Re-finding my teaching mojo

Back to School – Bluesquarething

So, it’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. But this year I am determined to find the time for self-reflection that I missed out on last year – and forcing myself to blog at least once a fortnight should help me do that.

The return to school after such a long break is always a funny one, and this year I’ve felt less organised than ever. Partly I think I overworked myself last year and really needed a long break, meaning that I didn’t even do the token 3 or 4 days in the run up to starting this year.

And yet, it really doesn’t take long to get back into it. This morning I felt quite disillusioned arriving at school. The same corridors, the same room, the same tip that I didn’t tidy properly at the end of term… and the same requirements to be excellent, to be outstanding, to have engaging, entertaining lessons. I really didn’t think I had the energy for it any more when I rolled up at 8am.

By third lesson I’d spent two hours with my new form, taught a tutorial lesson that didn’t result in me wanting to bang my head against a wall and was starting to take some shiny new Y7s through the intricacies of logging on. I didn’t have time be tired, found myself making jokes the kids didn’t get (is it just me that does this?) and just generally felt quite at home.

This afternoon I met both of my new Y10 classes and was impressed by their work ethic, their ability and my planning (I might be one-sided but I genuinely thought they both lessons were well paced, included varied activities and both actually had a plenary!).

So, while it seemed a dispiriting moment to be heading back to the front lines, it’s actually reminded me of all the things I love about teaching. Interactions with enthusiastic kids, being helpful and supportive, seeing people make progress on a minute by minute basis and all that stuff.

We’ll see how it goes in week two once they’ve gotten a little more comfortable 😀

I’m formulating a plan

Try A Lot of Stuff

Originally uploaded by klmontgomery

Warning: The main audience for this post is me. I’m trying to plan something and this blog post is me thinking about it aloud. The resulting “stuff” maybe genius, drivel or (most likely) somewhere between the two. I refuse to speculate which end of the spectrum I’ll end up at.

Yesterday was a snow day. And during the day I did nothing. Some Christmas shopping, lunch with the wife, bit of housework… then I came across a blog by Shelley Wright. In recent posts Shelley has been documenting her attempt at encouraging learning (as opposed to ‘teaching’) with group work, wikis and Google Docs. What interested me most is the group work bit (the rest is just facilitation).

Actually, no. What interested me most is the students taking charge of their own learning. It’s not about group work as much as it is about collaborative learning. Vicarious learning. Independent learning. Heck, just plain LEARNING.

For the first time in my career I’m doing a lot of teaching of ‘stuff’, particularly with the new GCSE Computing course. Whereas most ICT courses have been very skills based in recent years, actually teaching some content that has to be remembered and understood is fairly new to me. Yes, we cram in a bit of stuff at the end of the GCSE ICT course (once we have spent 90% of the time flogging the students through coursework to achieve 60% of the marks), but it’s never really felt like ‘teaching’ so much as ‘quickly getting them through the stuff they’ll need for the exam’.

My interest was first piqued in this general direction last year, when Fergus Hegarty presented at TeachMeet NorthEast on his work with a significantly mixed ability sixth form Chemistry group and getting them to work in a very independent manner in order to meet the specific needs of that group’s dynamic.

Fast forward 18 months and here I am being inspired, awed and (frankly) shamed by the brilliant work of others, I really do feel that I’m letting my students down by not allowing them this kind of opportunity. The kind of opportunity I had in the second year of my degree, where teams from different disciplines were put together, we all shared one client and we had a fixed deadline to get everything done that was needed – and the best piece of work would be judged the winner. It was a great experience and while not everyone pulled their weight and while we were, of course, much more mature and practised at working (I can’t quite work out if I’m being sarcastic there or not), I really feel that there is no reason why I shouldn’t be giving my students similar opportunities – and lots of reasons why I should.

So, quite a long introduction, but where do I go now?

Well, the proving ground for me seems like it’s going to be my GCSE Computing students. We’re covering a lot of theory, I’m finding myself doing a lot of ‘chalk and talk’ and with a class size of 11 there are enough students to get some reasonably sized groups and not so many that it’s going to be unmanageable (I hope). Perhaps 3 groups of around 4.

At the moment we are looking at the binary representation of data in a computer system. Next week they are looking specifically at the representation of images and of sounds. That seems like a topic that I can set them off with, but do I want to rush in without a little planning and mess it up? After Christmas we’re moving on to Software, which is a somewhat broader topic and it’ll give me a little more time to prepare – so that seems reasonable.

Next – what do I want them to learn? Well, the stuff in the syllabus as a starting point. I can break that down into 3 strands quite easily, each one having a bit of depth.

So – how do I want them to learn it? How about we get them into 3 teams, and each team takes 1 strand, investigates it, and produces some materials to demonstrate what they have learned? Then, how about they each split apart and reform 3 new groups, each with one person who is now conversant in one of the strands (so each group can be said to have a working knowledge of each strand). Then, in their new groups the students have to produce some outcome? Maybe a website, comic strip, wiki, video, whatever.

My problem is that is Tom, Dick and Harry all learn about operating systems, and then Tom ends up working with Peter and Paul, Tom would end up doing the bit of the wiki associated with operating systems and Peter and Paul would not necessarily learn what they need to learn.

I’m not so keen on the whole ‘stand up and give a presentation on…’ model, largely because for students the emphasis ends up (at least in my experience) being on who can avoid embarrassment most effectively, not on who can demonstrate the most understanding and skill.

I could get Tom to teach Peter and Paul before putting everyone back in their own groups. Peter, Jane and Freddy could then compare what they have learned about operating systems while Tom, Dick and Harry discuss their newfound knowledge of applications software. Peter, Jane and Freddy could then write a scathing evaluation of the work produced by Tom, Dick and Harry with the ‘winner’ being that group that gets the least Gordon Ramsey-esque review.

It needs a little work and a little thought, but I think there *is* the nugget of a good idea in there somewhere.

Thoughts and feedback most welcome…