tes Education Resources to plagiarism and copyright violation, theft of resources, and the selling of resources that violate copyright. This is not a blogpost intended to cast disapproval on those who sell resources. It is a simply an open expression of concern at the approach taken by Tes Education Resources, when these incidents are uncovered. We also wish to make clear that this is not about an individual or anybody working for Tes Education Resources. We believe that this is a systemic problem that should not fall on one person to solve.
We feel that the following issues need to be properly addressed by Tes Education Resources:

  • The fact that people upload and sell plagiarised resources, which have been clearly copied from free shares on Twitter, Facebook, and sometimes from colleagues.
  • The fact that although Tes Education Resources offer ‘goodwill’ gestures to those who give public challenge, and offer compensation when they recognise plagiarism, the onus is on the victim of theft to report and prove the theft.
  • The fact that customers are being advised to buy resources to check the content if they suspect a theft has occurred, and then claim the money back.

These issues need addressing because:
Plagiarism can constitute copyright violation, which is covered by legislation in both UK and EU law, as well as being a feature of international treaties and agreements. We believe that this is not being taken seriously by Tes Education Resources, who provide a platform for the sale of resources which have been taken, copied, and presented as original resources by the thief. Tes Education Resources describe themselves as ‘one of the world’s largest peer-to-peer platforms for teachers to trade and share digital teaching resources’ (Tes Education Resources Ltd: Annual Report and Financial Statements – Directors’ Report 2017). We feel that a company of this scale, regardless of financial status, should not be placing the onus on individuals to identify instances of copyright violation.

A goodwill gesture is something given on a case-by-case basis. It means that those with the time and tenacity to challenge instances of copyright infringement are being offered compensation, but there are victims who are unaware of the issue, or perhaps who do not have the time and resources to prove the provenance of the resource. We believe that the Tes Education Resources could and should ensure there is parity here.
Tes Education Resources have conceded that only 5% of their resource downloads are purchased. The rest are free downloads. We appreciate this valuable resource, but feel that the 5% are being prioritised over the 95%. It is understood that the 5% is the download, rather than the upload, figure – but the point still stands – 95% of people downloading from Tes Education Resources are downloading free resources.

We also believe that asking people to buy resources to check for copyright issues, in order to then claim a refund, is an unfair and illogical request. Perhaps most pertinent is the fact that all of these issues are contributing to our workload. The Tes recognise this too. In fact, they have an entire section of their website dedicated to this issue – you can read this here:https://www.tes.com/news/hub/workload. In refusing to adapt their practice, either by demonetising the site or by taking further steps to prevent these incidents, teachers are being forced to spend time searching the site for their own resources. When teachers locate stolen resources, the expectation that they buy their own work and prove its provenance is onerous and frustrating.

What Tes Education Resources Can Do:
– Have a long-term aim to demonetise the site and subsidise it, to enable an entirely free sharing platform for those working in education.
In the meantime:
– Improve checks on resources to identify plagiarism and/or copyright infringement.
– Allow for full download with retrospective payment, rather than asking people to buy resources simply to check for copyright infringement.
– Enable reviews of paid content without purchasing – so that copyright infringement which is clearly evident in the preview pane can be challenged in a review.
What you can do:
– Avoid downloading from Tes Education Resources until the long-term aim (above) is fulfilled.
– Use your Social Media account to inform your followers that you are doing this.
– Share your resources through Dropbox and any other suitable medium.

PRAGMATIC POETRY REVISION – PT 2

Previously, I presented a possible approach to assist students in their revision of revising for the poetry exam. The post, here, suggested students learn 5 of the poems in great detail and creatively design arguments that would allow the poem to be used regardless of the theme in the essay question. As suggested by the title, the approach is particularly designed for students who may not have the time or capacity to be able to revise all of the poems in the anthology. Despite my best of intentions, sadly this is the case for a certain number of my students.

In this post I will present another revision strategy, designed with the understanding of cognitive load (see Adam Boxer’s excellent explanation of cognitive load here), and utilising the notion of incremental design. I believe, similar to the way we present information to students, cognitive load should be considered when we present revision strategies to students. Struggling students often become overwhelmed with revision, throwing their hands in the air ( = ignoring it) because they don’t know where to start; there’s literally hundreds of things to revise. What might benefit them would be a broken down approach, instructing students to incrementally build their revision, which should begin by providing a baseline.

Presently, as an example, I would expect students to revise straight from their poetry anthologies. However, I have realised this may not be the most effective strategy for novice learners. There is a lot of information on this page, and for the novice learner, a learner who doesn’t have a good secure level of understanding, an overwhelming amount of knowledge in terms of using it as a revision tool.

So, as a baseline revision tool, I have given my students blank copies of the anthology, and gone through each poem with them in class, annotating just 5 or 6 aspects of each poem. Visually, it looks lots easier to cope with, the premise being that in a 25 minute writing adventure, lower level students would realistically only be able to write about 5 or 6 aspects of the poem, having described WHAT the poem is about and its MESSAGE (often included context) in the intro.

From this base, I would employ students in several revision activities in their class books or alternative place, but in the following sequence:

  • Write down what the poem is about
  • Write down the message of the poem
  • Write down what each of the 5 or 6 annotated sections has to do with the poem.

Students would use retrieval strategies to complete the activities above, but would refer to their actual anthologies if knowledge is lacking. They may reduce the number of flashcards to ensure they have the baseline understanding secure for each poem first, and then begin writing responses to possible essay questions. Just for a moment consider the enormity of this task, with 15 – 18 poems to be discussed. For struggling students, reducing the cognitive load to a minimalistic baseline is imperative.

It is my hope that students will use the minimalistic revision anthology to ensure they have at least a sound level of understanding of each poem, considering that they could be asked to write about any of them in section A of the poetry exam. The minimal visual highlighting too, assists the memory, so when the poem is actually presented to them in the exam, I hope this strategy helps them to recognise in their memories where the highlighted sections were, quickly highlight on the exam, and begin to write with confidence about the poem.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for other English teaching resources.