@SPorterEdu

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This post has come about further to me making improvements in my own teaching practice.  Do not expect an exhaustive list of approaches that you can try; that is not what this post is about.  This is a reflection of an ongoing piece of work that can be applied to any subject area but here it has been done with reference to Mathematics.

The project that got me thinking

As part of my role as a Specialist Leader in Education (SLE), I had the opportunity to work with other teachers (Primary & secondary) on a Mathematics project.  The aim of the project was to identify ways in which we (Maths teachers) could support students in the transition from Primary to Secondary; a difficult stage for many.  We met, we talked and we shared our thoughts on how best to support students through this transition.  Over the course of six months, our focus shifted more and more towards book work.  There was something happening with the students work between the time they left primary and the few months later when they joined their secondary schools.  Some students, whose work was always very tidy, suddenly lost that beautiful presentation, the layout became odd and at times, the Mathematics presented to teachers was “mathematically incorrect” (Prof. Ros Sutherland University of Bristol).

An aspect of the project involved all of us pairing up and visiting each others school to observe teaching, to speak with students and to look at books.  As I teach in a secondary school and all of the support that I provide as an SLE is with secondary schools, I was paired with a primary school and it was a fantastic experience (Knowle Park Primary School – this is content enough for another blog so I shall not digress!).

Work of a primary school student

Work of a primary school student.  Not all correct but they have certainly tried hard!

The students’ books certainly had an impact on me.  The majority were consistently tidy, there was formative feedback, students had assessed their own work, it was well presented and (…wait for it…) the work had been marked regularly; on a daily basis.  This immediately got me thinking ‘when did these teachers find the time to mark each book, every single day?‘ and then I thought ‘why can’t we do this at secondary schools? what is the limiting factor? is there a limiting factor?

How often do you mark your books?

Okay, I’m going to take a step back for a moment.  I’ve been teaching for few years now and have seen different ways of marking applied to students’ work.  Furthermore, there is little sympathy for Maths teachers if they dare moan about marking.  I’ve heard many a teacher say;

Oh you’ve got it easy.  It’s just a case of ticking the answer to let them know if it’s right or wrong. It’s just numbers and there’s not really much to mark, is there?!

(If you do not teach Maths, please go and have a look at the books of students in your Maths colleagues’ classrooms…you may well be surprised).

Up until last year, I used to work in a school where students checked their own answers (or completed peer assessment) each lesson as there was a ‘no marking policy’ for students books; this was and still is an Outstanding school.  In contrast, I now work at a school where there is a marking policy and the frequency of marking varies from subject to subject (and most likely from teacher to teacher).

I should have been providing formative feedback when marking and this should have been happening bi-weekly.  My students knew this, I knew this, my Head of Department (HoD) knew this and the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) who would routinely conduct a book scrutiny, certainly knew this.  The majority of staff in the Maths department could do this, so why couldn’t I keep up?  Why was I the black sheep of the Maths department? (no pun intended.  If you’re reading this you’ve obviously seen my profile picture)  Was it due to the fact that for years I didn’t have to do this style of marking?  Was it down to having a particularly heavy workload with me taking on two new roles and moving to a new school all at the same time?

I’m still not entirely sure why I couldn’t mark books effectively but a combination of the above and my dislike of marking, certainly hindered my progress in this aspect of my teaching practice.  Things got bad when I had two students from my year 9 class ask me when I was going to mark their books.  Then I felt doubly awful because students in my year 10 class asked what I thought of a particular piece of work they had completed in their books; I later saw that it was amazing, it was a week old and I hadn’t even seen the results of their hard work in their books!  I felt like a bad mum to my little ones

I didn’t like this and having been a student myself (some time ago), I know I would not have accepted this; something had to change.

How do you mark your books?

I spoke to other members of the Maths department to identify what they were doing and how long it took.  I even spoke to teachers out of my department to see if there was anything that they were doing that I could apply to my marking – nothing different here.

It took me a long time and a lot of messing about but I tried a few things;

  • Marking in green pen – a big no, no.  Students use green pens to respond to your comments; use red.
  • White feedback sheets – This was no good as students wouldn’t always notice the sheets in their books and as such were not spending any time reading formative feedback nor assessing their work.
  • Yellow or Green feedback sheet – better because students could see them and no that they had to respond/assess their work.
  • P+  P-  Px – improved the presentation of the work but content was really being marked.
  • RAG123 – The usual Red, Amber, Green rating which is quick to do.

What next?

Taking this a step further I looked over some of my books for inspiration.  The Lazy Teachers Handbook by Jim Smith has an entire chapter dedicated to marking (Marking RIP! The Lazy Teacher Shows you How) and reminded me of some basics but these were things that I was already doing and some were taking ages. e.g. planning appropriate work for marking, being consistent, using symbols, getting students to peer assess first and so on.

Inside the black box by Black & Wiliam looks at formative assessment and although seemingly obvious, it clarified my thinking on marking and got me headed in the right direction;

Feedback to any pupil should be about the particular qualities of his or her work, with advice on what he or she can do to improve and should avoid comparisons with other pupils

Furthermore, so that assessment is meaningful to the student and productive, they state that;

…pupils should be trained in self-assessment so that they can understand the main purposes of their learning and thereby grasp what they need to do to achieve.

This training to which Black & Wiliam refer, is that consistency of approach, not continually trying new things with a class (I am guilty of this!).  Students, (like so many teachers who are not leading lessons in mathematics) assume as I said earlier, that marking in Maths is a case of a tick here and a cross there and that’s it.  If it was that simple, how could students learn to improve upon what they have already done?  If the answer is wrong and there is only a cross on the page to signify the error, that student may not spot where they have made a mistake.  As such, the formative dialogue is still required and I would argue that the increased frequency of this dialogue, gives us Maths teachers a better chance of identifying misconceptions and getting students out of bad habits quickly.

So what have I done? What’s working for me?

The solution for me and my classes is a combination of a formative feedback sheet and the RAG123 rating (Red, Amber, Green 1, 2, 3); thanks @listerkev.  Full details of how to use #RAG123 can be found here and a video showing RAG123 in action can be viewed here.

At the end of each lesson (no more than 2-3 minutes), each student looks at their work and decides what their rating was for the lesson using the criteria below:

Letters relate to effort; numbers to understanding

Letters relate to effort; numbers to understanding

e.g. G1 – I tried really hard today and I am confident enough to explain it to someone else; G3 – I tried really hard today and I really struggled with this – HELP!; R2 – I wasn’t really trying today but I understand most of this…and so on.

Encouraging students to leave comments with their ratings is tricky with some classes however, some have taken to doing this.  They seem to be more comfortable doing this as they know that feedback is pretty much unique for each of them.  It is a perfect approach to marking for me, as I can see what my students have done, I can help students better understand any areas that they ‘didn’t get‘ in class and direct them to the correct level of work for the next lesson.  Subsequently, this approach better informs my planning as I am aware of when to move on, extend time on a topic or try a different method.

There are a considerable number of examples of this style of marking on the internet (do a quick search or click here for results on Twitter).  Here are a few examples of the quick RAG123 marking (I will add further photographs of my students work on my return to school in term 6).

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In conclusion…a work in progress

To conclude, I have to say that I am a happy bunny.  I am able to sit down at the end of each day and mark the books of every student that I have taught.  My students are happy with the way I am marking their books and they are pleased with the regularity.

I was dubious at the start of this little experiment because I thought students might over/under estimate their level of understanding.  Furthermore, I thought they were all going to put ‘Green’ for effort but I am pleased to say that my students have been honest and are getting better at effectively assessing work.  It has certainly helped with the presentation of the work and the concentration (and behaviour) of some students – they know I will see their work in detail later that day.

This may sound very cheesy but I am proud of the turn around I have made in this part of my teaching practice and I am very proud of the improvements that I have seen in my students work…

Warm fuzzies all round!

Warm fuzzies all round!

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Why did I decide to do a micro-presentation about an ordinary pack of playing cards at the Never Stop Learning Hub Teach Meet last week? (which, if you missed it, was an amazing event!)  Well, similar to other educators, my motivation was a student.

A few years back, I had a student who was adamant that they could not multiply numbers (well, they said “I’m rubbish at Maths and I’m no good at timesing” which I occasionally hear…when did saying “times” become the norm? I digress…).  I wanted to find a way to help without the student feeling singled out AND I didn’t have loads of money to spend on resources.  An ordinary pack of playing cards was the solution.

An ordinary pack of playing cards

An ordinary pack of playing cards

I instructed the student to remove the aces, picture cards and all of the number tens.  Then we sat down in Maths Club and started practising…

  • 5 Hearts x 3 Clubs = 15
  • 9 Spades x 2 Diamonds = 18
  • 6 Clubs x 4 Spades = 24

…until we got through the pack of cards.  When we got to the end, we shuffled the cards and started again.  Not knowing what combination of cards would come up next, made both of us concentrate.  As we got through the pack of cards a third or fourth time, there was an immediate improvement; it worked!

Success

Success

Ever since that afternoon, I use playing cards with students who really struggle with multiplication (most households have a pack).  I tell them to practice at home with their families, in front of the TV with their friends or on their own.

Playing cards in lessons

At the Never Stop Learning Hub Teach Meet I made a quick demonstration of what I’ve discussed above, with some rather large playing cards and the help of two handsome assistants (the inspirational @MrOCallaghanEdu and the motivational @ActionJackson – thank you gents!).

As this was not a Maths event, I had to make sure that I had an Ace up my sleeve, some way of showing that playing cards could be used for more than arithmetic and probability in Mathematics lessons.  I showed the audience how they could use playing cards in MFL lessons…

…so, I say to the audience “…get the students to pick a card, for example, the 9 of Hearts and tell your student to say what they see or get them to make a sentence that includes that item.”  Easy!  It doesn’t take long to set up a grid like the one above, it’s just a matter of finding the right images.  The beauty of this is that you can use this grid across different subjects and key stages (e.g. Science, Psychology, Geography, Physical Education and so on)

So that was it.  That was my 5 minutes of fame…pow! amazing!

Don’t reinvent the wheel…Ideas for using playing cards in lessons

So instead of wasting time making lots of resources, adapt my blank grid, use one of the resources below or just search the internet.  Don’t bother buying new cards, just collect any old packs that you find; even if one or two cards are missing…it really doesn’t matter.

I hope you enjoy the resources and consider trying playing cards in your lessons this week.  If you find or make any resources for playing cards in lessons (any subject), please share this with me, via the comments below or on Twitter #PlayingCardLesson.  Thanks for reading.

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Writing in Mathematics as opposed to Literacy in Mathematics, is my focus here. This post is not a rant but instead a reflection on my expectations of students work.  Recently, I was observed with a particularly able Mathematics class and as a result, an area that I need to work on is feedback and bookwork; ensuring that my students writing is good or better! My aim is to share my thoughts and search out ways of improving writing in my lessons as well as the lessons of those teachers who I support in my home school and in the wider setting of our learning federation. “You write like a toddler!” Sounds like a comment that a student would teasingly say to a fellow student, right?  Wrong!  These were the actual words that fell from a colleagues mouth (or should I say, crashed into the room) and still reverberate in my ears today!  This response was given after a year 11 student bravely went up to the board to label a set of axes.  My first thought was this, ‘give the kid a break!’ and the second was ‘does it really matter as we can all read it?’.  I know that I would not have made this statement, even if that was what I was thinking but does this mean that I have low standards? Has my level of tolerance changed since working with children? Are my expectations of writing lower because I teach Maths and not English? I’m going to consider this and and break down my thoughts for you. Research – Students thoughts on writing Some students struggle to write and I’ve witnessed pages in Maths lessons where the writing is oversized or ridiculously small.  “What is the research evidence on writing?” by the Department for Education is a good read and looks at whole school approaches, intervention and gender differences too.  The following table is from this report. DfE Research Report Nov 2012 The fourth item was of particular interest to me as a teacher of Mathematics “A pupil who writes well gets better marks than someone that doesn’t“.  I tell students that the examiners don’t know them and that they need to ensure that their writing is clear but they don’t all listen.  I’m starting to think that they do listen and they just can’t help themselves; this is their best writing.  But should I or an examiner be marking them down for the way that they form their ‘a’ or their ‘9’?  I hate to say it but it is going to happen if the work is not legible. Do you really hold your pen like that? I’ve seen students holding their pens as though they were in the midst of hollowing out a pumpkin or stirring a bowl of soup but they are still able to write legibly. So does it really matter how you hold your writing implement? Having thought about it over the past few days, I’d say yes.   I say it matters because this may lead to problems and injuries with these students hands, arms (and posture) and could lead to students not being able to sit through the marathon exams (1 hour and 30 minutes or more, of diehard writing).  Poor writing technique has got to be similar to the effects of having poor posture, which most of us correct in students “don’t slouch”, “try to sit up straight”, “…don’t bend like that or you will hurt your back!”.  I can’t remember saying “don’t grip your pen so tightly!”, or “make sure you thumb is lined up with you forearm”, to a student.  Should I, as a teacher of Mathematics be looking out for these things or even making students aware by mentioning this to them?  To be honest I don’t know.  If you are interested,  RJBlain provides photographs and details of what you should look out for.

Tools to help children write well.

Tools to help improve writing.

I remember having handwriting lessons when I was at junior school but nothing at secondary.  I imagine it’s the same now (primary teachers please correct me if I’m wrong), where students are taught how to hold a pen in KS2 but by KS3 if they have not mastered it, not much time (if any) is allocated to this skill.  If you have students (or your own child) that struggle to hold a pen/pencil comfortably and you don’t know how to help, visit Draw Your World.  They have useful information on what to do as well as tools to help improve writing. Modelling When I first started teaching, one of the things that really let me down was my board work; it was a mess!  Whatever, I was thinking and deemed important for students to get into their books, I would add to the board …”don’t forget to put this down too”.  I remember clearly when things changed. My university mentor (an amazing lady and educationalistLaurinda Brown) had visited me at one of my placements to observe a lesson.  We were reviewing the lesson and she asked me to get a few books. I didn’t see where she was going with this until I looked at the books and then looked up at the board…you guessed it. The students had copied the board to their books and it was not good.  Consequently, I regularly step back from the board to ensure my work looks tidy and on occasion will sketch out what I intend to write if I’m using two boards (whiteboard and projected images). By ensuring that my board work looks good, I expect my students to follow my lead, but my recent observation flagged this.  How can I get my students to write better and make their work more presentable?  Should I really push for all students to have the same style of writing?  Some primary schools insist on students taking one square per digit / letter in their Maths books.

Each digit and letter needs to be two squares high please, anything else is unacceptable…I will be checking and measuring this with a ruler!

I will continue to request and expect a high standard of layout and presentation from my students but I may have to steal/photocopy a few pages of work to display as exemplars.  Hopefully this will prompt other students to get their work to a similar high quality. So to conclude… Practice makes perfect; students need to write daily.   I will make writing an integral part of my lessons and persevere when the class moans and groans “…but Miss, this is a Maths lesson NOT an English lesson!”.  I need to practice (or should that be practise with an s?) my writing on paper and guarantee that when I give any written feedback in my students book, it is legible, even when I am tired.

Wish me luck in my next observation; I expect my students books to be…

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This post was inspired by “What’s the best way to teach vocabulary?” written by @Mr_Bunker_Edu.  I’m procrastinating whilst marking books and this post made me think about how I introduce key words to my students in Mathematics.  For the purpose of reflection, I’m just going to think out loud on this one, so please excuse my, not so perfect writing style.

The more words my students can read and understand, the more complex and challenging texts they can access

The above quote is taken directly from the aforementioned post and I feel it applies across the board, albeit Maths, English, Science, PE or any subject.  Some folks would question the need for students to understand complex words in Maths because Maths is all about numbers right?! Wrong; we use words too!

Artwork by Hugh MacLeod (Gaping Void) and Bob Marshall - www.rafamontoya.com

Artwork by Hugh MacLeod (Gaping Void) and Bob Marshall – http://www.rafamontoya.com

Reading

In every Maths lesson I get students to read their answers to the class, read questions / statements to each other and expand on what the previous person has said – one of my favourite things to do!  This helps to remind me of a students ability to read whilst allowing me to gauge the level of differentiated task/activity that a particular student should be working on.  It also provides an opportunity for students to lose their inhibitions in class and gain the support of their peers.  Generally speaking, students don’t laugh at their peers if they can not pronounce a new word, they will actually say it for them, help them out.  Reading together, part of a question at a time, can really focus learning too.

If we think about this in the context of an exam question, the problem becomes apparent.  If a student is able to read and understand the examination question, they will know what the examiner is asking and they have a good chance of actually answering the question; as opposed to laying out a short waffling sentence and a string of numbers in the hope that some combination will be correct.  This may seem like common sense as many students can read the examination questions but unfortunately, they hit a hurdle when it comes to understanding and interpreting the questions.

The same is true of any classroom textbook.  Some books are more suited to students with a higher reading age and others have much less text, more pictures/diagrams and simple questions.  Key words tend to be highlighted, in bold and usually in a box somewhere on the page (not all Maths textbooks have a glossary).

If students struggle to read, then they have very little hope of interpreting the question, knowing what the examiner is asking them to do.  So, with my teacher of Mathematics hat on, how can I help my students to understand the question?  How can I help them to interpret this problem?  They need to understand what words mean.  And, they really need to understand that some words sound the same but have a slightly different spelling (e.g Compliment and Complement)

Key Words 

Make a high scoring Maths word

Make a high scoring Maths word (thanks @tombrush1982)

In Mathematics lessons at our school, key words are introduced with the learning objectives and returned to throughout the lesson.

I have had conversations with staff at different schools, who think that this form of mild immersion leads to students knowing and understanding new key words but this is superficial.  Having the words displayed on the board and around the classroom is excellent, but can tend to become a form of wallpaper; the students see the words but they do not think about the meaning of the words.  Displaying key words is useful in the short term, but can be useless in the long term unless they are reinforced and regularly revisited

I have found that the following works well for me and my current classes;

  • Returning to key words in later lessons (useful when “Cold Calling” – see Teach Like a Champion Technique 22 – Doug Lemov)
  • Using the words in mini spelling tests
  • Creating word-searches (occasionally)
  • Having a Q&A session or plenary to check understanding
  • Encouraging students to use these key words when making their own questions, as part of assessments.

The above, can lead to a greater depth of understanding, both in terms of the key word and in terms of subject knowledge.  These methods may not necessarily work for all teachers nor for all classes.  However, these methods can work for students who have weak literacy skills.

(see “The essential guide to lesson planning” by Dr Leila Walker for further hints and tips)

Problem Solving

This is the part of Mathematics that you either love or hate, can do or are simply scared of.  If (you or) your students’ numeracy skills, ability to manipulate numbers / equations, level of reading and understanding is excellent, then you are in a position to tackle some of the most challenging problems (www.Brilliant.org).  Take a look at this problem from the UK Intermediate Maths Challenge 2013 which is aimed at students in years 9 to 11:

Solution can be found at www.ukmt.org.uk

 

Irrespective of the Mathematics involved, you will notice that if you do not understand or know the words congruent, trapezium, parallel, diagonal or ratio, you are already experiencing problems.  Even if you are able to ‘do the Maths’ (simplify a ratio or express the shaded section as a fraction), with a limited vocabulary, you will struggle.  Can you see what I mean?

Soooo, problem solving, the higher level work in Mathematics, the Gold or Platinum level of worksheets, is only really accessible to students whose reading and comprehension is very good.  Is that really right?  I can’t say with 100% certainty that this is true but I have noticed that the students I have taught who struggle with problem solving nearly always need the problem broken down.  This is where those long weekends come in handy…ah yes, the time we have to devise a set of worksheets with more clues for some and less clues for others; differentiation!  (This is another discussion that will simply run and run…)

In conclusion

All teachers need to find ways to support each other when helping students to be the best that they can be.  In English or History for example, a student could be asked to “…draw a graph showing the mood or intensity of the story as it proceeds” (pg 97 Dr L Walker) to incorporate numeracy.

In PE a student may be asked to complete written work using connectives and sentence openers to guide them;

Helping learners with weak literacy in PE

Improving literacy in PE

With all of this in mind, I’m thinking about the ways in which I can support my colleagues in the English department in broadening the vocabulary of our students.  For starters, I need to increase my vocabulary and understanding of words, as well as give the students the opportunity to do more writing in Mathematics.  Next week I’ll get students to be creative and write a short story using key words in an attempt to help them remember and understand.  I think I’ll even get them to write numbers as words instead of digits, because they need to (and it often comes up in exams!)

It’s one thing to have a little song to help students remember a formula but we, as teachers need to consider looking at the etymology of words every now and then.  We should also try to find a few more interesting stories to keep them hooked, help them understand  and ultimately expand their vocabulary.

If you have any quirky (or not so quirky) ways of introducing and helping students understand key words in your lessons, please share.  I’m always keen to try something new.

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