Analyze this

Yes I know it’s the American spelling – stay with it…

Admittedly not perhaps one of de Niro’s finest celluloid capers, the tension – and comedy –  in ‘Analyze This’ derives from the gap between de Niro’s hard man mafia-boss self-perception and the reality that he secretly needs to talk about his feelings to a psychiatrist. As ‘Analyze This’ is an American film, the solution to mental health issues is of course (the clue’s in the title) – analysis.

analyze thisUnlike De Niro (as I am) I find myself in precisely the reverse situation:  analysis (of the data variety) has left me, a poetry-loving arts graduate, precariously teetering on the abyss of insanity.

As I recently emailed to a member of SLT recently in a data-related exchange …. THEY DIDN’T TELL ME ABOUT ALL THIS DATA SHENANIGANS ON THE PGCE!!!! (yes, in caps lock – and with multiple exclamation marks – I know, totally banned in any lesson of mine, but I told you, insanity, brink of).

And they don’t. Tell you about it on the PGCE. Not enough, anyway. Maybe the kindly teacher-trainers don’t want to crush our dreams too soon: we are idealistic, make-a-difference, creative types, planning lessons based on the deep love and knowledge of our subject in the hopes of inspiring future generations. But by going data-lite they send us trainees to immolation on the pyre of statistics.  A baptism of fire, if you will. (Caps lock and cliches already … oh dear).

So I started teaching English and I loved it. Still do.

But it took me a year or so to realise that to serve my students effectively, to know whether data is relevant, or (should I wish to) ascend education’s greasy pole to any form of leadership, I would need deep knowledge and understanding of statistics.

Now you may argue that I don’t, but really, I do.

I do because without deep understanding of the data tools I am using I am effectively a fraud. To myself, to my students, to my fellow teachers. I genuinely do want to understand the calculation methods behind RAISEOnline, ALPS, APS, Z score, Sig+ Sig-, UMS and all their acronymic counterparts – yes, partly because OMFG, FMSoL, my PRP depends on the spreadsheet – but principally, because I cannot trust the data until I understand how it works.

Take RAISE Online. My students’ progress is judged entirely on this data. I am judged entirely on this data. My pay depends on it.  My school is judged on it. Parents believe in it.  Yet I could not explain to them how it is calculated, or justify whether it is indeed measuring what it purports to measure.  At first, I assumed it was because I’m a mathematically challenged arts graduate, or because despite many kind-hearted attempts to elucidate the joys of RAISEOnline, ALPs and UMS, by sweet, kind, good, well-meaning people, when they were talking I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and scream:




I told you. CAPS LOCK. Brink of. Maybe it comes of reading too many dystopian novels, but it’s a mistrust which comes of not truly, deeply understanding the mechanisms by which my students, my school and I are judged daily. Reinforced by the jarring mismatch between the depth and breadth of what happens in the classroom and the reductive statistic on the spreadsheet. Yet, as I lack the mathematical knowledge and understanding, I cannot effectively question the mechanisms:

“Several of them would have protested if they could have found the right arguments.” George Orwell, Animal Farm

I knew it made no sense. The data mania was absurd. I just thought I didn’t get it.

And then I read this blog and others like it

like this –

… and then Carl spoke. And it was good.

It’s not just me. Well, okay, it’s just me admitting I don’t understand half of it.

But how many other non-statisticians are out there using statistics to judge others?

“it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.’  ‘A melancholy conclusion,’ said K. ‘It turns lying into a universal principle.”  Franz Kafka, The Trial

 In the strange data cycle of a teacher’s life, we input data and it is returned to us: ‘Analyze this’ and ‘Analyze that’.  What is this data? Simply a reductive numerical version of the teacher’s nuanced knowledge about the student, because a spreadsheet somewhere requires it.  So someone comes back with the ‘data analysis’ and tells you Amrita or Adam is underperforming and you think ‘I know, because I put the data in that spreadsheet so that you could tell me that’ and you think ‘but I also know who they are and why they are struggling and how to help them: do you?’  No? Shall I fill in another spreadsheet saying how I am helping them?

Yes, the Data Beast of A Thousand Spreadsheets has been created. And now it is used to being fed. And it is hungry.

Abolishing levels seems to have made no difference as yet. Because the beast must be fed. Even when we’re told it’s nil by mouth.

“This work was strictly voluntary, but any animal who absented himself from it would have his rations reduced by half.”  George Orwell, Animal Farm

I understand the need to measure progress. I believe teachers must be accountable for student progress. I appreciate the move away from levels, and grading lessons.  I like the ideas around PLCs or knowledge records with formative comments or qualitative statements to work from and hand over to the next year’s teacher, discuss with parents, or feed back to SLT. I am happy to study further and learn the methodologies, statistical or otherwise, to help me measure progress more effectively.

But as A* to C becomes Progress 8 and Attainment 8 and 1 – 9, here’s a question for statisticians from an English teacher, with an arts background, struggling to make sense of this data-but-no-levels brave new world:  can you measure knowledge, skills, understanding (or even the new sacred cows, British values and character) using numbers?

I’m not being flippant, I genuinely want to know.


Refreshing Revision: Topicality, Serendipity and Door Handle Planning

Before I turn into a one blog pony, I thought I’d better put fingers to keyboard. Time is, as ever, short.  The high quality, research-led, academic pedigree of the teacher bloggerati out there is, as ever, intimidating. But can they watch Hotel Transylvania, do an Angry Birds Spot the Difference, answer questions on Maths Town, play Star Wars top trumps and blog *at the same time*? Can they? Can they? Okay, they probably can do that as well, darn their Oxbridge Masters PhD Teach First Ambassador Research Ed brilliance… But hey, as Tony Soprano would say in these situations (not that he, admittedly, dealt with many teacher bloggers) ‘Whaddayagonnado?’ Just write the thing.

See? It is really distracting… Anyway, as I was saying…

This term, all my carefully planned revision lessons for Y11 were going according to, well, plan… We were cracking through, checking knowledge, writing essays, knowing mark schemes, tickety tock, tickety box. Yet looking at their earnest, hard-working faces, so keen to succeed, I felt a depressing, creeping certainty: this was BORING.  Teach-to-the-test,  seen-it-all-before, going-over-it-all-again BORING.

The first temptation was to go back to the planning, create some more dynamic and engaging activities: refresh lessons that way.  The jazz-hands of activity-based planning. Tempting and at times effective: I love a quiz, a bit of bingo, carousel, relay, cloze, card sort, revision dice, catch the elephant. But we had already done all that jazz *and* had time for slow writing, joint construction, modelling, extended writing time, marking exemplars … and it was feeling stale.  Now I don’t want to be too harsh on myself, it wasn’t reeking, rotting pig’s head, perhaps more next-day baguette.  But still. I had been mulling it over, feeling really stuck, frustrated, exam-bound and ‘where’s the joy of literature in all this’?

Then I had the ‘door handle planning’* moment.

Opening the door to my students, welcoming them cheerily to English as I do, a few things came together in my frazzled teacher brain at the same time:

  1. We had just moved from working on writing skills for the language exam to ‘An Inspector Calls’. I had been exhorting the students to read a wider range of journalism, sharing topical articles with them, debating current issues and generally trying to make the connection between the classroom and real life.
  2. I had just read the Doug Lemov post about reading fact and fiction in combination to improve understanding and memory of both (am planning our new KS3 curriculum accordingly)
  3. I had also read various ‘Make it Stick’ posts about retrieval practice, interleaving units, spacing and revisiting knowledge regularly
  4. My students all came into the lesson talking about #thedress and asking me whether I thought it was blue and black or white and gold (white and gold for the record)

Feeling the pressure of starting the lesson and the discomfort of the break in my usual lesson-starting routine, the temptation was to close down this highly animated discussion, but I was really enjoying having a genuine, spontaneous, engaged, lively, funny conversation with my students about something they had chosen to talk about.  I relaxed, we started having a class discussion and through questioning I brought it back round to the text, asking how the different ways we perceive the dress might link to the varied reactions of an audience watching a play, how the different ways the dress might be worn might relate to actors’ or directors’ choices of costume, props, lighting etc. Going with the topical flow, I moved on to the story of the Bethnal Green girls bound for Syria to join ISIS, simply posing the question: ‘Who was responsible for their actions?’ If you’ve taught ‘An Inspector Calls’ you’ll know where I was going with this! The result was a high level, animated and topical debate which linked to Priestley’s ideas, the play’s themes and a comparison of historical context.

The topical discussion had illuminated the ‘old’ material, making it feel contemporary, relevant and alive. Adding new knowledge and opinions had refreshed the old knowledge and made new connections. Simultaneously working for both Language and Literature exams. Boom!

With exams looming, it is the hardest thing to keep it ‘tight but loose’ and while I wish I had actually planned that lesson, sometimes the best teaching moments, the ones from which we learn,  are those serendipitous ones where our research and reading, reflective thinking, knowledge of our students and desire to connect learning and the real world all come together.

Even better, later in the week, on break duty, a student said to me, “I really enjoyed that lesson discussing the girls who ran off to join ISIS, Miss. I was wondering how you were going to link it in, then it all came back to responsibility.’

My new challenge to self, then, is to refresh the revision, not through more activities, but by linking in just enough new knowledge or topicality to engage, illuminate and embed.  And this time, I’ll plan for it.

*thanks Kate

The Silent Teacher

Is silence more eloquent than words? I was about to find out. Having woken on Thursday morning with a sore throat, I had a four period day followed by Y11 Parents’ Evening. By the time Friday dawned, my vocal register was somewhere between Cher’s vocoder, a teenager mid-voice-break, Frank Butcher,  and those people who do creepy whispering videos (don’t know them? that’s what Google is for).

So I had no voice. I couldn’t talk. Friday looked like: double Y12, Y11, Y10, Y7, tutorial. Like many of us, I had heard tales of laryngitic teachers of yore, venturing forth voiceless amongst the multitudinous hordes of Y11; I too wanted to join this mythological brethren.  Silent teaching? Bring it on.

And my lessons were affected – but not in the way I had expected.

Usually I greet students at my door, saying good morning/afternoon and checking uniform, so already the start of the lesson routine was challenged. Instead, I smiled and nodded as the students greeted me, perhaps some of them wondering why I wasn’t responding politely, but probably most of them unaware of my vocally challenged status as yet.

As they came in, there was a typed message from me on the whiteboard simply saying ‘I have lost my voice.’  The initial response was a few laughs, gasps, sighs some ‘how’s this going to work?’ and some lovely ‘why are you in, Miss, you should be at home’ (awww). ‘Have you really lost your voice, Miss?’ Nodding. Slightly at sea, the students hovered behind their desks unpacking, then one by one fell silent and looked towards the board where I was now typing:

‘This is how it’s going to work. Please have a seat while I take the register and watch the board carefully for questions and instructions.’ (luckily I can type fast and only one wag did the Stephen Hawking voice).

Now, I wait for silence as much as the next fairly experienced teacher.

And not (always) like this…

Yet somehow, by using only typed instructions and questions, silence came to me like a beautiful oasis of calm. It was immediately noticeable in all my classes how much quieter my students were. A calm, focused atmosphere of zen-like peace had descended, the like of which is usually my holy grail.

But why?

It seemed the lack of my voice somehow led to greater awareness of their own. Also, because I was not speaking, I was able to *listen* to everything, which I think made them more self-conscious about off-task behaviour. Students also had to focus on my written instructions or questions on the board, which meant facing the front, and when I typed either ‘talk about it’ or typed individual names or pairs after each question to answer, there was an element of suspense to see who would be nominated.  Some students offered to read the instructions and develop the questions so that they were leading the learning. The quietness also made me notice the quiet students more, so that I asked them more questions and checked on them more. My style of teaching in terms of classroom routines, task setting, questioning and plenaries was essentially the same, but the silent delivery radically changed the temperature of the classroom.

Which led me to reflect.  This peaceful classroom was rather lovely. Why wasn’t my classroom always this peaceful?

The truth is that the enforced teacher silence was a fairly dramatic change of personality for me. Not that I prance about like a circus monkey desperately trying to keep them interested, but … but …

On reflection, my personality sets the mood of the classroom and I am energetic and outgoing, I love my subject and get enthusiastic about what I’m teaching, I can get sidetracked by interesting ideas, I have a sense of humour and like to chat to students (about the work, always the work!). But it’s not all about me, is it?

The silent teacher experiment reminded me that while it’s easy to relax into your comfortable teacher personality and your relationships with classes, sometimes it’s good to step back. To observe. To listen.  And while teacher talk is no longer seen as the devil’s work, some of us still talk too much.

Essentially, I found not talking made me more observant, tuned in and a better listener. I was able to observe my own students more effectively, analyse the questions I was asking as I asked them, revising and improving them on the board as I typed. Students took more responsibility in the lesson and worked effectively in a calm, peaceful silence. I even noticed in the staff room at break and lunch how becoming an enforced listener meant I listened to different people and conversations. Enlightening.

So I’m thinking, perhaps this could be A Thing?  A Pedagogical Thing. The Silent Teacher. Is the domain name taken yet?  I just know someone will have done some research on this. #ResearchEd ? Laura McInerney? Anyone with a PhD? I need some scientific, impact-measured back up here.

What has the Silent Teacher taught me? The need to consciously create that oasis of calm in every lesson and perhaps in the future choose to run the occasional ‘Silent Teacher’ lesson to reset the tone. For now, I’ll just stop talking and tune in to the inner peace.

Next time – renegade meditating in tutorial.

The course of first blog never did run smooth

Today’s the day. The day I start my teacher blog. I know what I want to write, it’ll be short and sweet, but nevertheless a little thought pebble dropped into the waters of EdTwitter. Will it sink unnoticed to the depths or create ripples of recognition? Who knows. Frankly, at this point, who cares?

So. Decided on title. Signed up to wordpress. Got picture cropped and centred. Now whole face appears.

However. Family is awake. How do they interrupt me? Let me count the ways…

1. The deliberately polite request: “Excuse me, mum, sorry to interrupt but please could you make our toast? We *have* been downstairs quietly for ages trying not to wake you up, but now you’re up… ”

2. The Match Attax based poser: “Who do you think is best, Rob Green or Hugo Lloris?” *she guesses wildly*  “Incorrect.” [with satisfaction]

3. The interesting conversation starter: “You know plants?” “Mmmm.” “And seeds?” “Yeees” “Well… I’ve been thinking, which came first?”

4. The Cat (coming to sit on knee while on computer)

5. The Advanced Cat (sitting on knee and asking to play a game instead of what you’re doing. Note: brazen version = opening a new window to do so)

6. The genuine call for engagement: “I’d really like to show you how to play this game” … “which game do you want to play?” “look at this really cool thing I made” or the simple, killer, “will you play with me?”

7. The cry for help (which shows they have already tried to do it themselves): “Muuuuuum! I can’t reach my football kit, it’s hung too high up – even with the step-up”

8. The guilt trip: “Why are you always working?”  “You never play with us”

9. The unhelpful helpful contribution “Oh, you’re starting a blog. I like blogs. Let me show you some things I like.”

10. The Dog. AKA puppy eyes, which, combined with any of the above they *know* is a guaranteed winner.

So there it is. I’m sorry but we’ll all have to wait for my first blog. I have to go now. I’m sure you understand. I need to decide whether to be DogPound or Casey Jones in the latest round of… [blogger interrupted]