New year… new skills….

28 Aug

don' t panicThe new academic year heralds a change to Skills sessions across both Junior and Senior Academies. Tracy Hart takes on the oversight of Skills in Junior Academy and Katherine Blueman takes it on for Senior Academy. Along with my input for Literacy, Sue Squires and Sven Rees will provide materials and resources for PSHE across the school. We hope that this will provide a balanced and relevant tutor-led Skills curriculum for all our students.  Posts will focus on aspects of our teaching and our students’ learning and how we can engage them to consider their wider world and the importance of being able to communicate in it. Please scroll through previous posts – lots of groovy info on reading, boys, feedback, book trailers (LOVE THEM) and little literacy nuggets.

First off this term will be your own – your very own – literacy e-box, downloadable resources to support you and your tutees with everyday literacy and reading for pleasure. Watch.This.Post.


Our HOUSE…..

12 Jan

PrintHOUSE Magazine is now here! A term of planning and two terms of encouragement, hard work, drafting and refining have produced the first ever SBL House Magazine. Jenny and I are so happy with it – it looks incredible, and paves the way for a bigger, better and even more beautiful issue at the end of Term 4. Thank you to all tutors who stuck with the project – it will be easier now to see what all that hard work can produce. Our students will finally be able to link what they have been doing in Skills to their final product, and the 3 REALS (REAL product, REAL audience, REAL purpose) will be understood far better!

Many of our students lack confidence and self-esteem – more on that in the next blog post – but this will surely go some way towards demonstrating to themselves what they can do. BELIEVE! Copies will be with tutor groups this week.

Thanks to Jon Tooby for putting it together. Awesome job Jon. Not just a pretty face.

And HUGE thanks to Jenny for coordinating it all, and to you awesome tutors for sticking with the project.

(NB a couple of typos in this version which will be corrected for general consumption – prize for spotting the 3 teeny-weeny errors)

Click on the link below:


Telling the Truth About Youth – writing competition

12 Dec

Fancy something different for your Skills arsenal? The National Literacy Trust is joining forces with the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) to provide teachers with a competition and resources to engage young people in writing, and to teach them about copyright and the importance of protecting their own and others’ creativity.

Research has shown that there is a relationship between attitudes towards writing and writing attainment; 75% of young people believe that to be a good writer means you have to enjoy writing but less than 50% of young people say that they enjoy writing.

Write On aims to put the enjoyment factor back into writing by using an engaging form of writing—poetry—and by focusing on a topic that is sure to be interesting and relevant to young people: themselves!

The challenge is simple: Students must write an original poem expressing their thoughts about perceptions of and attitudes towards young people in today’s society.

Then just submit students’ finished poems to the judging panel.

Write On poetsTo provide some inspiration for our students, the LLT have linked up with four fantastic young poets who have penned their own poems on this topic especially for them. These poems are a great stimulus for discussion around the topic, and also provide an opportunity to introduce the importance of copyright and the boundaries around it. I’ll post the poems on here as soon as they’ve been uploaded onto the NLT website.

There’s also a:

Bonus category: It’s Slam Time!

“Think you could pull out a performance that would blow the competition away? Film yourself performing your poem for the chance to win more prizes”

A poetry slam (performing poems in front of a live audience) is an exciting and accessible way to engage young people in poetry. For the chance to win some great bonus prizes, students can hold a poetry slam in school and send in videos of their performances to the judging panel.

To help you, the NLT is producing some practical advice for setting up and running a poetry slam, as well as performance tips for  students from professional poet and slam champion, Nathan Thompson.

Poetry slam resources coming soon

Written entries: main category

A winning poem will have a:

  • strong voice – we’re looking for a piece of writing where we can hear the poet when we read it
  • strong sense of rhythm (although it doesn’t necessarily have to rhyme!)
  • creative structure and layout

Video entries: slam bonus category

A winning performance will:

  • be confident
  • be well-rehearsed
  • be interesting – have the audience hanging on every word
  • make the audience feel something – whether it’s happy, sad, angry, frustrated, reflective, inspired…or any other kind of emotion

All tutor groups can take part – KS3 for the second issue of the Magazine (as well as also obviously being submitted to the competition), and KS4 for assemblies (Slam Poetry good for performance/speaking and listening skills) as well as also for submitting. Lesson plans, resources, posters, promotional materials, slam poetry performance toolkits will all be ready here in January.

All entries will have to be in by 29th March 2013.

Feedback time at the zoo…?

3 Nov

This half-term I looked 58 Skills exercise books, 49 of them KS3 books. Now as I know that you already understand and even tolerate my usual eccentricities, you won’t be that surprised to hear that I quite enjoyed myself. Not only did the sampling show me with how how much determination KS3 tutors have thrown themselves into (at?) the Magazine production, but it also gave me a school-wide snapshot of literacy ability, in the lower school at least. We do have a lot to feel proud about – at a recent LG meeting, I asked each person around the table to write down what they liked about our students. Some of the responses included ‘enthusiasm’, ‘they are nice people to be around’, ‘always enquiring’. Some of these qualities were evident in the books that I saw – motivated and enthusiastic students producing careful, and often extended, writing. But what also struck me was the dialogue that clearly existed – ‘even’ in Skills – of constructive, helpful and personalised tutor dialogue.

This got me thinking about feedback, especially in a short 30 minute session, where students are expected to be working on and showing some progress in key literacy skills. For a start, I don’t like the word feedback. FEED. Urgh. Reminds me of spooning yoghurt into a toddler’s mouth, possibly one of the most disgusting mother-tasks ever. We ‘spoon-feed’. We go to the zoo for ‘feeding time’. We sit down to a great ‘feed’ (in Northern towns I think). It all seems rather passive to me. Let’s ‘feed them’ some praise, or criticism. It all just makes me think of … well…. MOUTHS.

Next, ‘no marking’, right? But some of the dialogue in the books that I saw was not ‘marking’. Tutors simply pointed out that ‘weston-super-mare’ needs capitals, and that a page of writing needs at least four full stops. There was no grading, no levelling. Some tutors asked questions to refocus students on literacy targets – ‘could you find a better word?’. Some tutors ended the term with a helpful target for the next term. Some students had clearly benefitted from peer-assessment. Tutors in MFL used smilies. Many other tutors gave out House Points.

This is visible feedback – but there are other ways of providing effective targets or commenting on progress during such a short session. I’ve suggested 5 below – and although no wheel has been reinvented, it might be useful to have a series of strategies all in the same place. You could also look at huntingenglish’s recent post on oral feedback here – far better and more comprehensive than anything I can come up with on a Saturday morning!

1. Medal and Mission feedback, or learner-centred feedback. 

Here, we accept the student’s present attainment however low, without blame or disapproval. Set about improving this by giving a medal for what the student can do or has done well.  Effort persistence and other good study habits can be included in the criteria. The mission is then what the student needs to do to improve.  This can be an improvement to the existing work, or a target (feed-forward task) for the next piece of work.

2. Self-assessment

I would like to provide alls students with self-assessment criteria for Literacy and Communication. You can also help students develop their own set of criteria for progress. It has been proven to encourage the reflective habit of mind essential for improvement, ensures students take responsibility for their own learning, focusses attention on criteria for success, and increases effort and persistence.

3. Motivational Toolkit

Or, in other words, stamps, stickers, smilies, House Points, Skills Postcards (available soon). Never under-estimate the power of the judiciously-awarded sticker.

4. Praise Sandwich

I used to do this all wrong. ‘That’s great! But look at this horrible handwriting! But well done!’ Now, I go for a more considered approach. ‘Well done for handing it in! Please finish it completely next time. Great improvement’.

5. Peer-assessment

Post-Its (the learning spies), iPads for photographing each other’s work, think-pair-share, Talking Chips (see KS4 resources!)…Peer-assessment, when planned well, can focus each student on specific criteria for progress and can provide an opportunity for discussion and praise – students are endearingly loathe to criticise each other (hopefully not just for fear of having their head rammed down a toilet).

These are simple strategies for our 30 minute skills sessions which also attempts to get students thinking about how to do better.  Of course in our hour-long lessons, doubles, or days of Principal Learning, we have ways of providing more developed and sustained feedback and target-setting. For further delving into the advantages of brilliant feedback you could read Jim Smith’s Lazy Progress, Zoe Elder’s Full on Learning or Black and Wiliam’s Formative Assessment.

In the end, it’s not just feeding, but more a buffet that you have prepared where your guests consider the options, assemble their own plates, maybe share with others, and ultimately feel satisfied after. That’s a bloody awful analogy. Sorry.

Spotlight on….. REALLY reluctant readers

10 Oct

The Year 1o class that I currently teach consists primarily of boys with weak literacy skills, and a couple of girls, who equally struggle. The boys are for the most part nice lads – but they are lads. Lads who come in asleep for periods 1 and 2 (and sometimes 3), who are passionate about football, farting, gaming, texting, sticking each other with compasses, slapping each other with plastic document wallets, and brooding darkly about something that happened to them on the way to school. And they really REALLY hate reading.

Even with every reluctant reader reading scheme known to man at my disposition, I know that I won’t get these lads to read a book. Not by themselves anyway. I have high hopes for next term, when I teach them Of Mice and Men. In twelve years I’ve never known the story to fall flat – not once. Maybe it’s my terrible American accent or the way I say ‘ketchup’ that keeps them entertained, but whatever the reason, the story resonates with every adolescent I’ve taught. The themes? Persecution of the underdog, bullying, prejudice, the power of friendship, loneliness and the misuse of power. What adolescent – especially one who doesn’t achieve as highly as his or her ‘average’ or ‘above average’ peers – has never at some point felt confused, alienated, that they don’t belong, that people might be talking about them, or simply unsure of the way forward in the adult world?

We can’t always find the right book for the right (non)reader,  but sometimes it’s more a question of getting our boys (and girls) to simply get used to reading something by themselves. Often it’ll be non-fiction – the fiction nut is a tough one to crack. But try these in your tutor groups for starters, Year 9 through to Year 11. 

  • A Tesco/Argos/Index catalogue. Good for teaching/alerting them to the features of non-fiction texts. They have to read the descriptions of the latest mobile phone or electronic drum kit.
  • The local paper. Bear in mind that some very reluctant teen readers have reading ages of below 8. Pictures, huge headlines, easy-to-follow bold paragraphs on the latest misdemeanor, car adverts, job advertisements, lonely hearts. You can also try sharing This is Bristol on your IWB.
  • The Guinness Book of Records. Not a real book, and never intended as one. But you can have real success developing skimming and scanning skills with the simple directive ‘find the man with the most piercings and tell me three things about him’. You might need a few copies – but how about asking your group whether they could bring in their own copies (of GBR or Ripley’s Believe it or Not).
  •   Cookery books. My favourite! A way to get kids to read is to appeal to their stomachs! There are some great kids’ cook books which combine simple instructions with mouth-watering descriptions. Sam Stern is a teen who put his money where his mouth was. Steer clear of Nigella though unless you want 15 year old boys sniggering at the mere thought of ‘plumptious beauties’, aka cherries. Apparently.
  • Where’s Wally. Well, if you’re desperate. But, it does teach kids to patiently seek out the geek in the bonnet. Why not try a word version? Where’s Verby? Or Where’s Nouny? (I actually think I might try this.)

One of the most important things to bear in mind with our under-confident readers is that they are always, without a doubt, acutely aware that they are not very good at something that everyone keeps telling them they should  be better at, or should enjoy, or that will improve their grades/lives. It’s simply not like that with some kids. So, if your Yr 10 has finally found his soul-mate in Mr Gum, or Matilda, or the Famous Five – never be anything but encouraging. It’s a small victory that they are enjoying something by themselves, perhaps for the first time in ages.

I’m off to read the Ikea catalogue again. Half-term = Billy Bookcase and a couple of Smorbjas.

Time for a positive change?

24 Sep

Now in its third year, the National Literacy Trust’s annual national survey explores young people’s attitudes towards all aspects of literacy. This year we are taking part in the survey which looks at attitudes towards reading and writing, and the extent to which children and young people engage in literacy activities at home with their family. It will also explore young people’s views about speaking and listening; how important they think it is and why they should bother with it. Given the emphasis on literacy and reading in the last two years, this could provide more positive feedback and help us to continue to foster more positive attitudes. The survey will be online, and will take about 30 minutes to complete, between 12 November and 7 December 2012. It can be set as homework for some of our more independent students.

It would be galling to discover that few of our efforts are making any difference to our students’ attitudes towards reading, writing and speaking. To a large extent, the rationale behind Magazine! addresses the gap between functionality, necessity, and fun. Our enthusiasm and our reminders that communication is the key to success (however modest) in the future,  are what could help to bring about positive change in the way that our students view books, authors, reading, writing, blogging and… well, communicating.

Spread the love. 

Teaching reading IS rocket science

11 Sep

A report published yesterday by the National Literacy Trust makes rather depressing reading. The research was carried out with 21,000 children  and young people across the UK. One of its key findings is that children and young people are reading less as their lives get more crowded – which, when you think of the simplicity of life with a telly, an Atari, a stack of Whizzer and Chips, Enid Blyton’s life works and a knackered old bike, might lead us to believe that life in the 70s really were ‘good times’ (ok I know I’ve lost anyone under 30). The research found that:

• More than a fifth of children and young people (22%) rarely or never read in their own time
• More than half (54%) prefer watching TV to reading
• Nearly a fifth (17%) would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading
• 77% of children and young people read magazines in 2005 now just 57% do, comic reading has dropped from 64% to 50%, reading on websites from 64% to 50%

The whole survey is available here:  Childrens’ and Young People’s Reading Today.

Based on this research, I think it would be interesting to conduct an informal attitudinal survey to reading with our classes and tutor groups. Even sharing this information with our students might open up discussions about reading issues that they might not have articulated, or even had discussed with them. Even better if we could find out from them what might make reading one of their leisure choices alongside COD (seriously, I had no idea what ‘playing COD all day’ meant and was quite frankly rather worried about what it might mean) or X-Factor/Bake-Off/Panorama. For Key Stage 4 tutors in particular, the findings of the research on the reading habits of teenage boys are probably all too recognisable, for example: ‘Only 26.2% of boys in KS4 say that they enjoy reading either very much or quite a lot. This is nearly half of the number of KS3 boys who say that they enjoy reading (41.6%) and nearly a third of the number of KS2 boys who say that they enjoy reading (65.5%). This is also nearly half the number of girls in KS4 (42.5%) who enjoy reading either very much or quite a lot. Teenage boys also think less positively about reading compared with younger boys. Only 14.2% of boys in KS4 agree with the statement that “reading is cool” compared with 58.1% of boys in KS2. At the same time, however, KS4 boys are more likely to agree with the statement that “I cannot find anything to read that interests me” compared with KS2 boys (35% vs. 26%).

What I have tried to do with the Fiction Reading Day at KS4 is introduce 14-16 year olds to books that they may simply not know are out there, and build on the Reading Challenge Day at KS3. Many boys in the Lit group that I share with CSl have said that their favourite book ever was Of Mice and Men’ – the set text for GCSE. For some this has been the only book they have read in the last four years. Perhaps it is simply a question of knowing what is out there that might interest them.

I’ll be posting book reviews, book trailers and recommendations regularly – if you can find time to share these with your tutor groups, I think that we could really start to enrich – or at least offer the possibility of an additional pastime – to many of our 14-16s. And thanks to one of my Year 11s for this gem:

Q: What’s the difference between a boring teacher and a boring book?
A: You can shut the book up.

(he’s got a detention)