Wednesday, 28 December 2016

George Michael and me

A couple of months ago, my friend Karen and I were at work and discussing David Bowie’s death and how it still felt surreal and wrong. She discussed how Bowie’s music had punctuated parts of her formative years and how her – now adult - children had discovered his music through her as they were growing up. They’d shed a fair few years since January too. I nodded in agreement: Bowie’s music was always there as I grew up. I’d texted my best friend in Australia when I heard the news, as I’d shared so much of his music with her when we were teens especially. But, I’d said to Karen at the time, the real killer for me would be George Michael. Not as iconic maybe; the music not maybe cool or edgy enough for most. But, man… if he goes, I said.

And so here we are. It’s not hard to say why I’m so upset; there are lots of reasons that adequately explain my emotional state, but mostly, like a lot of people, I feel I've lost someone I know.

My relationship with George started with me thinking I was going to marry him when I first saw him on Top of the Pops. Wham! were a bouncy, bright revelation. They made me want to dance and snog boys’ faces off. I’ve heard their first single Wham Rap! being described over the past few days as a bit of a flop. I guess I’ve never been part of the zeitgeist then, because I rushed out and bought the 12 inch. Ditto Young Guns. And Bad Boys. By then my friends at school had cottoned on and we choreographed our moves to each new single on the tennis courts during our PE lessons (this was the 80s – the PE teachers were in their office for the whole hour or coaching the girls with an interest in trying and/or sporting talent, leaving us to the important stuff – thank God).

Imagine then my delight when on our family holiday to Weston-super-Mare in 1983 we were introduced to an outdoor swimming pool complex, newly christened the Tropicana (later the site of Banksy’s Dismaland – what goes around…). I allowed myself to actually imagine it had been named in conjunction with *the* Club Tropicana. In these far-from-salubrious surrounding, even though the drinks were definitely not free, I felt a sense of glamour.

You can see why…
Club Tropicana
George at the Tropicana in Weston-super-Mare

The release of genius slowie Careless Whisper coincided with my release from school, and that summer it was the soundtrack to the failure of the majority of my O’ levels, a camping trip with my friends and the elaborate disguising of a gigantic love-bite on my return home.

I had buggered up my chances of staying on at the grammar school to do A’ levels and so went off to Tech for re-takes when George and I parted company for a little while. I felt the need to get grungy, punky and belligerent while George and Andrew were still on their upbeat pop campaign. I never deserted George completely, though. How could I? He was like the friend from school that I met up with when I wanted to reminisce about simpler times: tennis courts, scratching boys’ names into wooden desks and sneaking my dad’s apple wine out of the garage and into house parties.

Over the next few years I managed to salvage my education, got some more O’ levels, a handful of A’ levels and headed off up north for my degree. I met my future husband, moved back home with him in tow, got married, did a PGCE and got my first teaching job. I hear George did OK during this period too. Yay us.

George and I only really got back together seriously a few years later though, when my marriage broke up. I was utterly heartbroken after the split. I felt bleak, lonely and desperate. I didn't want to burden my dad who was widowed, even though he tried to help me. I clung onto my friends but also knew that they had their own lives to get on with; some also had babies at this point too and despite their kind offers of company, ears and shoulders I eventually had to stop being the big, attention-seeking cuckoo in their nests. I needed to try to manage on my own and the only way I was able to get over the grief of the break-up was with George’s help.

Ladies and Gentlemen, George Michael’s greatest hits compilation was released in December 1998, two months after my husband left me. I bought it on a whim. I hadn’t bought most of the solo albums George had released in the years after Wham! even though I’d always enjoyed the music, so I bought this double CD with the ballads on one disc (For the Heart) and dance tunes on the second (For the Feet).  I thought the familiarity of his voice and the memories he stirred up would be comforting. I knew my ex would never have bought this album either: his tastes were far-removed from George Michael, and that suited me just fine. I wanted something just for me, that I could indulge myself with and it turned out to be by far the best decision I could have made at the time.

Grief is a strange thing, especially the grief that comes from a broken heart. Grief after a bereavement is devastating and different to any other. That pain comes from love and having that loved one out of your reach, and it stays with you forever but - eventually – it dulls and can even be comforting too. But the feeling of a love rejected is hot and shameful, no matter what you are told by your friends and family. The good thing is that it subsides in the majority of cases; it fades into an insignificance if you allow yourself to recover and move on. But, God, it hurts. Grown-up life demands that you control your feelings too; that you pull yourself into the semblance of a shape to function outside of the house and in your job. Teaching is both a blessing and a curse in this respect. There’s nothing like a roomful of teens to refocus your mind and distract you from your misery. It also throws curveballs when you least expect them and situations you have always previously been able to cope with can demolish your confidence and resilience. It’s hard to make decisions when your brain’s not functioning properly and when even being up and dressed is a feat in itself. But people’s sympathy only stretches so far.

Somehow, grief has to surface and has to be dealt with if you are ever to heal. My comfort and what healed me at that time was to carefully set aside time to be alone (often in a ball under my duvet or in a hot bath), put For the Heart on very loud and just to cry myself through the whole album. I can’t emphasise enough how much this helped. It was a release of pressure and sadness, and I think I’d have gone mad without it. My best friend’s (the one who’s now in Oz) marriage ended some months after mine. She had a toddler at the time and couldn’t afford for him to see her crying the whole time, which is what she felt like doing. So I suggested George to her too, and it worked. We called it Having a Blart. Sometimes it was quite calculated. We’d end phone conversations with 

‘…So I’m going to put him to bed, sit on the back step with a ciggy, get George on and Have a Blart.’
‘I’m just off to bed, but I’ll have a bath and a Blart with George first.’

As time wore on, and the need to Blart lessened, it would be treated a little bit of a luxury, so in recognition of this, the process became Having a Wallow and a Blart. I would look forward to the time to Wallow and Blart, as it would signal time to be entirely selfish and to focus on my feelings and no one else’s. It saved me. And I used it again 5 years ago when my dad died. Again, it comforted and allowed me to purge the hurt, in hot showers or on long drives, when I could play the music loud and Blart. There’s also something about an album to Blart to that helps. You know it’s finite: you are allowed to Blart for *this* amount of time and then you pick yourself up, allow your eyes to de-swell, and you do the next bit of real life needed before you’re allowed another session.

George Michael won’t be everyone’s idea of a good Blart. But I highly recommend you have whatever it takes to allow your waterworks to burst on and, when you need to, you take yourself off to let go. 

I texted my friend in Australia again late on Christmas night, in a horrible book-end to the text about Bowie last January. “Oh no, not George!” she replied. “He was always there for us, wasn’t he?” It really feels like he was.

I have to be careful that I don’t have a Pavlovian dog’s reaction to any song by George now when I hear his music played, which has been the case for much of the past few days. But right now, I don’t much care. 

There’s no doubt I’m re-living some sadness of my own when I reflect on what George Michael has meant to me over the years, but I’m also very sad for the loss of who we know to have been a champion for the LGBT movement; a generous supporter of many charities; a funny, kind and gentle soul, and a beautiful talent.

Night night, George. Thank you x

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

A Marking Revolution?

Marking: it’s the issue that perhaps adds most to the workload of teachers and for many of us seems like painting the Forth Bridge, but harder. These days it gets paired up to make a double act: marking and feedback, but in fact these are two quite separate things.
We know from the work of Prof. John Hattie and the Sutton Trust that feedback has one of the highest effect sizes in all evidences teaching strategies. This alone gives us the mandate to seek to improve the quality of our feedback to students, and why so many of us spend so long doing it. But is marking the same as feedback? It would seem not.

As the recent report by the Education Endowment Foundation, ‘A Marked Improvement’ (Elliott et al., April 2016) states: “Careless mistakes should be marked differently to errors resulting from misunderstanding.” This makes the distinction that marking highlights errors: spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, carelessness through lack of effort or not proof-reading. Feedback, then, should aim to clear up misunderstandings, and if we want students to understand where they have gone wrong, we traditionally write our feedback on their work, and this takes the most time and effort.

We often find ourselves writing the same thing over and over as we plough through student books or writing lengthy comments to re-iterate what we said in class. And it’s this that contributes to make marking such a chore.

The EEF’s report outlines some key findings that we can learn from when we assess the impact of our marking and our feedback to students. Here are some of the main points and what they might mean for us:

“The quality of existing evidence focused specifically on written marking is low.”

This is surprising, as it makes up such a huge part of our workload. However, what little has been discovered helps us form a more flexible approach to the way we mark. What has been gleaned is detailed below:

“Careless mistakes should be marked differently to errors resulting from misunderstanding. The latter may be best addressed by providing hints or questions which lead pupils to underlying principles; the former by simply marking the mistake as incorrect, without giving the right answer.”

‘Careless mistakes’ are likely to take the form of SPaG errors, primarily. Two strategies that can help with this: 

1) Ensuring that work is proof-read before it is handed in. Students can either do this themselves, or swap with a peer to check against key words stipulated by the teacher or directed inclusions about workings-out and presentation. Don’t take work in unless this has been done. This would take 5 minutes tops.

2) Any errors you spot can be pointed out by underlining the error and marking it with a © (Check and Correct). Subjects such as MFL may have a list of marking codes here to support more complex grammatical errors, although keeping codes to a minimum has more impact. Have dictionaries on desks and students can correct these errors themselves.

“Pupils are unlikely to benefit from marking unless some time is set aside to enable pupils to consider and respond to marking”

DIRT (Directed Improvement and Response Time) is essential: without it you can feel like a yappy dog barking at the postman from the other side of the door, as your barking, or rather, feedback will have minimal impact. Building DIRT into lessons is not time-wasted, it’s time invested. But do heed the following warning too:

“Some forms of marking, including acknowledgement marking, are unlikely to enhance pupil progress. A mantra might be that schools should mark less in terms of the number of pieces of work marked, but mark better.”

DIRT is to allow the students make the work better and produce improved responses to the standard you have asked for. A comment from a teacher saying ‘You need to write more for an 8 mark question’ can elicit the response ‘Ok thanks Miss, I will next time’, which is all very polite, but has little impact. The feedback (oral or written) ‘Please re-do this again, this time with more detail’ should be an instruction and that is what the DIRT is for.

“There is an urgent need for more studies so that teachers have better information about the most effective marking approaches.”

We’re on it! In a bid to make feedback more meaningful but less onerous for the teacher, several subject areas at CWLC have been trialing different approaches to marking and feedback. One particular resource is being tried out in maths, MFL and English:

The whole-class feedback grid

A generic copy of a whole-class marking & feedback grid (referred to now as M&F grids) is here.
Methodology: The idea of these sheets is that, instead of marking every book closely and writing individual comments on every book, teachers read every book and only make the minimum number of interventions: e.g. question marks, any SPaG marking codes agreed by the dept., comments for that particular student based on your knowledge of their effort, etc.

As a teacher reads the books, they jot down notes using the M&F grid to highlight excellent work/effort, common problems, misconceptions, missing work, absences, common keyword issues, etc. The next lesson begins with this feedback being shared with the whole group, which can be done in a number of ways. The students then act on this feedback before moving on.

Martin Goffe (HoD MFL) presented to the T&L group recently how he and others in MFL had been using the M&F grids. MFL use a list of annotation codes to indicate a range of issues that commonly occur in MFL written work. The teacher annotates work with these codes in green.

They then use the grid to make further notes. In the example Martin gave, he had typed his feedback comments onto Powerpoint slides so the whole class would see (he said this only took 5 minutes as he was simply copying from his notes). The first slides started with www comments with students gaining individual praise for work done well, with examples of why this was excellent (shown below). This worked as a model for improvement.

The next slides were highlighting common errors (this time with no student names/initials). This acts as a prompt so students can look to see if they made the same errors. Going through the slides took 10 minutes then the DIRT that followed was probably 15 minutes more.

Martin’s pros: ‘Marking took less time; I was able to give more specific praise and therefore felt it impacted positively on students’ self-esteem and confidence; it promoted more independence in the students.’  Cons: ‘None as far as marking/feedback method goes, but I think the marking codes MFL are using could be reduced as students progress, reducing the level of scaffolding and promoting even more independence in improving their own work.’

Tess Thomas (AHT & maths) presented how the whole maths department has been using these M&F grid (below)

With maths being marked far more frequently (in terms of right or wrong answers) than some other subjects, Tess said she doesn’t write the feedback onto slides. Classwork is always marked there and then for instant feedback with the students doing self and peer marking. Tess only marks homework closely. She then gives the feedback orally and directs it towards individuals. Best work is highlighted first, with two ‘BBs’ (Best Books) chosen each week. The BB students then act as Learning Ambassadors to support other students during DIRT. Students needing support are told why and then paired with Learning Ambassadors to improve the work. Each maths teacher also keeps their grids and files them as a record of student progress which Iglika Gillam (maths) says is very helpful when writing reports. Although it has been adopted across the maths department, teachers are using their grids in slightly different ways. For Tess, pros: ‘I feel the quality of my feedback has improved; I’m able to reflect more on what I plan for subsequent lessons more accurately; the time taken to mark is reduced.’ Cons: ‘None as yet!’

If departments want to try this method out, we would advise you adapt the generic form, as each department will have different needs and priorities in their marking. 

Endorsed by our Head of English Karen Cunningham, a few of us have also been giving the grids a try. Here's one I tried myself for some marking for a year 7 descriptive writing task. 

I later did what Martin had done and copied my notes onto slides to start the lesson off. I like to think I'm good at giving out praise but it turns out, when I compare my previous habits with using this grid, not so much. It was lovely being able to start the lesson with some specific praise for individuals and seeing how this affected the students' pride in themselves and their work. I was able to target some quite complex grammatical improvements with the whole class too, so that everyone could see and hear my comments and they weren't just aimed at particular high fliers and lost in their books. When they were doing their DIRT following this, I noticed it was much more purposeful than usual; students were comparing errors and praise, and working with one another to model best work. I was surprised at how successful the whole process had been.

It also showed me that the original grid needed to be tweaked to allow more space for praise, which I did ready for the next piece they do for me:

Another thing I really like about these grids and the feedback we're getting from teachers in lots of departments is just how flexible it is: each department is finding their own way with them, which surely indicates an engagement with the process looking for impact, rather than a whole-school one-size-fits-all approach.

The elephant in the room?

When sharing these and other alternative feedback methods, the most commonly-heard response from teachers tends to be “But what will Ofsted and SLT say? Won’t they want to see lots of teacher comments and student/teacher dialogue?”

The response to this is a resounding “NO!”, from Ofsted, and from our SLT after we discussed this recently. (My HT insisted I write this in bold. And red. In caps. I should add too that he's an Ofsted Inspector.)

Ofsted Chief Sean Harford’s recent document “Marking and other myths” (Nov 2016) states: ‘I have asked our inspectors when reporting to not give any impression that marking needs to be undertaken in any particular format and to any particular degree of sophistication or detail; this lines up with our myth busting document and the school inspection handbook deals with this.’

Read the whole (short) article here for details but he is very clear on this.

And our own Headteacher Neil Morris says: 

In our reviews, student work is always going to be scrutinised and will help provide evidence for student progress over time. But that progress is achieved in a variety of ways. As long as we demand high standards of literacy and presentation, and students have improved work when it is not good enough or when it shows misunderstandings, then that is evidence enough that feedback has informed this, whatever form the feedback takes. We don’t need stickers or stamps, or written conversations because that’s clearly done for me, or SLT, not the students! We do read students’ work, so we know when it reflects good teaching and high expectations.’

Our action research on this continues and will help inform policy when we review our whole-school approach to both marking and feedback. Watch this space!