Another year, eh? They do seem to pass more quickly.
Last session the school’s English department maintained a very high standard through examination, and most of our pupils achieved the grades they were looking for. If there is one thing that motivates teachers it is the sense that the hard work of pupils is rewarded in August.
Of particular pleasure for me, our first class of National 5 Classicists achieved some terrific scores, and 60% secured an A grade. Indeed, one of the group has since revealed that she intends to go on to study Classics at university. This is simply wonderful.
This session, I have thirty S3 classics pupils, and twenty-seven National 5 candidates. The subject seems to have really caught on. Next Easter we will take a group of thirty to Naples and Rome. While I’m here, I should note that Cambridge Classicist Mary Beard has agreed to put her name to our annual Classics prize, and donated a bundle of signed books to us. Something which has really resonated with me is the warmth and collegial goodwill in the Classics community.
This brings me to the less heartening fact that last year fewer than one-hundred pupils in Scotland sat National 5 Classics, and fewer than two-hundred sat National 5 Latin. The numbers for Higher are healthier. While it is true that many private schools choose to put pupils forward for GCSE and A-Level certificates in these subjects, it cannot be denied that in Scottish state schools the Classics are in a bit of a battle. Classical Greek was dropped by the SQA three years ago and I wonder how long it will be until Latin and then Classical Studies will follow suit. In this climate I think it is genuinely brave – financially and intellectually – that Monifieth High is supporting the subject.
On a completely other note, my grammar text book is finished and I am shopping it around for a publisher. If you know of someone who could help me out, please get in touch with me. I am very proud of the book, and am a fanatical evangelist of the value of understanding grammar.
I am looking forward to this year enormously, because for the first time I will teach an examination-level Classical Studies class. In addition, the department has the added challenge of maintaining an excellent results record as, for the second year, we have topped the schools in Angus.
For Classics, I will be taking a group of sixth years through papers about life in ancient Athens, ancient Pompeii, and also a classical drama (either Oedipus Rex or Medea).
It’s odd how you can get sucked into work and other projects, and then look up and see that another year has passed. It has been both extremely quick and extraodinarily slow. Either way, there are plenty of positives to reflect upon this year.
Perhaps it’s not quite the right term, because M.H.S. made me very welcome as soon as I arrived. That said, this year I have felt much more a part of the fittings at the school and this has been reflected in my relationships with my classes. The atmosphere in my room this year has been industrious and good-natured, and pupils feel increasingly comfortable asking for help at break or lunch. As a new member of staff, I think some pupils felt a little inhibited when I arrived, but this seems to have ebbed.
The department ran explicit grammar classes for all S1/S2s and the feedback for this has been very positive (well, I’m not sure people would be queuing up to tell me it was rubbish – I’m not being delusional about it). My classes benefited from the regular (daily) exposure to these concepts, so when I waved cheerio to them I knew they had improved in their knowledge base. I ran baseline and final tests and the results backed this up, with most pupils improving by more than 20%.
More satisfying than the data was the manner in which pupils were able to parse sentences and discuss sentencing with confidence.
This is a project we will keep on, and will refine and improve as we go.
I’m currently writing the scheme up with a view to publishing later. If it is as successful as I hope, it will allow me to retire early and spend the rest of my life doing degree courses. We’ll see.
I’ve not had as much time as I would have liked for this this year, but I am slowly making changes. I’m hoping to have a uniform look for the whole thing, but this is going to take time. With greater use of the Wix dashboard, I am learning little tricks and short-cuts here and there, so will hopefully to make bigger steps next session.
After nearly two years of disruption, I seem to have put some health concerns behind me, for which I am enormously relieved. I’ve registered for my Classics/ Latin degree, which will begin in August. Part of the necessary preliminaries to this is an absolutely essential visit to Rome in July. And an equally necessary investigation of Italian restaurants.
This will be a short entry as I’m not 100%. A summer dose of pericarditis has dented my energy levels. Still, it’s back to work tomorrow and I’m looking forward to getting started.
This summer’s results for Monifieth High’s English department have been excellent. Most students who worked hard received grades they deserved and this is the most satisfying part of teaching. Personally, and I think I’ve said before in this diary, the biggest satisfaction in teaching is seeing hard-work rewarded. Such a result reinforces the idea that hard-work is worth the effort, and in those cases I think a huge life lesson is learned. So, congratulations to all those grafters!
On a personal level, I achieved A grades in Higher Latin and Classical Studies, and am pleased that my own work bore fruit. My next step will be to begin a part-time undergraduate degree in Classics, and that will likely happen next February.
In the meantime, there is much to be putting the shoulder to. Good habits need to be established for my new classes, and built upon by those I am taking again.
As is usually the case, it seems that the N5 and Higher close-reading papers were those which caused the most difficulty for candidates, so there will be a greater emphasis on these over the next eight months or so.
Finally, last term we finished our video game script’s first draft. It is an excellent piece of work, and a ripping good story. We will polish it over the next few months and then start sending copies to video game companies. In the holiday, I began adapting it into a novel and hope to have it finished by the end of November.
Last November I moved from Golspie High and began work at Monifieth High in Angus. My new school is more than three times the size of my last, and, as with all things, this brings pros and cons.
The predominant positive is that with a larger school comes a larger department and more colleagues. It has been wonderfully energising to have more colleagues to bounce ideas off, and from whom I can seek advice.
This diary entry is to address two things which have taken my attention in the last few months: a writing group, and my continued pursuit of Latin and grammar. I’ll address the latter first.
At M.H.S. I have continued to teach grammar to S1 through the vessel of Latin. Enthusiasm here has been exceptionally encouraging. What is absolutely noticeable is the necessity of momentum and continuity. When the class is engaging with grammar every day, familiarity and recognition improve significantly. This, obviously, has a knock-on effect in terms of the class’s concentration and attention to detail.
In January there were a couple of slightly disrupted weeks and this part of the class took a real knock. Attention spans shortened and general recall fell. It was disconcerting on the one hand, but reinforced that regularity was a key aspect of this rigorous activity.
Since then, the class has recovered its momentum and is progressing better than ever. It may be a truism to say that frequency of engagement in language is the key to understanding, but I feel that perhaps this is sometimes missed in the teaching of English grammar. For it to take root properly, it needs not only to be addressed daily, but for that teaching to be within part of a system. Ad hoc splashes of grammar here and there are too erratic to build a proper skill-set in the discipline.
Since early December, a small (but utterly devout) group of S1s and S2s have been creating a script for a video game. We meet twice a week and the screenplay is taking shape nicely.
The first month or so was taken up with writing the broad plot and coming up with characters. It is interesting to note that even though the group consists of (mostly) boys:
- The game is very heavily plot and character driven. The idea of a satisfying narrative is significantly of more interest to them than the idea of a straight-forward shoot ‘em up.
- None of the main characters are stereotypical figures of uber-masculinity. The lead protagonist is a teenage girl, with the main supporting cast revolving around a middle-aged Muslim woman, and a retired university professor.
At our current stage in development, it has been interesting to see the way that a group of lower-school pupils can take the creation of setting, character and plot so seriously. They are quick to point out when an action by a character is inconsistent, and they are equally confident in stating when a plot development doesn’t fit. There is something about the confidence a child feels in a particular arena which allows them to engage fully. The same pupils, when looking at a play-script in class might not be so forthcoming because the classroom is perceived to be a different dynamic. I shall be working on changing that perception from now on.
Three weeks in and we’re back in the swing of things. Classes are finally stable and I’ve got the feeling that progress is being made. This is especially true of the Higher group who retain a very healthy appetite (or at least lack of distaste) for a weighty workload. We’ve tidied upo one major text, have begun the folio and have weekly engagement with the Analysis and Evaluation paper.
The other certificate classes are making good progress through the poems of Duffy and have also begun their folios or Added-Value Units. My S2 class has a thoroughly infectious enthusiasm and we are enjoying a good routine of reading and writing through Mortal Engines.
My only pang is that I don’t have an S1 class this year (nor an S3), so my Latin experiment has to be shelved for the session. This is a shame after the success we had last year (see post below).
My reading through the Summer was largely centred around Daisy Christodolou’s Seven Myths About Education, which I found hugely heartening. The gist of the work is that we need to be more prepared to teach facts in order to allow pupils to make more informed decisions in their learning. This may be screamingly obvious, but there are parts of the curriculum which, I feel, over-privileges the status of “skills-based learning”. Christodolou takes a sharp eye to the weakness of this kind of education, and stresses that all skills are underpinned by certain facts, and that these facts must be taught.
On returning to school, I surveyed my classes for their general knowledge and was, frankly, alarmed. Some pupils couldn’t name the capital of France, some didn’t know that insects had six legs. I appreciate I am in a difficult position to estimate what I should expect a thirteen-year-old to know, but having pitched the quizzes low, I think I can genuinely say the basics were not in place.
This is not to suggest these pupils are lacking in ability, far from it. They are eager and motivated and they enjoy school; but somewhere along the line they had not been encouraged to memorise simple facts. They may have had the facts presented once or twice, but there had been no attempt to learn them meaningfully.
On the back of this, I am now providing regular ten-fact lists of key points of general knowledge for all my classes, in an attempt to redress this. Pupils are responding well, and they enjoy the sense of something manageable and useful.
Over the year we will cover capital cities, kings and queens, prime ministers, presidents and others, and if they remember a tenth of these lists, they will have improved a good deal in their general knowledge; if they remember half, they will make a giant leap.
I agree with Christodolou, that skills divorced from a sound knowledge of a subject, or a sound general knowledge, is far from empowering, it is contextless and meaningless. By addressing this even a little, I hope that the skills-sets of my pupils will advance. There may be other, better, ways to do this, but I will see how we get on for half a year then see if a change is needed. The main thing, I believe, is to explicitly address the gaps in knowledge before it is too late.
June 2014 – End of Year Thoughts
The timetable changed a couple of weeks ago, providing a natural point to begin reflecting on the year’s classes, my teaching and how I think things went. As usual, there was the predictable blend of relief at the year being completed and sadness at departing pupils and classes. It has been a hard year, featuring a good deal of change, no question, but the basics remain the same: within the four walls of the classroom, it comes down to the relationships between teacher and pupils, and the desire of both to improve.
This was a bit of a game-changer for me this year. I’ve always held an interest in Latin, and had done a bit of work towards teaching myself in a structured way using two or three textbooks. I essentially lifted lessons from these sources and assembled a course of teaching which would take between two and fifteen minutes per period.
If I’m absolutely honest, I had no expectation except that I thought the class (S1) would tire of it when the grammar of the subject bit in. I was stunned to be very wrong in this regard. Concentration and attention to grammatical structure in the class’s English work improved considerably. I hadn’t recorded a baseline for the class, so I’m kicking myself that I couldn’t prove the improvement statistically. However, I fully expect the next SOSCA tests to reflect the improvements I saw in class.
More than this, perhaps, I was struck by the appetite the class had for a structured (a very rigid structure) approach to learning English. There were occasions when the class wobbled, and differentiated work had to be provided for two pupils when the grammar became simply too difficult, but the majority of the class took to the challenge with energy and a desire to improve.
Sadly, with the change of timetable, the S1 class was split, so I couldn’t continue with Latin for a second year. This saddened me greatly because I felt the group was making some impressive progress, in a way I had not previously experienced with an S1 class. However, I will now search for a similar approach to teaching grammatical structures as a way of improving the group’s grasp of English grammar.
What I witnessed, in terms of results, were:
- Mistakes with regard to tenses almost eliminated.
- Visible improvement in subject/verb agreement.
- Improved spelling and, importantly, improved awareness of spelling.
- Problem-solving/ independent thinking in all areas of English improved. Pupils were more robust in terms of making mistakes and trying again.
- Better concentration, especially in some pupils whose concentration was notably poor in other classes around the school.
Next session, I am not teaching an S1 class, which is frustrating because I believe this experience is one which could be run year after year. I will, of course, suggest to my colleagues that this is a worthwhile task, but they may not have my enthusiasm for Classics, nor feel confident enough to take it on.
Finally, the teaching of Latin became a badge of honour for the class. They loved the regimen (knowing exactly what they had to do as soon as they came through the door, and settling quickly to the task), but they most loved that what they were doing was a little out of the ordinary. This helped to cement a strong bond between teacher and pupils, and among the group itself.
This was the last year teaching old Higher. Naturally, I’m a little uncertain of how New Higher will pan out, but that would be true of a change to any new course. There are elements of the new course which are similar to the old, and some which are a different animal. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it – there’s no better way to become expert than having a go at something, making a few mistakes, and fixing my practice as I go.
I have planned out the year’s work already, and the new class are fully aware of where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there. In the first couple of weeks of the new course, I have worked the class harder than any previous Higher group. There have been grumbles here and there, but, again, I am cheerfully surprised by how the group as a whole has responded: they like that they are being worked hard, and that their teacher is being demanding. They feel like they are making quick progress, and the work is paying off immediately.
Each week the class has to complete:
- Approximately one hundred pages of reading
- Three A4 question sheets which form the basis of notes for the chapters they have read
- One close-reading paper
I would estimate that this adds up to about three hours’ work: more than I would usually give. My reasoning behind this is that a) last year I noticed too many pupils in the library during “study periods” doing no work and b) I want the class to understand from the off that this is not a course where the foot can ever be taken from the pedal.
As with the Latin, I have been reminded that pupils, as long as they know what they are working towards, and see the relevance of the task, *want* to work hard and *want* to succeed. The Higher class, like the S1 Latinistas, have taken the volume of work as a badge of honour and it has delighted me seeing pupils in study periods seriously discussing the novel we are reading. Yes, much of the discussion is in order to complete the homework for the week, but I can already see the group’s attitude to discussing fiction changing. We all know that the best learning is done when talking about a subject with friends, and this seems to be taking root in the Higher group.
The new National courses were completed for the first time this session and the department coped well with them. We have implemented an internal verification process to ensure that we are meeting correct SQA standards, and feedback from the SQA on the thorough nature of our I.V. was glowing.
With one session under my belt, I’m confident in getting pupils through the courses, and giving them experiences which are rich and deep. I would like to branch out a little bit in the new session. I have estimates of how long various units and components take, but now know that I can occasionally stretch the class in a slightly different direction. Lessons have been learned, but the process of improving my practice for N4/5 is ongoing.
Broad General Education
This has concerned me for a while, and prompted me to draw up the department’s structure and approach to the junior phase. In the last session, I worked the classes through the various texts and completed the cover-sheets for all of the tasks, so I at least know that the course works, and is flexible enough for all staff in the department to use as they see best.
This coming session, I must make greater use of regular examination-styled assessments so that progress can be tracked statistically. The cover sheets we use ensure that each piece of work addresses the relevant Es and Os (or SALs), but pupils do not always see the way a piece of work links to the next, and they don’t always take the lessons from one into the other. Timed assessments will mean pupils have to revise and double-check, and thus take greater heed of feedback previously given.
I must remind myself that most pupils enjoy assessment: they want to see how they are progressing; they want to see how they have improved since last time; they want to show off and receive praise.
This session I have helped two more pupils to have novels published. I am unbelievably proud of what they have achieved. It is a huge amount of work, especially when there is a school workload to contend with as well, and reflects again that pupils are not afraid of graft when they see the benefits.
Philosophy is too grand a word for this bit, but it will have to do. It struck me this session that two things are required for an effective classroom teacher:
The first is that the teacher must have a good relationship with the group.
The second is that the class must have a degree of academic maturity.
A teacher can manage without one of these, but without both, it is nearly impossible to make steps with the group. “Academic maturity” is a very loose term, but I simply mean that the class will be able to see the value of study even if they don’t enjoy it. A good relationship allows the teacher to convey to the group that what they are doing is valuable, and allows the pupils to see this for themselves.
Fundamentally, learning only takes place in a meaningful way when a learner sees that what is being learned is worth knowing. If they do not see this, they will have no motivation to learn, and will begin a spiral of not-knowing, not-caring.
All of which may seem perfectly obvious, but my experience of teaching is that it is a series of realisations about how learning, not teaching, takes place.
In a couple of weeks I’m going to Spain to see the Al Hambra. Just so you know.
May 2014 – Yet More Latin
We’re approaching the end of the year, and my S1s are still doing their ten minutes of Latin each day. The benefits in concentration and attention to linguistic detail are now clear for all to see. To give a flavour of how the classes work, I’ll embed some of the slides we’ve been using below.
The idea with the slides was to provide something of substance and use for the class to be focused on at the start of every lesson. I know some practitioners are cagey around the idea of so-called “settling tasks”, but in the hurly-burly of the working week, these have been undeniably useful. The class arrives with the slide already up, and they know immediately what they have to do. The jackets come off, the books come out and they settle to some grammar or vocabulary work straightaway.
Now, eight months on, I am keen to see how the group’s SOSCA testing shows their progression. Had I devised this in a more organised manner, I would have tested the class myself back in September, and charted progress more explicitly. As it is, I am relying on my own professional judgment to assess how pupils have coped.
And, what are my thoughts?
Without question, my first response was surprise. I had not expected the group to respond with such enthusiasm to the task. It may be that I have hit it lucky with a particularly curious and willing group, but I believe that the slides, because they are so concisely organised and presented, could work with most groups. It remains to be seen if they want to continue past Lesson 100 (in about a fortnight), but I am confident that they will.
Aside from this surprise, I have been evermore persuaded that these ten-minute lessons have done wonders for the study habits and concentration skills of the class. With a little coaxing, we can almost always make the connections between Latin and English, and we’ve had some interesting discussions about language, based on our learning.
I will be continuing with the lessons for as long as I can, and will certainly be using them with next session’s S1s.
Next session I will be overseeing a pupil studying Classical Studies at Higher. In addition, I intend to sit the exam myself.
In order to make this possible, I have been in touch with Classical Studies teachers from all over Scotland, and many have offered assistance in both the teaching and assessment. In fact, I was touched by the degree of response I had to my call for help. I sent out one email, and had more than a dozen offers back. From the outside, at least, the Classical Studies teaching community seems a very committed and good-natured one.
This particular experience has made me think about provision of Classics in schools in Scotland, and it seems very strange that it is so rarely offered. Along with Latin, I think it is safe to say that most parents would wish their children to have a Classics education, yet very few schools provide one. While it may be true that fewer practitioners are training to teach these subjects, this seems an ouroboro of a situation, as nobody will train in the subject unless schools start trying to provide the subject.
February 2014 – Latin Again
To my surprise and delight, the S1 class has continued with their Latin. They are starting to see the benefits in terms of language acquisition (“I used Latin to help understand the French for ‘purse’, sir.”) and grammatical structure (“I’ve changed tense in the middle of that paragraph…”).
We’re currently working towards understanding the five cases now.
As a teacher of English, these ten minute starters have been incredibly valuable, most surprisingly in terms of the way the class’s concentration skills have developed. Individuals who, at the start of the session, showed a number of primary school behaviours when it cam to study, are much better at settling and concentrating. I am beginning to believe more and more that the rigour and structure of studying Latin is a key to making pupils better students.
While I always aim to encourage concentration and problem-solving in my teaching, it seems to emerge as a natural element of the study of Latin, rather than something that has to be explicitly addressed as it sometimes must.
Of course, it helps that my classroom management is good, and I seem to have the respect of the class, Latin seems to hold a kind of key to these skills.
It is still early days in my thinking about teaching Latin, and the benefits it has on a pupil, but my conviction is increasing that study of the subject is a direct route into helping pupils to concentrate, to learn, and to mature.
January 2013 – Montmorency
Out of my own pocket, I bought a class set of Eleanor Updale’s first “Montmorency” novel. I intended to use it to guide an S2 class through some critical and creative writing skills.
The vocabulary of the book is well-pitched, taking account of the audience age-group (8-13) without abandoning the challenging (and necessary) Victorian vocabulary. The text is easy enough to grasp for most readers, while providing plenty of stretching vocabulary for those pupils who require it.
The class loved the novel (even the non-readers) and were enthused to learn about Victorian society. At university, I spent one year of History focusing on this period, and have had a lifelong enthusiasm for it, so I was able to return to my own knowledge.
I put word out among my English-teaching friends to see if any other schools taught the text, and was surprised that it had had so little uptake.
Consequently, I assembled a unit of work and posted it to TES in the hope that the book will find more readers in schools. As an English teacher, I believe the book to be an absolute gift. Perfect for a bright S1 class or a middling class up to S3.
September 2013 – Latin
At the start of the new session I began teaching Latin to my S1 class at the start of every period. This took between five and ten minutes, and worked as an excellent introductory activity. The format was simple and quickly became a class habit. Each period went as follows:
As the class enters, there is a short Latin task on a PowerPoint slide on the board. On each slide is a single word or element of grammar followed by a short task. The class were given separate Latin jotters to record both the Latin and their answers to their tasks.
To give you an idea, this is the content of the third “lesson”:
NEW WORD: sum
MEANING: I am
The class has responded superbly, challenging themselves (and one another) to pick up and use more and more Latin. Throughout the proces, I have been indicating the links between new vocabulary and vocabulary they use every day. It is wonderful to see the recognition of these links in my pupils’ faces.
At the start of the process, I told the class that I would only continue to present this material for as long as the majority saw it as enjoyable, useful or both. Last Thursday I conducted an “eyes closed” poll and every hand in the class voted to continue with Latin.
Aside from the inherent value of giving the class at least a simple familiarity with the language, I was keen to try this as a useful way of beginning a class. Because each task is set out as the class arrives, each pupil knows that their first priority is to get their Latin jotter out and begin work. There is much less faff in the room and this allows the group to settle into a pattern of focused work very quickly. Consequently, after five (or ten) minutes, the class already has its attention focused and is able to work with much less distraction.
It’s a work in progress but, for as long as the class wishes it, I will be delighted to continue.
post-script: It has been tremendous to see several of the class seeking out extra Latin work, either as an extension activity, or else as homework. Several members of the group have seen the respect that Latin is given academically and really want to push on with it.
This will be a page of occasional reflection on teaching. It is aimed primarily at other teaching professionals, but may be of interest to others.
Chances are, if you’re a pupil, this will bore the life out of you.